Toward a Definition of ‘Poetry’

Part One: The Torch-Bearers of Tradition

The period from the conclusion of the second World War through the present day has produced fewer poets of any lasting worth than any era since the birth of Sir Philip Sidney in the year 1554. Prior to our bleak age, one may follow an unbroken lineage of poets of great power and renown, each studying and, when possible, expanding upon the work of preceding writers; then, with the faltering of Robert Frost, our entire poetic tradition collapsed to be subsequently replaced with a new, tradition-less poetry.

In my youth, I refused to believe such a civilization-wide failure of spirit were possible. It must have been, I reasoned, that I simply had not encountered whatever great poets were currently active. I sought out professors, bloggers, poetry journals, and nearly any available source, hoping to find one great voice bearing the torch of tradition. I was disappointed. From time-to-time I begin again my search for some unread man of true power, yet I have not discovered a single poet of undying value.

Many have put forth the late John Ashberry as the greatest poet of our Post-modern era. The critic and professor Langdon Hammer, in fact, once stated, “No figure looms so large in American poetry over the last 50 years as John Ashberry.” Yet one cannot read Ashberry’s verse without wondering from whence this esteem has risen.

“Let’s try the ingenuous mode, if for no better
Reason than its staying power: locked into a continuum
That rises and falls with the contours of this earth,
Inhabiting Tom Tiddler’s ground of special pleading
And cash and carry. Long lines a the checkout counter
Are a reason to behave . . . “

-From Ashberry’s Adam Snow

In reading Ashberry’s first collection, W.H. Auden famously confessed that he “hadn’t understood a word” of the manuscript. In fact, Ashberry’s work seems a stream of non-sequiturs which, individually, provide slight hints at an inclination and, when forced together into his irregular lines, communicate nothing in particular. Even in the most fundamental analysis the above excerpt fails: it is nonsensical, it consists of no regular meter, the lengths of its lines are not predetermined by any discernible structure, and the personal implications of his ramblings amount to the most bland mundanity. It is wholly a poem without sense, and this must be said of nearly all our Post-modern poetry.

My lament is hardly unique. Most readers of any real education have offered the same complaints. Yet seldom have I seen any true attempt to discern what precisely is the matter with contemporary poetry. Yes, one hears grumblings of the receding sea of faith, of the spread of consumerism, of decrescent attention spans, and of Marxist social utility—yet these attempted explications seem to fall short of defining the true problem, and each may be accepted as merely symptoms of a broader illness. Furthermore, the poetry of those who have offered such complaints universally mirrors the failure of that very verse which they claim to deride. From the New Formalists to the writers and editors of The Society of Classical Poets, I see no discernible difference between this hated Post-modern poetry and the work of its critics. Explore Leo Yankevich’s lines of Ashberrian non-sense in his Poem in October,

“In the brush I hear the tangerine talk
of blackbirds, and, in a crumbling walls nooks,
the tumult of thrushes having a bun.

And I see the first cart of dawn turning
the corner, see its owner’s toothless grin
amid a pile of leaves lit by the sun.

Thirty-five years have transformed my life’s leaves
into an outcast’s smoke upon the breeze.”

Can such ostentatious “originality” in word choice—what precisely is a “tangerine” talk?—originate from a studied correspondence with our poetic tradition? Is it merely in surprise that Shakespeare or Crane delivered power into their words? What sense connects these disparate images into a discernible poem, as poems of the past were expected to possess? Furthermore, how did the late Mr. Yankevich know when to conclude his lines, if they are not of a regular meter? Did he truly, as it seems, count syllables to ten prior to breaking off into each new line?

To my mind, Yankevich worked with an utter disregard for tradition. Yet there is at least talent in him. The soulless and broken lines of his poems seem artfully to represent the desolate streets he describes, which then seem to resemble the apparent soullessness of our Modern world as it remains in post-war flux. No, Yankevich is not the worst offender among “traditionalists.”

Joseph S. Salemi of The Society of Classical Poets, whose essay How to Write Classical Poetry—which, sadly, is now only available for the steep price of $14.99—aims to instruct the laymen on the composition of traditional poetry, with a concentration on Iambic Pentameter. However, this supposed torch-bearer once composed and published the following lines in his poem, The Fates Give Oedipus a Consolation Prize:

“Oedipus, Oedipus, it won’t be said of us
That we abandoned you, blinded and frail.
Say that you’re sorry for banging your mommy . . .”

Even in the second and third lines, in which the meter corrects itself after a metrically-confused commencement, there is some greater failure to grasp what it is which makes poetry “traditional.” Perhaps Mr. Salemi would claim his ribald fashion an heir to, say, the work of Robert Herrick or Jonathan Swift, yet, even in their lowest, such poets retained a dignity in their words, such as in Swift’s The Lady’s Dressing Room:

“So, things which must not be expressed
When plumped into the reeking chest
Send up an excremental smell
To taint the parts from whence they fell:
The petticoats and gown perfume
And waft a stink around every room.

