First of all, apologies. I think the gods of poetry were insulted when I took a break from the poetry blog on the last week of November to celebrate the Thanksgiving holiday, because my computer was destroyed the very next week. It’s a long and unfortunate story that involves cat vomit and lots of tears from me. It has taken me five weeks to get my ducks into order, so I thank you for your patience.
My plans will be to post once a week (or twice if I can find the time) until I get a new computer (I’m on public computers and friends’ PCs – the kindess of not so stranger strangers).
This next post will be a finishing up the “knowing excellence” chapter of the textbook (Intro to Poetry 7th ed., Kennedy.
I decided to use one of the exercises that was used in the book. Take two similar poems from very different poets and compare them. The first is one of my favorites: “Ozymandias” by Percy Bysshe Shelley, and the second is “On the Vanity of Earthly Greatness” by Arthur Guiterman. Both poems have good qualities and weaknesses (I even commented on Guiterman’s positively in an early post), but there is one that I find much stronger (and, let’s face it, better) than the other.
But let’s look at some criteria for what makes a good poem. Now, the textbook states that one cannot use a checklist to evaluate a good poem, because excellence very rarely stays within the confines of an outline (great poets never color within the lines), but what is good does have certain parameters, so let’s discuss…
So, which is better? Is one too simplistic? In other words, does the poem say what it set out to say? Both are about mortality and how impermanent everything in life is, even reputations don’t last forever. So, how well are these themes introduced and how thoroughly are they explored? Are the word choices haphazard? Or do they feel well thought out? (Did Guiterman rhyme “brawls” with “balls” to say something about immortality? Or was that a whimsical choice on his part? When Shelley called it an “antique land” did it get you to imagine something more than dead stone? And when he spoke of this inscription as noting the “king of kings” did you get the feeling that the person making the inscription was making a mistake? You know, considering that there’s another king of kings who everybody remembers.)
Or was it the opposite, did the poem say more than it needed to? Did it use large words just to sound important (educated)? Or were those words absolutely necessary to the feel of the poem? Did they fit the overall tone and the feeling of the poem? Were the word choices precise? Or were they just fit into the sentence?
Other questions to ask when evaluating a poem (and these two in particular) are does the tone fit the theme? When speaking of immortality, should the speaker sound whimsical or somber? Why or why not? Do the metaphors seem to fit or are they out of place? Does a bear rug really have anything to do with immortality (or lack thereof)? What about a fallen statue of a now forgotten king? And do those metaphors help to make the statement that the poem is trying to make?
Perhaps the poem didn’t meet those requirements, but still you felt a sense of connection – it spoke to you on an emotional level. In this case, for you the poem succeeded in being excellent, because ultimately it all boils down to taste. If a poem meets all of the requirements of excellence, but fails to resonate with you, then for you it is not excellent, but not masterful, because that’s what a poem should do – resonate. But is it excellent overall? It should connect with many for all the years that it is read. Think of how long we’ve been falling in love with Romeo and Juliet or having our hearts broken by Madam Butterfly? Think how long we have been fearful of Faust? “The Second Coming” still sends chills down my spine and “This is Just to Say” still makes me laugh. “I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud” still makes me dream bittersweet dreams of daffodils.
But I like the poems the best that shine a light on an area in my life that needed clarity or taught me something new. One reader wrote in about my post for “The White Man Pressed the Locks” by James Kilgore. He noted that if I did not think that that is the way urban plight is for the black man, then I didn’t know urban plight very well. I appreciated the insight and the fact that the poem was an illumination of something that I had never been exposed to. I also appreciated that this poem in so few words spoke so powerfully to both this man who had suffered from urban plight and little, sheltered me who knew it not. And so I think that a poem that can stretch across such a huge divide and make its message clear must be a sign of its excellence.
by Percy Bysshe Shelley
I met a traveler from an antique land
Who said: Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them and the heart that fed;
And on the pedestal these words appear:
“My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!”
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.
On the Vanity of Earthly Greatness
by Arthur Guiterman
The tusks that clashed in mighty brawls
Of mastodons, are billiard balls.
The sword of Charlemagne the Just
Is ferric oxide, known as rust.
The grizzly bear whose potent hug
Was feared by all, is now a rug.
Great Caesar’s bust is on the shelf,
And I don’t feel so well myself.