Wednesday, April 09, 2008

I don't get modern poetry

Look at this:
You could almost think the word [nous; Greek, usually translated "mind"] synonymous with mind, given our so far narrow history, and the excessive esteem in which we have been led to hold what is, in this case, our rightly designated nervous systems. Little wonder then that some presume the mind itself both part and parcel of the person, the very seat of soul and, lately, crucible for a host of chemical incentives—combinations of which can pretty much answer for most of our habits and for our affections.

When even the handy lexicon cannot quite place the nous as anything beyond one rustic ancestor of reason, you might be satisfied to trouble the odd term no further—and so would fail to find your way to it, most fruitful faculty untried. Dormant in its roaring cave, the heart’s intellective aptitude grows dim, unless you find a way to wake it.

So, let’s try something, even now. Even as you tend these lines, attend for a moment to your breath as you draw it in: regard the breath’s cool descent, a stream from mouth to throat to the furnace of the heart. Observe that queer, cool confluence of breath and blood, and do your thinking there.
So, you make your way through that, and if you're like me, you say, "Huh? Okay, then... huh?" It just doesn't make much sense, and you wonder why it was written.

But break up the lines (apparently randomly), and voila! somehow it's a modern poem. Not only a poem but, according to Karsten Piper, an example of a poet "writing with the beating muscle and translucent beauty that’s often missing from church libraries and waiting room magazine piles."

Um... okay....

Look, I know that I'll get beaten senseless by those refined higher souls who are able (as I evidently am not) to appreciate all the beauty and translucent muscle of it and all... but before that happens, I'll just say that this is an example (though by no means the worst) of what I mean when I say I don't much like English-language poetry.

I like Hebrew poetry, I like Kipling.

And that's about it.

(BTW, the title's milder than my original thought. I don't want to be beaten that badly by the raised-pinky crowd.)

So, I was thinking...
Maybe this whole poetry-thing
Isn't as hard as it looks.
Since no one is after the
Extraordinarily tight
and disciplined
of Greek and Hebrew poetry
Or the rhythm and sounds of
(what I think is)
better English poetry

So maybe

All's you have to do
Write some random thoughts
in a stream
And hit "Enter"
Every few words
And break up the lines
with some
and good people will read it
with furrowed brows
and mouths slightly open
when they get through
they'll say
And they'll think that you're all
and translucent
and you can have a

UPDATE: Ah. See? It's bad of me to see this differently... or to say I do. Bad Dan! Bad! No cookie!


Dawg Doc said...

Hey, something we agree on! LOL.

John said...

You've written the quintessential modern poem! (Sort of like David Allen Coe's Perfect Country Western Song.)

Connie said...

Yip, I'm with you on this!

DJP said...

Maybe I'll do a poem about my jumping spider friend.

Anonymous said...

Whatever happened to the days of iambic pentameters and the like?

(Sort of like David Allen Coe's Perfect Country Western Song.)

Oh the memories of that song.

"I was drunk the day my momma got outta' prison,
and I went to pick her up in the rain.
But before I could make it to the station in my pickup truck,
She got runned over by a danged ol' train!

They don't write that kinda stuff anymore...

threegirldad said...

Look, I know that I'll get beaten senseless by those refined higher souls who are able (as I evidently am not) to appreciate all the beauty and translucent muscle of it and all...

Ah, yes. Shades of High School English, where the "priestly class" tsk-tsked and peered down its collective nose at those of us who "just don't get it."

I read all 22 poems. "Tedious" and "pretentious" came to mind; "translucent beauty"...didn't.

Unknown said...

I really enjoy poetry. Language as an art form is becoming lost. Most people don't get it. It's like classical music or a piece of fine art. It's meant to be thought over rather than telling you what to think.

threegirldad said...

I really enjoy poetry.

So do I -- certain kinds, that is. Do you enjoy all poetry without qualification?

Language as an art form is becoming lost.

I agree. More's the pity...

Most people don't get

Well, it's at least possible in some cases that "[m]ost people don't get it" because "it" isn't there to begin with (that is, not in the poem, but somewhere else). It's at least possible.

It's like classical music or a piece of fine art.

Sometimes it is, sometimes it isn't.

It's meant to be thought over rather than telling you what to think.

All poetry? "Poetry of witness" isn't meant to tell people what to think? Sorry -- I don't buy it.

Unknown said...

I'm sorry. You said you don't like much English poetry. Are we not talking in general terms about poetry?

Engaging in tense discussions over differences in taste doesn't seem very God-honoring, so I'm throwing up my white flag.

threegirldad said...


I see part of the problem. Dan (the author of the post) said that he doesn't like much English poetry. You're confusing his comments with mine.

At any rate, I'm perfectly happy to honor your "white flag."

Unknown said...

Thanks for clearing that up!

threegirldad said...

Dan: Ah. See? It's bad of me to see this differently... or to say I do.

Where's Carnac the Magnificent when we need him? Karsten Piper's reaction was as predictable as the sun coming up in the morning.

[p.s.: note word count]

DJP said...

Chelsea, as far as I'm concerned I'd welcome your expanding on what you like about it, sharing your own perspective. I totally agree with you about language. I also agree that poetry can be a very effective form of communication. It is meant to evoke rather than state frontally, to stimulate thought and multi-level response.

To my mind, Hebrew poetry as we see it in Psalms, Proverbs, and the prophets, is poetry at its best. In Hebrew, it is sometimes simply staggeringly intricate, thought-out, disciplined; it is sheer art, thrilling and exalting. There are word-plays, assonance, consonance, chiasm... I could go on and on. Beautiful (ironically) beyond the ability of words to express.

But what's more, this beautiful form adorns a transcendent, magnificent substance within. It's a sparkling marriage of content and delivery.

Some English poetry approaches this, or makes a valiant attempt.

The type of poetry I'm parodying — to my mind — doesn't. I've indicated why, and had a chuckle with it.

You have my genuine invitation to present a positive counterpoint.

Kay said...

I don't really understand the quoted piece, much less think that it's 'muscular'.

I understand words as an art form. But words mean something. You can't just write some waffle and call it poetry. You either go with established forms, or you subvert them perhaps, but that was just florid prose, which any poseur can conjure up.