Thus, finishing his grand survey,
The swain, disgusted, slunk away,
Repeating, in his amorous fits,
Oh! Celia, Celia, Celia shits.

It is in the irony of the appearance of revolting lines in a dignified work which lends comedy to ribaldry, and it is the absence of a traditional tone which marks Salemi’s work as unreadable. Surely then it is not merely in meter and the use of conventional figures that we have lost two generations to utter failure.

Salemi’s The Society of Classical Poets offers an annual contest which aims to recognize the greatest poems composed throughout the year. A Society favorite, Joseph Charles MacKenzie was awarded this years prize for his poem, Song of the Rose:

The rose awakens, ere the sky
Has wakened to the sun;
And we, my one true love and I,

Awaken with a tender sigh,
To love until the day has run
And all our pains are done.

We part the burdens of the breast,
The weight of passing cares,
And gather roses, take our rest,
And count the ways that we are blest,
Each offering the other’s prayers,
In our old hymns and airs.

For, the sky looks down upon the rose,
The stars upon the sky, and God
On all things, and our hearts He knows,
And Fair Love’s face will He disclose
To those, in silk or leather shod,
Who soar, or search or plod.

As Yankevich, MacKenzie is certainly not bereft of talent. His tone is measured, yet immediate; he retains a strict meter yet never strains words nor offers throwaway adjectives to fill space; he also retains forms of his own devising throughout his pieces. Yet one is never quite satisfied in reading his work, and many have mentioned detecting something of charlatanism in MacKenzie’s work. This discontent sown in the reader is, in my analysis, due to the poet’s failure to properly compose, modulate, and conclude a poetic image.

On occasion I am approached by young men whose dream it is to become poets; who seek advice in beginning their pursuit. Once having offered some words on meter, I direct these potential writers to the study of poetic images in Percy Shelley, especially Mount Blanc: Lines Written in the Vale of Chamouni. The aforementioned work begins in the exploration of a particular image—a waterfall in the awe-striking Alps—chosen by the poet to reflect one precise and well-suited series of ideas and inclinations: to guide the course of his reflections, which never stray from the poem’s central image. Mount Blanc begins,

“The everlasting universe of things
Flows through the mind, and rolls its rapid waves,
Now dark—now glittering—now reflecting gloom—
Now lending splendour, where from secret springs
The source of human thought its tribute brings
Of waters—with a sound but half its own,
Such as a feeble brook will oft assume,
In the wild woods, among the mountains lone,
Where waterfalls around it leap for ever,
Where woods and winds contend, and a vast river
Over its rocks ceaselessly bursts and raves.”

Returning to MacKenzie’s award-winning poem, let us ask: what precisely is the core poetic image of his piece?

“The rose awakens, ere the sky
Has wakened to the sun;
And we, my one true love and I,

Awaken with a tender sigh . . . “

The first stanza focuses the reader’s mind upon a valid image, so full of potential that great poets across generations have explored this same link: that of two lovers and a rose. In proper usage then, the poem would continue exploring this metaphor. MacKenzie’s first two lines of the second stanza offer such a potential exploration, yet the poet neither concludes these reflections nor does he make use of the contemplative momentum to then propel his reader into a further study of the metaphor; instead, MacKenzie abandons his central image entirely. In the third stanza, Song of the Rose shifts to a new image: that of God looking down upon all things from His Heavenly seat. The poem then concludes with an incidental statement on the unity of the poor and the rich before the Lord of Heaven. This unraveling of the poem’s central image marks the piece a failure, for all its potential, and discloses the poet’s neglectful reading of poetic tradition.

Despite the fundamental missteps in the works of such poets as Ashberry, Yankevich, Salemi, and MacKenzie, these poets, and others precisely like them, we are told, are among the best composers of traditional poetry over the past decades; they are the writers who have carried forward the torch of English poetic tradition, which once was held by the great masters of the form. I see not even a brief glance backward in the work of Ashberry, Yankevich, and the like; yet it is this very glance back, this studied conversation with those who came before, which is the hallmark of that poetry we refer to as “traditional,” and is evidenced in a direct lineage through Shakespeare, Milton, Donne, and forward through centuries.

Over the coming months I will systematically discuss the nature and characteristics of traditional English poetry, from meter, to tone, to the studied poetic image. I hope to elucidate this misunderstood subject and offer a path forward for future artists—a path which respects our tradition without faltering to pastiche, as the Post-modernists claim writers of traditional poetry must, by their nature, falter. Our discussion begins next week, with meter.


Published by Matt Wildermuth

Matthew Wildermuth is a father and poet living near the banks of the Missouri in North Dakota. His work may be read at

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