Saturday, October 22, 2005

The poetry you know and the poetry you don't know

Some of you who've read this blog for a while may recall that I like poetry, and that as a child my school assignments included memorizing a lot of poetry.

And so it is that often when I'm thinking about a subject--even a political one--a poem or line of poetry comes to mind. It happened the other day with, of all things, Saddam Hussein's trial and the poem "Daddy" by Sylvia Plath. And it just happened again with a comment to my nepotism post.

When I was composing that comment, I had to look up Thomas Gray's poem "Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard." I hadn't read it in decades, and I was struck by the fact that in this single poem there are at least three famous lines--lines that have become, to a greater or lesser extant, part of the buzzing hum of sayings--cliches, really--that swirl in our heads and have become part of our popular knowledge base whether we're aware of them or not.

Often, we haven't a clue as to where these sayings come from or why we know them. But many come from poetry, even if we don't know the poems any more.

Here are the lines (or, in one case, phrases) from Gray's Elegy that I've tagged as famous. You may not know all of them, but I bet you know some, even if you detest poetry and have never read the poem:

The short and simple annals of the Poor.

The paths of glory lead but to the grave.

Far from the madding crowd
's ignoble strife,

The same is true for Shakespeare, Robert Burns, countless other poets--their words have seeped into our culture and become so much a part of our language that they are almost indistinguishable from proverbs such as a stitch in time saves nine; waste not, want not.

As I was musing about this, it struck me that this fact is no longer true of recent poetry. Gone are the memorable and quotable phrases that become well-known--unless, of course, you count parodies such as the "who blew up da owl?" jokes at LGF and elsewhere, making fun (and rightly so) of the erstwhile poet laureate of New Jersey, Amiri Baraka.

Who can recall a single line from a poem written in the last fifty years that has become commonly known? And, lest you think the lack is just because it takes time for these things to catch on and percolate, who can nominate a line of recent poetry that you imagine has even a chance of living on for future generations?

One of the last poets who wrote such things may have been Frost, and perhaps Eliot. Home is the place where, when you have to go there, they have to take you in; I took the one less traveled by; Not with a bang but a whimper; April is the cruelest month--there are quite a few.

But as I rack my brain trying to think of a more recent example of a memorable poetry line that has seeped into the public consciousness, all I can come up with is the first line of Ginsberg's "Howl" (so far I can't find the text online, so there's no link to the full poem itself): I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness... As it serendipitously turns out, the poem was first declaimed by Ginsberg almost precisely fifty years ago: on Oct. 7, 1955, to be exact.

Practically everyone knows the line; almost no one has read the poem (have you? I haven't). Ginsberg was somewhat of a one-trick pony, as far as I know--that line caught fire, but not much of anything else he wrote ever did, although he remained a celebrity for most of his life. It's also odd that the line tends to be misquoted as "I have seen the best minds of my generation..." and, in that misquotation, is often used for the purpose of parody (see this for examples).

So perhaps we can date the death of the poetic quote as household word--and to poetry itself as having any sort of deep importance to most people outside of the narrow range of literary academia or a few stalwart diehards such as myself--to its swan song fifty years ago, Ginsberg's "Howl." If any of you can think of a truly famous line of recent poetry other than outrageous travesties such as Baraka's, I request that you hereby submit them. And by "recent," I mean within the last fifty years.

(And by the way, if anyone has in mind the vaguely famous line from "The Gift Outright" by Frost, recited at John Kennedy's 1961 inaugural--"The land was ours before we were the land's--no dice. The poem was actually written in 1942.)


At 3:26 PM, October 22, 2005, Blogger David said...

I wonder to what extent this reflects people with poetic talents choosing to focus on writing the lyrics for music, rather than on straight poetry. It wouldn't be hard at all to find famous (and good) lines from music over the last half century.

At 4:05 PM, October 22, 2005, Blogger camojack said...

Bored, bard?

At 4:49 PM, October 22, 2005, Blogger Trisha said...

Actually, funny you should say that - kind of a new thing in blogs is writing lyrically reflecting on a dreamscape train of thought...'ll find plenty of that in my blog =)

- Patricia Mayo
Mayo Brains - Spreading Thought

At 4:53 PM, October 22, 2005, Blogger Michael B said...

Londonistan, Eurabia, some lesser and less inspired verse.