That's like, oh, I don't know, becoming a Buddhist Muslim and still calling yourself an evangelical Christian. I know what I think of folk who do that, and I'm not intimidated by those what fancies 'emselves as 'literary', so I think pretty much the same about it in literature too.

Phil Johnson said...

I think the person who criticized and mocked your post simply didn't understand you.

Unknown said...

Everyone I know that reads Hebrew says that the Psalms are lost in English. While still deep and beautiful, I am sure that it cannot compare to the original Hebrew. I try to imagine taking an English song and turning it into Japanese. So much of the "transcendence" would be lost. It makes me want to learn Hebrew!

I study Speech-Language Pathologies, so I look at poetry (and many language arts, including music) from a somewhat unique perspective. Language has so much power. Libbie said something many of my professors say often and emphatically, "language means something."

I think what I love most about poetry (and good prose) is the power to express and evoke so many thoughts and emotions with just a few words.

I am not sure what's considered "modern." Robert Frost died 45 years ago, but he's relatively modern when comparing to Hebrew poetry!
"Some say the world will end in fire,
Some say in ice.
From what I've tasted of desire
I hold with those who favor fire.
But if it had to perish twice,
I think I know enough of hate
To know that for destruction ice
Is also great
And would suffice."- Fire and Ice

My favorite living poet (who actually writes song lyrics) is Ben Gibbard. He's the front man for the band Death Cab for Cutie, and The Postal Service. Very clever. Amazing expressive language abilities.
" my head there’s a Greyhound station
Where I send my thoughts to far off destinations
So they may have a chance of finding a place
where they’re far more suited than here..." -Where Soul Meets Body

I really liked the last stanza of the poem you quoted. The idea of the cool breath flowing to the furnace of the heart. What a great word picture! It helped me to understand what was meant by "nous."

Anyway, sorry for the long response. This, though, is a much better forum for dialogue.

KP said...

Hi Dan, have we had tea together before?

I don't think so, or you'd remember that when I lift my cup the only other thing I raise is the bleeding stump of the pinkie I chewed off when I was a student of poetry myself. And enough of the gnawed bone is still sticking out that I empathize with the cries of pain in your entry. So no beatings.

The list of poets is no monolith of anything, just a gift sampler of things I love (or things that are written by people I love). You don't have to love any of them--that's fine. And you certainly don't have to be convinced that these are the pinnacle of English poetry. I'm not.

There are some seriously redeeming qualities in them, though. And since I respect your description of what you admire in poetry (your 10.21 am comment) and appreciate your invitation for a counterpoint (same comment), I'll take a crack at showing you some, shortly.

And threegirldad, a couple of things...

First, this comment right here is my first-ever response to Dan's remarks. Assumptions, asses, u, me, and all that...

Also, I have a hard time believing you read Jack Prelutsky's poem and felt tedium and pretension. Seriously? I'll bet you a black and tan against your NCAA tourney winnings that if you read your choice of five of his poems to your three girls, at least one of them will laugh aloud. And you'll feel happy you shared it with her.

Off to re-gauze my open pinkie,

DJP said...

Karsten, welcome!

1. On the tea: unlikely, unless I had a cold. (More of a coffee-man.)

2. Thanks for the empathy, and lack of the not-bludgeoning.

3. Thanks for discerning that I was only commenting on one poem, and poems that it (to me) represents. Its title intrigued me, its contents... well, not so much. I think you picked up on that.

4. 3GD just got lost in the Pipers.

5. On your recommendation, checked the Prelutsky poem, and it was a chuckler.

6. Thanks for having a sense of humor.

7. Looking forward to your counterpoint.

threegirldad said...


OK, I take it then that the reaction was not from you, but someone else. Is that it? If so, then here's my public apology for making an assumption.

Re: Jack Prelutsky, that poem got lost in the shuffle, I suppose. Now that I've read it again (just to be sure what we're talking about), you're right -- I actually found it mildly entertaining. And you're probably right about how my daughters would react to it. Feel free to suggest the 4 others that you believe they would also enjoy.

As for the rest, I really am interested in examples of the redeeming qualities that you see, because I really don't "get it."

Look: I don't begrudge you for seeing things that I don't see. And I'll gladly accept /advice/guidance/whatever you want to call it/ regarding how I might manage to see those things. I'm just weary of a lifetime of being treated (not by you) as some sort of literary dimwit because I don't "see the obvious."

That's all.

Anonymous said...


After reading a few of the 22 poems I've written about my experience.

My poem is called "Apparently"

While I like
the rhythm of todays
poetry sometimes, I am
agree, with you.
It reads just as
easily as
prose if one simply
the lines and reads it
like a


I thought poetry was
a style of writing
a real style
not simply
a way of spacing
words so they take up more


I was wrong.


Anonymous said...

Seriously, after reading you post I decided to see if I could read those poems as prose, and I found that they worked better that way...

What's with that?

Any connection with the fascination with "cool". If buddy tough guy says that wearing shoes on the wrong feet is cool, then it's cool? If buddy poet says prose is really poetry without spaces, it's poetry?

I do like poetry, when it's real.

Buck said...

Wonderful post, Dan. (Though I confess I enjoyed a number of the linked poems.)

Plowing through much of what passes for poetry today, I fear that my “heart’s intellective aptitude” - along with my wit - has indeed grown dim.

Seems like many fail to understand that it’s quite possible for poetry – or any communication really – to be deep, thoughtful, clever and even mysterious without being filled with clutter.

hearing what you say
is easy if you don’t let
words get in the way.

threegirldad said...

4. 3GD just got lost in the Pipers.

Yes, that was it. Again, my apologies.

DJP said...

Daryl — Your first comment:

Now, that I like!

Your second:

But not (for instance) Prelutsky. They're not high art, but they've structure, rhythm, and a point.

Again I bring up Kipling in illustration. Some of his were very serious and sonorous, some funny; all very obviously disciplined and artistic works of composition.

DJP said...

Er, and a corrigendum:

When I thanked Karsten "for the empathy, and lack of the not-bludgeoning," there's a pleonasm. Just delete "lack of."

(From the Department of Redundancy Department.)

