Example poetry

In Defense of Poetry – The New York Times

Along the way, we get readings of individual poems and enjoyable, if sometimes idiosyncratic, poetic effects. Is it really true that “we can say with certainty” that “pentameter derives much of its power and charm from a numerical imbalance” (i.e. the line has five accents, rather only four or six)? Or is that like saying a fluffy bunny gets a lot of its adorable beauty from being in the shape of a bunny? It doesn’t matter, because the idea leads Leithauser to compare pentameter writing to “controlled fall,” which is a fun and helpful way to imagine this major structure.

Leithauser has a treasure trove of formal poetry at his disposal, and his examples (ranging from nearly lost figures like Chidiock Tichborne, who died in 1586, to contemporaries like Paul Muldoon) show a stamp collector’s appreciation for a tiny difference. In particular, Leithauser is a superb reader of Louis MacNeice, the mid-twentieth century Irish writer still underestimated by American poets. MacNeice, he writes, partakes “not so much of the mind of the chess player, who naturally focuses on plausible lines of play, as of the chess problemist, who relishes positions that would not normally arise” . The prose throughout “Rhyme’s Rooms” is very casual in this way, with fairly involved discussions of iambic tetrameter stitched together with little splashes of color like, “Most books should probably stick to a single anecdote at the expense of stupid American tourists.” The effect can be win-win but also odd; like an accountant keeps cracking jokes at you while trying to explain accelerated depreciation.

The strangeness is inevitable, because the book project is itself strange. What we have here is not a professor who talks about versification for an audience of students, but a poet who talks in detail about the technical aspects of the poems for an audience of – well, who exactly? Leithauser says he writes for “the reader who loves words and literature but perhaps feels some apprehension, and some nervous resentment, as well as various unspoken longings, at a poem on a page”. This describes a fairly large portion of humanity, so how could we more accurately describe this ideal reader? What is this reader actually to like?

“Rhyme’s Rooms” seems uncertain. This reader probably doesn’t know who Joseph Brodsky was, since he is identified as “the Russian poet and Nobel laureate.” Yet this reader apparently won’t be deterred by the length of this 340-page book or its fascination with the structural arsenal of poetry (“Rarely does a seven-syllable verse feel trochaic all the way to its end” ). This reader has enough literary knowledge to amuse himself with cliches about worn-out poetic conventions (“Aggressive enjambments are the bane of contemporary poetry”). But this reader needs a framing device to understand poetry that involves imagining a remote tribe of perfect readers fancifully called “Funesians” (from a story by Borges about a boy named Funes, who perceives and remembers everything – and the reader will appreciate this as well, it would seem). This reader knows very little about the world of contemporary American poetry, but this reader does not need to know (vast award-winning swathes of this field are decidedly ignored here). This drive is a cloud blown together and separated by opposing winds.

This is not a criticism of Leithauser; it is simply a function of the genre to which his book belongs. This Genre – Learn Poetry! — tries not only to imagine a reader, but to imagine a world in which this imaginary reader could exist. This is a task that no single book can accomplish. So these works are either frustrating partial successes like this or dull, purple failures in which sharp, piercing artistry is reduced to cheesy sayings and walks in the woods. But that doesn’t make the genre worthless. At the end of “Rhyme’s Rooms,” Leithauser writes, “I suppose what I am doing here, in my last chapter, could be called a defense of poetry.” As he points out, such defenses have a long legacy – a legacy that is, as most poets know, both moving and dubious. Here is the last line of the book: “Poetry improves people. Is that the case ? Leithauser thinks so, and it’s clear he also thinks poetry has made him better. Perhaps, in matters of poetry, believing is enough.


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