At 5:16 PM, October 22, 2005, Blogger Assistant Village Idiot said...

I think some of the poetry in LOTR will be remembered. That is both a special case and fifty years ago, though. I am certainly not coming up with anything usual.

Perhaps if Dylan Thomas had lived longer...

At 7:04 PM, October 22, 2005, Blogger Charlie (Colorado) said...

I've actually read a lot of Ginsberg and like it a lot.

But what about, say, Bob Dylan?

At 7:12 PM, October 22, 2005, Anonymous woccam said...

Do not go then into that good night ...
Rage, rage against the dying of the light

At 7:18 PM, October 22, 2005, Blogger Goesh said...

Moloch! Madness! What a great poem Howl is. I always liked Kaddish too. I met him and spoke with him very briefly years ago at a writer's conference that featured Beat Poets. Gregory Corso was, well, it is hard to describe him. Wild is about the only word I can come up with. There was a party/reception after one reading and Corso was drunk as all get-out and had a handful of cash, large bills, and was betting an English Prof. $300.00 cash that he didn't dare expose himself. What a hoot! At one point in some conversation/babbling/yammering -everyone was about smashed by then - Ginsberg called me a drunken Marxist. I was able to remember that much. Later Corso took off with two women and was not seen the next day for the next session of of the conference, but I got to hear him read from Gasoline during the conference.

At 7:36 PM, October 22, 2005, Blogger Sissy Willis said...

You'd be so easy to love, so easy to idolize all others above . . .

At 9:14 PM, October 22, 2005, Blogger neo-neocon said...

I think that those of you who've observed that song lyrics have taken the place of poetry in terms of memorable lines definitely have an excellent point--although song lines definitely have a very different quality.

But there have always been memorable songs, and in the past poetry still had those memorable lines as well. Why did poetry have to lose them? Is it partly because so much poetry today is free verse? Is there something about formal poetry, whether rhymed or least blank verse, that lends itself to lines that sing, whereas free verse just doesn't cut it?

"Do not go gentle into that good night" is indeed a memorable line, but it follows the 50-year rule. It was written in 1951.

I thought I had one--a memorable line from a post-1955 poem, that is. The line I had in mind is famous, although not exactly on the tip of everyone's tongue. It's from Theodore Roetke's "The Waking": I wake to sleep and take my waking slow.

But no. Apparently, the poem is the title work of a volume published in 1953, so it had to have been written before that. It's also a formal poem, being a villanelle, so that tends to back up my idea that it's formal poetry that generally has the memorable lines.

I feel a theory brewing.

At 9:25 PM, October 22, 2005, Anonymous suds46 said...

I'm inclined to agree with David in the first comment above, and, up to a point, with Charlie from Colorado. I suspect that most of the memorable lines from the past 50 years or so will have come from music, not from poetry as such. "There's something happening here and you don't know what it is, do you, Mr. Jones." That phrase may not be on the same level as those you quoted in your post, but I find it descriptive of the phenomenom under discussion.

At 10:09 PM, October 22, 2005, Blogger Goesh said...

- water, water everywhere and not a drop to drink
-and miles to go before I sleep

Those are a couple of lines that popped into my mind

At 11:11 PM, October 22, 2005, Blogger Alex said...

I think I may have broken the rule, but only by two years:

Oh, no no no, it was too cold always
(Still the dead one lay moaning)
I was much too far out all my life
And not waving but drowning.

--Stevie Smith, 1957

At 11:16 PM, October 22, 2005, Anonymous sydz said...

The art of losing isn't hard to master.
(Elizabeth Bishop)

They fuck you up, your mum and dad.
(Philip Larkin)

At 11:41 PM, October 22, 2005, Anonymous sydz said...

[Hmm, my comment doesn't show up for some reason... is it because of the f-word? I'll try an expurgated version... though alas, it spoils the line...]

The art of losing isn't hard to master.
(Elizabeth Bishop)

They f*** you up, your mum and dad.
(Philip Larkin)

At 12:06 AM, October 23, 2005, Blogger Foobarista said...

How about poetry that rhymes and isn't chatroom rants about the evil of life, the universe, and everything? If you want free verse, just read instant message logs; they'll be about as interesting and content-filled as modern "poetry".

At 4:50 AM, October 23, 2005, Anonymous strcpy said...