Kay said...

I recall a tutor at uni saying that the essential difference between poetry and prose was that in prose, you could get away with having more words than you really needed to.

It wasn't recommended, but you could pad if the occasion called for it. In poetry, you really can't - every single word needs to be doing a job.

IMHO, if you can structure it differently and it reads just like prose, 'tay poetry.

Or maybe it's bad poetry, flabby poetry, poetry that needs to go on a run and lay off the dictionary twinkies.

Anonymous said...


"flabby poetry"

LOL!!! I think I'll use that sometime....

Nice poem...but a little flabby, don't you think?

That could probably apply to much of what passes as art these days as well.

Kyle said...

It's not that you don't understand modern poetry, it's that you don't like bad poetry. Since we have an entire generation of writers who think there's no way to write a bad poem, you, the unfortunate reader, have nowhere to go where you might reasonably expect to read something worth your time. Hey look, here's an essay by the head of the NEA (of all things) on just that subject.

For what it's worth, some people do still write in iambic, but how are you going to hear about them? On the other hand, at least when I write in free verse, I admit from the beginning that it's no good.

KP said...

If you'll give me three consecutive comments, here are a few responses to previous comments, then the text of a poem, then my real comment. Bear with me, class.

First of all, thanks for the welcome, Dan.

3GD (took me a minute to figure that one out), apology gladly accepted.

Puretext, your first sentence, the one about bad poetry, is a perfectly pulled espresso shot. But why pour it into the mug of Internatinal Delight Chemical Persimmon Flavored nondairy creamer you wrote after that?

(See, I'm actually a coffee man too, Dan.)

If you can find Gioia's essay, you can certainly find his metrical, rhyming poems. I recommend the anthology "Rebel Angels" or any of Don Paterson's or A.E. Stallings' books if you have an appetite for quality new poems in strict forms.

It's out there, good formal work. Don't any of you let your inner philistine tell you otherwise.

More in a moment,

KP said...

Descending Theology: The Resurrection

by Mary Karr

From the far star points of his pinned extremities,
cold inched in—black ice and squid ink—
till the hung flesh was empty.
Lonely in that void even for pain,
he missed his splintered feet,
the human stare buried in his face.
He ached for two hands made of meat
he could reach to the end of.
In the corpse’s core, the stone fist
of his heart began to bang
on the stiff chest’s door, and breath spilled
back into that battered shape. Now

it’s your limbs he comes to fill, as warm water
shatters at birth, rivering every way.


KP said...

So I’ll start by ignoring Dan’s specific criticism of Scott Cairns’ poem except to say, if it works better as prose, then read it that way. Feel the freedom!

And I’ll take for my “Defense of Modern Poetry” (does this seem outlandish to anyone else?) Mary Karr’s “Descending Theology: The Resurrection,” an unrhymed poem on an over-familiar yet hyper-daring topic.

As always, the most important question is, how did you respond to the poem when you read it? Did you feel anything that you weren’t already feeling today? Did you think anything that you hadn’t already thought about this afternoon? Yes, you did—what was it? If you were here at the Left Bank Coffee Shop with me in Slayton, MN, I’d ask what in the poem made you feel and think these things, and we’d start there, to see how Karr did it. But you’re not, so I’ll choose…

William Stafford (I think, maybe) wrote that in a fundamental way, all words rhyme because any two words are more like each other than they are like silence. I love that, though it probably makes most of you roll your eyes. Either way, it does suggest something really useful to remember when you read poems that are—apparently—unrhymed: that words have degrees of likeness, and by extension that surrounding words with others that are more or less like them is part of what creates the effect of a poem’s sounds.

So a couple of observations about this poem’s words and sounds…For various reasons, a lot of the phrases throughout the poem simply sound good: far star points, black ice and squid ink, he missed his splintered feet, the corpse’s core, the stone fist, your limbs he comes to fill. Various reasons, but mostly that she brings together just enough sounds like each other to create moments of unity throughout that are also a pleasure to say and hear.

The break at the end of a line often acts like a kind of punctuation mark (Denise Levertov suggested hers were a half a comma, more or less). So the ends of lines are often hot spots in a poem because the words there hang in the air for a small moment before the next line begins. Karr’s are mostly single syllables, and most of those have one hard sound in them, so they land on the ear like blow after blow. Meaning-wise, they are some of the most evocative words in the poem, and together they read almost like a poem of their own, a resurrection-haiku, more or less.

And the poem's a sonnet. No it’s not iambic, and no it doesn’t follow Shakespeare’s or Petrarch’s rhyme schemes. But it’s built from fourteen lines. A turn in logic and action comes in line 9 just like in all the most traditional sonnets (His heart begins to beat again!). And the last two lines are a ridiculously surprising punchline just like in the best English sonnets (It’s uncontrollably for you!)

And her images. Physical things—especially body parts—everywhere, in every line. (No, that’s not quite true. The one line in the poem without a body part or bodily action is this one: Lonely in that void even for pain… But lonely, void, that’s exactly all that’s left just then. Her point.) And the words she chooses: pinned extremities, black ice, squid ink, hung flesh, splintered feet, stare buried, hands of meat, corpse’s core, stone fist, heart bang, stiff chest’s door… It’s a horror show. Any of those phrases could suffocate you in your nightmares if you let it in.

After twelve lines, she hangs a word out there that’s loaded with anticipation: Now. It works backward, yes, “breath spilled / back into that battered shape. Now”. But mostly it works forward: “Now” what?

She lets us wait through the only stanza break in the poem. And if you are reading the poem aloud, you take a breath right there. You do. And when you let the breath spill in, you yourself are acting out the moment in your own body, having your life extended by just so much. (I got chills just now as I realized this.)

“now / it’s your limbs he come to fill, as warm water / shatters at birth, rivering every way.” A line that, after all that, just kicks the **** out of every cliched mention of baptism, new birth, being filled, etc. etc. This is almost as fresh as it would have been to Nicodemus’s ears when Jesus said something very like it in the first place. (OK, I probably should have used a different word under the asterisks, but I’m excited about this. I know it’s a poem, but c’mon, get excited!)

Carry on mocking, all, if you must. But I’ll stick around to see if you have questions.


Jay said...

Thanks for reminding me of all that is wrong with the Creative Writing at my university. :-)

Seriously, we have rules that our poems can't rhyme, our short stories can't include death, "controversial topics," fantasy or sci-fi elements, or "twist endings." They tell us it's "contemporary." I think it just makes pieces that don't make sense or, worse, are boring.

LeeC said...

I'm more perplexed as to why you would you offer to give someone a member of the Royal Irish Constabulary Reserve Force (Fórsa Chúltaca Chonstáblacht Ríoga na hÉireann)paramilitaries?

Mike Westfall said...

Well, Dan,

I liked your "poem" and it even made me laugh.

It making me laugh, though, implies I understood the thought behind it, which I did indeed. It made complete sense to me.

...which implies that your poem is crap as far as modern poetry goes...

DJP said...

Mesa Mike — That is your




(Thanks for the laugh)

Pastor Michael said...


I like your poem; take out a little flab and you may qualify for a MacArthur (no, not JM) prize:

random thoughts
in a stream
few words
break up the lines
random furrowed brows
mouths slightly open
nice little gig!

KP said...

Body and refreshment, Lee, body and refreshment.

I appreciated your hospitality during my afternoon with you and would be glad to come back if invited. Right now, though, the air in here burns my lungs a little.

As a parting gift, a syllogism. See how it fits...

difficulty : poetry :: sardonicism : Biblical Christianity


DJP said...

Oh now, Karsten; not so much sardonicaciousness in intent as fun. As I take your comments.

What's more, I genuinely appreciate what you've said. Er... what I can understand of it. I mean to mull, and re-mull.

Thanks, truly. I intend to refer the folks hither from Pyro to catch some "cultcha" from you. I know I'm the better for it.

(It hasn't made me like the one poem on which I commented any better, but I don't think that was your specific aim.)

DJP said...

(...and isn't that more of an analogy than a syllogism?)

DJP said...

Say, Karsten, drop me an email, please. I need to ask you a brief question offline.

KP said...

Analogy, yes. Sylly me.

I didn't mean it as a shot, exactly. Seems to me there are actual parallels. Neither (difficulty, sardonicism) is necessary, both are alienating, neither is always as bad as complainers complain, both are invigorating in a bracing sort of way, neither edifies if it's the only dish, both may be legit communication strategies, etc. etc.

It's a thought experiment for any of your readers who choose to think.

(That was a shot.)

And email, yes, done.

threegirldad said...


I have some comments and questions, if you happen back by. Fair warning, though: at least some of them (all of them?) may seem sarcastic and insincere (as in, "Oh, come on. You can't possibly be that dense."). All I can say is that I don't intend either of those things. And by the way, your lungs aren't the only ones being burned by the air around here. Same result; different reasons.

[H]ow did you respond to the poem when you read it?

Exactly this way: I scratched my head. What on earth is "black ice and squid ink" supposed to mean in that poem? What about "till the hung flesh was empty," or the entire sentence that begins, "Now it's your limbs..."?

Did you feel anything that you weren’t already feeling today?

Other than exasperation, no.

Did you think anything that you hadn’t already thought about this afternoon? Yes, you did—what was it?

I'm afraid the only thing that I thought was that half of this poem makes no sense at all to me. Since we aren't in that coffee shop together, what sorts of things should I have thought? And why?

It's already way too late, so I'm just going to have to skip to your last paragraph...

“now / it’s your limbs he come to fill, as warm water / shatters at birth, rivering every way.” A line that, after all that, just kicks the **** out of every cliched mention of baptism, new birth, being filled, etc. etc.

Alright, I think this answers one of my questions above. So, this is a description of baptism? How did you figure that out? Was it obvious the first time you read it?

This is almost as fresh as it would have been to Nicodemus’s ears when Jesus said something very like it in the first place.

Is this a reference to John 3:5? "unless one is born of water and the Spirit" is "something very like" the phrase above? If so, then this is the point where I start to feel like the kid whose Cracker Jack box didn't have a secret decoder ring inside. Pretty much all I'm left with is, "If you say so..."

Kay said...

The Mary Karr poem is good. No love-handles on that.

KP said...

Thanks for your questions, 3GD--I appreciate your curiosity in the face of real frustration. I'll try to reply with equal candor and generosity.

Reading a poem as prose actually often a profitable way to begin reading. And so is asking basic questions like who, what, when, where, etc. I think in Karr’s poem, the most important basic question his who is “he” in line one? The title is our best clue: theology and resurrection suggest Jesus. having made a good guess, then, do the details of the poem fit? Pinned extremities, hung flesh, splintered feet, corpse. It’s nearly photorealistic.

But not all of it, which can be confusing. “Black ice and squid ink” do seem to come out of nowhere, so yours is a great question. In the line and in the grammar, those two things are in apposition to the “cold inching in.” They’re images of the cold. \

And they’re both really good choices because of their associations: black ice is literally cold, nearly invisible, always threatening, nothing you can do about it until it’s too late. Squid ink is chilly, too, with a deep, strange, ocean-bottom chill, it comes at a moment of life-and-death desperation and makes everything murky. Two quick metaphors for how death’s cold arrives.

And the first 8 lines of the poem are death. Christ is dead by the beginning of line 9, and then the poem turns and life returns. To him, at the heart and throughout his shape. And to us, in the last two lines.

When we read a phrase like “as water shatters at birth,” a really good question is “How does water shatter at birth? That’s something I’m sure Mary Karr knows more intimately than you or I do, since we’re men who, at most, have only seen a woman’s water break. It’s a wild, unfamiliar image (like “you must be born again” must have been) and leaves us with a powerful sensation of the warmth, inevitability, anticipation, physicality, nearness, unstoppable bursting-forthness of new life.

I hope this helps, 3GD. Poetry is a slow read and has to be read with your imagination, something that almost no other reading demands. It’s no surprise that we don’t feel used to it or equipped for it, but like any other learning-to-read it rewards the patience and work. (True of any other endeavor for that matter—tennis, photoshop, fantasy baseball, debate, pinochle…)

Thanks for showing this poem the respect you have, 3GD (and others!)


David said...

Although modern poetry often upsets me, I think we need to step back and realize that there is a good deal of most any genre of art that is simply not good.

There's something about poems such as these that goes beyond breaking words up into arbitrary lines: a certain rhythm, a certain sound. For me, it makes me stop, teaches me to be more careful, to ask questions of it, to think the way the author is thinking. And in the end, I may think about things just a little differently.

To cast off all modern poetry would be like discounting Barth as a theologian (whether you agree with him or not) simply because he's thick and you generally can't read him at your page a minute rate you're used to. I know that frustrates me.

There's an important lesson to learn from poetry that is unfamiliar to us, that even if we don't know entirely why an author writes something the way he/she does, there is probably a reason. Very few artists are as irresponsible as all the mockeries on this page have made them out to be.

DJP said...

Hm; one man's parody is another man's mockery, apparently.

Kay said...

oo, Dan, it looks like parodying poetry comes in the same category as critiquing 'worship' songs. Your healthy comment count is assured...

threegirldad said...


Thanks for the kind reply. At least that poem makes more sense now.

I have additional questions, but it's probably better to continue this offline if you have the time and are willing. My email address is threegirl_at_hotmail_dot_com.

Becky Schell said...

I want to begin my lengthy two cents by saying that this is a delightful string of comments. Thanks for the excellent laugh afforded by the poem you authored in your post, Dan. The reason I decided to chime in is that after have reading the modern poem in the post and the comments that follow (and I realize this is a risky statement) I find that I like Scott Cairns’ poem (title of which is “Adventures in New Testament Greek: Nous”) and I want to explain why that is.

At first glance, I thought it was a bit pretentious and even forced, but then decided to take a little more time and give it the benefit of the doubt.

Note: Often I find it is easier to dismiss a piece of writing if requires me to dig in to discover what the author is driving at. If I always allowed first impressions to rule the day, however, I would not have had the pleasure of discovering exactly what it is people see in Shakespeare, and—more importantly—I would be a Christian who practices Reckless Faith with a shallow “to me, this verse means…” approach to Scripture.

Honestly, there are aspects of Cairns’ writing that I do not comprehend and would have to spend much more time than I have devoted to it thus far to understand what he is saying fully, but there is some beauty there, and I would draw your attention to one literary tool in particular, which he uses well and is respected in the pastoral community.

Alliteration, a device that is liberally littered in outlines and sermons making point after point after point (not a criticism, it is an excellent tool), has been used well throughout Cairns’ poem: part and parcel of the person; seat of the soul; crucible…chemical incentives—combinations…can; further…fail to find…fruitful faculty; queer, cool confluence; breath and blood.

As I mull over the first paragraph, the understanding of which I am struggling with, it has occurred to me—I don’t know the author and I don’t know if this is the case—that perhaps the difficulty in grasping what he is saying on first glance is purposeful. His overall point seems to be that people need to delve deeper into the meaning of the Greek word in question than a cursory look. Being satisfied with the initial find, one rustic ancestor of reason (more alliteration btw), would result in two things: first, not discovering the richer meaning of the word nous, and second, not using one's nous.

Note 2: I have not delved into the meaning of the Greek word and am taking clues from his text, thus failing to rise to the level of my own argument.

The imagery—fruitful faculty untried; dormant in its roaring cave; heart’s intellective aptitude grows dim, unless you find a way to wake it—is wonderful. How can the faculty of the mind be fruitful if it isn’t used? The dormant mind in the roaring cave brings to mind the idea of a person speaking (loudly and fully convinced of his accuracy) without thinking, something I have been guilty of more times than I would care to admit. And the last restates the danger to the mind of dullness if it is not exercised.

Cairns’ purpose, then, is to encourage his readers to think, and ironically the only way to discover this exhortation is to do so, to be willing to look again with a more critical eye.

It is true that the writing not in standard verse form, but does that mean it is unacceptable or unworthy of attention? There is beauty and intelligence on display in this prosem, which brings glory to the One who is the perfect Example and Creator of beauty and intelligence.

KP said...

3GD, I've enjoyed our early sparring and recent respectfulness, and I apologize if I drew blood at any point--please forgive me. I would be very pleased to continue by email. I tried sending something to you but found my note bounced back. Would you try me, at your convenience? karsten.piper[at]

Great comment, Becky. I'll keep that word prosem in my hip pocket for future use.

And David, I appreciate a couple of your remarks. This, especially is dead-on: there is a good deal of most any genre of art that is simply not good. Sweeping it all away for that is everyone's loss.

Cheers, Karsten

threegirldad said...


I'm humbled by your extension of an apology, and accept it wholeheartedly.

Sorry for the email trouble; I've sent you a quick note.

Bill said...

"The aim of good prose words is to mean what they say. The aim of good poetical words is to mean what they do not say." G.K. Chesterton - Daily News.4-22-05

Bill said...

That'd be 1905, btw...

Say what you will about the man's theology, he did have a pithy way of making his points.

ryangeer said...

As always, the most important question is, how did you respond to the poem when you read it? Did you feel anything that you weren’t already feeling today? Did you think anything that you hadn’t already thought about this afternoon?

In answer to the first question, I will say simply that I cried, first with sadness and then (in the last four lines) with relief. I am thinking about something I wasn't when I sat down and read this post - namely the unrealness of the entire transaction described and my unworthiness of such sacrifice. Thank you for sharing this poem.

Kyle said...

With due respect, the first question should not be "how did the poem make me feel?" I'd be more comfortable with starting further back, such as with the question "what does the poem say?" and "Does it say it well?" If it says something worthwhile and says it well, then I should hope it has an impact on my emotions. I've spent most of my life being led around by my feelings. I've learned to ask questions about truth and value before allowing my heart to be yanked around by what may turn out to be nonsense.

KP said...

Fair enough, Puretext, I respect your experience and the value you have found asking intellectually rigorous questions.

But please notice that I did *not* open with the question, "How did the poem make you feel?" I asked more generously, "How did you respond to the poem?" and then asked about both your feelings and thoughts--which have equal parts in a thriving imagination. The point of starting here is to find a point of contact between poem and reader and to build from whatever electricity is there. Emotions and ideas may both lead back into the poem, what it says, what it means, and more feelings and ideas. It's dynamic, baby!

Pedagogically, I have a couple of troubles always starting with your questions, "What does the poem say?" and "Does it say it well?" First, you can see from the early responses in this thread, these questions may be useless or irrelevant for many readers. The discussion ends with silence and the wind whistling through the classroom window (or through the teacher's deadly-boring monologue). Poem fails, teacher fails, reader fails.

Second, these two questions (by themselves) do not treat poetry as poetry. They are well-suited to argument and other modes of intellectual discourse, but they don't even face (let alone probe) the emotional and artistic/aesthetic stuff of poetry. Uncomfortable as it may be, the best poetry is written as (what was Dan's phrase?) “a sparkling marriage” of intellect and emotion. It's foolish to limit yourself to one way into it. Or to limit it to one way into you.

You wrote: “If it says something worthwhile and says it well, then I should hope it has an impact on my emotions.” Yes. But yes to the inverse, as well: “If it has an impact on my emotions and I can feel it changing me, then I should hope it says something worthwhile.” Pursued with vigor and integrity, either is a way to learn whether that hope is real.

One reason I love poetry is that, more than in any other kind of writing (and I think I mean that straight up, no hyperbole), emotion and intellect are fully mutual, complementary, and dependent on each other.


.: emily :. said...

Found the link here from the Pyro page. . .

I read this with particular interest because I am a first year high school English teacher, embarking on a poetry unit with my 10th grade next week! It has been really helpful to read the Dan's comments and many of these questions as well (especially your initial response to the Karr poem, 3GD). Thank you. It's good to see the kinds of questions people have so I can anticipate answering them!

Also, thank you Karsten for posting this gorgeous poem and some of your analysis! Your leading questions are helpful and explanation of the imagery and structure is very clear.

Grace and peace,

threegirldad said...

Well, I had intended to stay out of the public side of the discussion at this point, but I'm wading back in to make a few final comments.

Karsten wrote:
Pedagogically, I have a couple of troubles always starting with your [Puretext's] questions, "What does the poem say?" and "Does it say it well?" First, you can see from the early responses in this thread, these questions may be useless or irrelevant for many readers. The discussion ends with silence and the wind whistling through the classroom window (or through the teacher's deadly-boring monologue). Poem fails, teacher fails, reader fails.

This describes my experience to a tee. It's the main reason why I eventually threw my hands up in the air and said, "Why bother?" (There were others, but I think I'll leave it at that.) Puretext's method obviously works for some people, but for a person like me, it's just a recipe for frustration and, eventually, resignation. No offense meant, Puretext. Seriously.

I'm the son of two lifelong public school teachers, but not one myself, so I'll leave to debate over Pedagogy to Karsten and Puretext. Note, please, that I'm not offering my experience as some sort of "trump card" in said debate. I only mention it as a way to provide insight into my initial reaction and comments.

Unsolicited advice is risky business, but I plead with people like Emily to listen to what Karsten is saying here. Otherwise, at least some of your students will regard your class as merely a thing to endure until it's over, and then they will leave with a very bitter taste in their mouths. If you love poetry, and are convinced that it is (when done well) translucently beautiful in an objective way, and you desire for all of your students to see that beauty (as opposed to just those who "get it" intuitively, or whatever the explanation is)...well, this is surely not the result that you want -- I trust.

And with that, I now bow out...

RonK said...

Another good "Chestertonism" concerning poets and poetry is:

"Poets have been mysteriously silent on the subject of cheese." G.K. Chesterton

candy said...

I am trying to catch up after a rigorous week teaching school. A few random comments.

I love good poetry. I love the idea of condensed language, getting rid of unnecessary words.

When I took a couple of poetry classes in college, I became more thick skinned as a result, because we had to critique each other's work, mercilessly at times. I learned so much about my own pride and about good language, that I count those classes as some of the most valuable classes I attended.

I have come to the conclusion that good poems read by a poet at a poetry reading is such a treat, and bad poetry "shared" is pure torture. I once politely listened to a half hour monologue from a young man fully dressed in black drone on and on about vampires at a public poetry reading. It is the equivalent of a "guitarist" sharing his newly acquired skills by bringing his guitar to your home and insisting we all sing worship songs after dinner...for hours. and hours.

Becky. You mentioned the alliteration in Scott Cairns poem, and what one of my fellow poet/students would have scrawled on my paper is "ALLITERATION ALERT!!!"

Karston, I haven't had a chance to check the poems you posted, but have read many of them previously. I used to like Andrew Hudgens, just like I used to like Frederick Buechner, but I have changed a bit since those days. I will have to take time to check out the poems. Thanks for your interaction. Hey! your mom is coming to my area (beautiful Lake Tahoe) in May to lead a women's retreat!

Dan. Good job on the poem! :)

a guy said...

Maybe (maybe) you'll like this:


I found a dimpled spider, fat and white,
On a white heal-all, holding up a moth
Like a white piece of rigid satin cloth,
Assorted characters of death and blight
Mixed ready to begin the morning right,
Like the ingredients of a witches' broth,
A snow-drop spider, a flower like a froth,
And dead wings carried like a paper kite.

What had that flower to do with being white,
The wayside blue and innocent heal-all?
What brought the kindred spider to that height,
Then steered the white moth thither in the night?
What but design of darkness to appall?
If design govern in a thing so small.

-Robert Frost (1874-1963)

Of course not all english poetry is without rhyme, reason, structure, or meaning. : )

Kyle said...

Ok. I feel like a curmudgeon, coming back after the weekend and posting a dissenting comment, but I spent all weekend harping on it to my poor wife, so it seems like a letdown not to say something here.

Karsten, I took the question “did you feel anything?” and “did you think anything?” to be roughly synonymous with “how did you respond to the poem?”, although I did harp on “Did you feel” as more of a problem.” It seemed like you were skipping over the questions of “what does it say?” and “Is it worth my time?” until it was too late.

Please understand, I wasn't speaking as a Paidion. I'm an adult with an English degree. I actually concentrated on writing fiction and poetry, which is probably why I now sound so bitter. I make these strong connections between creative writing and theology and worship. So when you make a statement about how to read a poem, I hear echoes in the background “how to do theology” and “how to worship God.” From that perspective alone, you can probably get the gist of why I started talking about being led around by feelings. By all means feel! But let me at least suggest that feeling ought to be directed. I can get myself worked up about anything, but should I? Is it worth it? Is it right?

There are philosophical problems with asking first “how did you respond?” That whole approach seems to smack of reader-response theory, which is a part of a reaction against a more traditional understanding of interpretation. If you ask “how did you respond?” before you ask questions like “what does it say?” and “how does it say it?” You are not only teaching about the poem, but also a kind of post-modern understanding of reality which says that the reader is a co-creator of meaning along with the writer.

That kind of idea may be safe (if untrue) in relation to a relatively obscure poem, but it becomes positively dangerous if it bleeds over into other kinds of reading. For instance, a supreme court judge evaluating a law in light of a constitution, should he ask “how did I respond?” before asking “what does it say?” Or should he consider himself a co-creator of the meaning of his constitution? The same problems come up when reading the Bible, history, science documents.

I know we want to say the rules are different when you’re talking about fiction and poetry, but they really aren’t. Either words really mean things or they don’t. Trying to disconnect certain kinds of writing from reality doesn’t make them more accessible and interesting, but less. So of course it’s appropriate to ask “what does the poem say?” To say that it’s an inappropriate question to ask and that it “doesn’t treat poetry as poetry” is to suggest that it’s appropriate for a poem to say nothing at all. Now, there are poems that do in fact say nothing at all, but these are the sorts of poems we should avoid. If it doesn’t say anything, why should I be bothered with reading it?

I am also a teacher, so I do understand the need to excite the interest of the learner, the need not to chase away joy. But solipsism, teaching each individual to be the center of his own universe (even a little bit), is counterproductive. Part of a proper pedagogy is the teaching of esthetics – teaching a child to love that which is innately beautiful. This is a skill which must be learned. People don’t naturally take to subtlety or clear-headedness, or thoughts and activities that oppose the sinful nature. We like the easy, the blaring, the obvious, the banal. We like salt potato chips before we like soufflé. So if you have a poem that is genuinely good, but difficult, it may take some esthetic training before you get up to it. Teaching a child to love poetry starts with “James, James, Morrison Morrison” and “How to Eat a Poem”; At an adolescent stage, maybe a poem like “The Female of the Species Is More Deadly Than the Male” before diving into “The Second Coming” and “The Wasteland.”

But once you have a proper appreciation of esthetics, “does it say it well” is exactly the question of esthetics and emotional effect. If it says it well, I ought to be moved by a poem (or any other work of art). If it says something important and says it well, and the poem doesn’t affect my emotions, then the poem actually judges me and shows me for a callous fool.

That said, I’m really opposed to the idea that a poem (or any other text), to be properly understood, needs a teacher. A child needs a teacher, because he is a child. An adult needs something like a mentor to direct his attention and to challenge him. But if the poem itself needs a specialist to explain what it means, it is fundamentally a bad poem. It’s at least as much a poet’s job to be clear as it is the reader’s job to dig in to understand. If something violates normal conventions in a way that makes it difficult to understand, it had better be for a definable purpose, otherwise it is a display not of the poet’s genius, but of his ineptitude. If the poem needs a teacher, the poem fails. The reader need not feel guilty. I say this, not only as a reader, but as a poet. It took me 20 years to recognize that, when my writing was unintelligible because it subverted normal syntax without reason, or because I made logical jumps that were too broad for my reader to follow, it wasn’t a sign that I was a good writer, it was proof that I was sloppy.

I know I’m at a disadvantage with what I’m saying without doing a full analysis of a poem, which I’m loathe to do, having already used up a full page and a half in one comment. But I think I could demonstrate that the reason Mary Karr’s poem seems a little obscure is because it is obscure. She says things that just don’t make sense, and they could have made sense if she had said them better. She says things in ways that make it difficult to understand exactly what she means, and so the reader must guess and never be sure whether he is correct. That’s frustrating, and the reader has the right to be frustrated when he comes to it. It’s all right for the reader to suppose that, possibly, the reason he doesn’t care for a particular kind of poem is that it actually isn’t all that good.

That said, I never made the connection that yours was the definitive list of modern poets linked to above. I’ll put my mind to reading them and maybe write a few reviews on my own space. However, it’s my intent to be a tight-lipped judge and qualify very few of them as good.

PS. My condolences about the pinkie.

Mike Westfall said...

Thanks, Puretext. That was great.

This business of placing the "how does it make you feel" ahead of the "what does it mean" reminds me of the way we teach kids these days in public schools.

You gotta know what it says before you can know how it makes you feel!

DJP said...

Puretext -- At an adolescent stage, maybe a poem like “The Female of the Species Is More Deadly Than the Male” before diving into “The Second Coming” and “The Wasteland.”

All right, Bunky, I get the slam on us Kipling fans.

Kyle said...

What can I say? A.A. Milne was WAY better.

KP said...

Thanks for the thoughtful response, Puretext. I respect the rigor and the vigor in it. I'm thinking on what you've written and will respond over on your site in the next day or two.

I do have to object to your characterizing my list as "definitive." That's nonsense--this was simply a list of 22 living poets I think are worth reading. And the poems I linked are not necessarily their best, nor my favorites, simply good ones available online.

More soon elsewhere,

Kyle said...


"Definitive" was meant tongue in cheek, not as a criticism - I am actually enjoying this. :)

Ben H. said...

Puretext, your articulation of your views stirred up a number of latent thoughtstreams in me which despite repeated reflection, defy all efforts to be rested. Can I say that it is excellent to hear differing viewpoints expressed not in opposition to one another (nowhere do you or Karsten even imply that the other may be wrong) as an honest exploration of an immensely subjective topic.

A number of people have touched on the whole nature of art, surmised by David's earlier comment “there is a good deal of most any genre of art that is simply not good”. Whilst I love language and am a great admirer of those who wield it with grace and dexterity, poetry is not a particular area of expertise. I have however, discussed this same principle in relation to music many many times with many people. I'm not sure you can dismiss the parallel as easily as 3GD's comment of “sometimes it is, sometimes it isn't”.

The dominant body of thought is that music is written as an expression of experience*, emotion and to somehow communicate some aspect of reality (real or imagined). The established construction of this via melody, harmony, rhythm and lyrics is found in nearly every permutation imaginable. Understandably this creates an enormous headache for anyone attempting to formally study it:

“Music Theory [...] is studied with the presupposition that music is orderly and often pleasant to hear. However, in the 20th century, composers challenged the notion that music had to be pleasant by creating music that explored harsher, darker timbres. The existence of some modern-day music genres such as death metal and grindcore [...] indicate that even the harshest sounds can be considered music if the listener is so inclined.” -(Wikipedia)

Friends of mine are ardent fans of Dream Theatre: a 'supergroup' consisting of 5 musicians of considerable virtuosity on their respective instruments, who write songs of such immense technicality and overwhelming complexity that the majority of people used to modern pop and rock are disgusted and dismiss them within minutes. This quickly brings up one of Puretext's key points: If a piece of art (any art, painting, prose, architecture) requires additional explanation or some degree of presupposed knowledge in order for an audience to interpret or engage with the piece, is it valid as an expression to others? Many artists create in a very honest manner abstract and inaccessible works as an outlet of their thoughts and feelings, to which we stare in bewilderment, shrug and move on.

Does that make it 'bad art'?

From this particular vantage point, one is quick to draw the conclusion that context is the most important lens through which to interpret a piece. Unfortunately even this ends up lacking when the structure of the piece still renders it beyond our reach and consequent appreciation (this is the almost-universal boolean “get it” or “don't get it” to which I happily subscribe).

I'm sure many others have explored this in a far better and more articulate manner than I, but thought it was worth bringing up at any rate.

I happen to love intelligent and clever music which plays with and subverts established and expected norms of structure and instrumentality in a thoughtful and imaginative way. Conversely much bland 'popular music' which is merely shuffling the culturally-accepted bits around holds little excitement for me. But (and here is the great polarising point) – does that somehow invalidate the passion and excitement of those who go and see these bands, love their music fiercely, and find it speaks to them on a deep level in their lives? Every prideful and superior part of me wants to sneer 'yes', which is as good a reason as any to stop and start to consider if perhaps I am the one with the invalid viewpoint.

Comments and criticisms welcome!

- Ben

*by 'experience' I refer not to only to first-hand personal experiences, but also those sympathised by others, matters stirred and dredged up from the depths of human mind, ponderings on every facet of life et al.

KP said...

To Kyle (and Mesa Mike and others), I know I said I'd make the comment elsewhere, but since this thread is still active, let's keep it in one place.

First off, I regret writing, “As always, the most important question is…” It’s not always. I don’t believe that.

That probably doesn’t set your mind at ease, though, since I seem to have reminded you of a variety of abuses you’ve borne in the past. I’m not even sure most of your strongest are directed at me as much as at the worst-cases you thought of as you read my remarks. Still, I love you for being a fellow teacher, and it may be that my, let’s call it a testimony, will add to your store of available wisdom. So here goes…

You have opposed two questions with one another: “What does the poem say?” and “How do you [reader] respond to the poem?” Honestly, either of those is a possible place to start because neither is a satisfying question by itself. Wherever you start, what matters eventually is: “How can what the poem says change you? And how should it?” That can’t be answered without taking both previous questions very seriously. The student probably can’t answer “What does the poem say?” without me, and I know I can’t answer “How do you respond to the poem?” without them.

In class, I do almost always start discussions of new poems by exploring what’s inside my students—what do they know and feel after their own reading. If this is dangerous, it’s not for the reasons you intimate. Actually, I’m convinced it illustrates something lovely and wise about God: his intimate knowledge of us that guides his relating to us. Two quick examples. In Psalm 103, he knows our frailty so he approaches us with compassion and forgiveness. In John 2, he knows what is inside every man, so he withholds himself from us. I don’t have this knowledge (nor the relationships it makes possible) until I start asking. I do already know the poem, so I tend to begin with my students.

I hope you can see that I try hard to treat these questions as mutual and essential. Even in the discussion of Mary Karr, above. And I hope you can see that there are good reasons to ask for a student’s response before explaining the poem. Doing so is not the same as teaching some kind of “post-modern understanding of reality which says that the reader is a co-creator of meaning along with the writer.” The reader is a collaborator with the poem and with the teacher in creating understanding (of each of the three), which may be the most meaningful in the long run. But that’s not the same thing you meant by “meaning.”

And a few “as for’s…”

As for parallels with theology, worship, the constitution, etc…I agree, there are significant parallels, though probably not the ones you are afraid of. When I imagine a good pastor, for instance, he has a thorough blend of understanding the Word of God, intimately knowing the people he leads, and the wisdom to bring the two together.

As for words meaning things…I believe words usually mean *more* than they say, which is why I’m a poet not a lawyer. Good poems are difficult because they mean too much to handle easily, not because there’s nothing there.

As for there not being different rules for poetry than for other kinds of writing…I disagree. The poet has at his/her disposal all the same strategies for communication as every other writer, and then some. And some techniques which are detrimental to communication in prose are strategic in poetry. One example. Ambiguity typically confuses in explication, argument, or narrative, but it multiplies meaning in a poem. Assuming it’s done well, of course. That’s potentially very disorienting to a reader unaccustomed to it.

As for your comment that a poem or any other text does not require a teacher to be properly understood…Very strange, the sort of assertion that appeals to us when we want to be satisfied with what we already know, when we don’t want to be taught, each of us at our worst. Learning to read happens by degrees over the course of a lifetime. And there will always be texts that stretch my ability past its limit. I think it’s as fundamental mistake for me at 35 to say “I know how to read now” as it would have been for me at 5 or 15—that is to say, it’s true, but not as true as it could be.

And as for the poem that requires teaching…you’re right, it’s often bad. But good writing is done in every shade of difficulty (and that's good!). The poem may be bad, but it may simply be more difficult than you and I are prepared to understand. Difficulty is not the same as badness. It’s easy to say it is.

Thanks for your patience waiting for this, and now for reading it. I wish you well in your teaching,