Personaly, I do not think it is just poetry but English in General. The state of a liberal (classic definition) English degree is horrid.

I graduated High School in 1993 and college in 2001 - was about 7 majors IIRC. Pretty much the cusp of the "modern" generation. Many of my English problems can be attributed to dyslexia (I was tested as a "moderate" and that isn't something that you can simply overcome), but a good pertion is also in bad education. When I went to college I discovered that past thesis/dissertations were public and in the library. Interested, I sought them out. In the technical fields I saw some of what I was learning now as bleeding edge back then, we were not being anywhere close to as rigorous as they were in the proofs, but the concepts were familiar. I could almost follow them - but then being a junior in Computer Science and 6 years of college that is to be expected. In technical publications I had no formal training in (only my interest and reading) I had great difficulty following the thesis to simply downright not understanding at all - pure gibberish.

I could go to the humanities (English being foremost having a friend was a grad student in that department) and follow nearly half of the publications. Many I could fully undertand and even had questions the profs had at the defense. However, go back another 10 years and it was like the techinical fields - pure gibberish unless I just had a specific interest and was well read in that single topic.

Why? I don't really know. I suspect a combination of things. First the pressure to pass - money is given (especially in state colleges) based on how well grads do in the real world and how many are passed. This creates a need to pass in professions where graduates earn less money. Second is the prevalent post-modern attitude of no right or wrong, good or bad, allowing pure crap to be elevated to high standards (this was probably the one thing I saw at my univeristy as the most damaging, amazing what would not get graded as crap). And finally the idea of many profs of political importance. I knew quite a few who would not accept opposing viewpoints - be it liberal or conservative (well, all but maybe two profs). By far, the highest praise I ever got (even to the point of "deep insight into being a human") was a journal I "kept" that I that was a stream of conciousness form that I generated with a program I wrote that randmoly picked words from a list of nouns, verbs, adverbs, etc in a pattern that sounded grand. 15-20 years ago it would have been crap, currently it was the best grade I ever recieved in English (sorta like the random string below is "frujmry" - almost an English sounding word).

This trend carried over into other "soft" majors - anything that wasn't strictly right or wrong suffered from it.

Of course this can be seen in the salaries and hiring rates of most soft program graduates.

At 5:25 AM, October 23, 2005, Anonymous Paul said...

I am a poet and appreciate the beauty of poetry.

At 7:10 AM, October 23, 2005, Blogger still realizing said...

595 Ghits:The short and simple annals of the Poor

9180 Ghits:The paths of glory lead but to the grave.

344,000 Ghits:Far from the madding crowd

So it's only the third one that's really widely known.

Google tells us a lot.

At 12:30 PM, October 23, 2005, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Would anything by Dr. Seuss count?

At 12:53 PM, October 23, 2005, Blogger Assistant Village Idiot said...

We may do better as a nation with light verse in the last 50 years. That's nice, I suppose, but not gripping.

Do other nations have recent poetry which may hold up better?

At 1:47 PM, October 23, 2005, Anonymous john moulder said...

A lot of things stopped in the 60’s – art, resolve, confidence, faith, innocence. On the other hand it was the beginning of … Modern Art, pervasive fear, cynicism, decadence. We are now at the point where a length of yarn can be strung from floor to wall to ceiling & back to floor & the profoundly ignorant will walk around the ‘installation’ speaking in hushed tones about how inspired they are.

In the 60’s our words lost some sort of essential energy & now lay spent on the pages of countless forgettable novels & books of poetry. Our graphic arts, especially painting, became the depiction of nothing – quite literally ‘no thing’ – epitomized by Rothko’s canvasses.

The conservative movement is an attempt to go back to values that were both utilitarian & gratifying. But the genie is out & maybe the only way to defeat him is with another gremlin. If the only way out is forward hopefully some new direction can be found toward where words & paintings are again memorable.

Of all pop musicians, Bob Dylan is my favorite. I think he will be remembered. The protesters adopted him but if you read the lyrics closely they are not what he sneeringly referred to as “protest songs.” Rather, they are an indictment of both establishment & counter-culture. Remember, Dylan wouldn’t let Joan Baez onstage.

Other than much of Dylan’s lyric output, 2 songs stand out to me as portraying American culture’s fall from grace – American Pie & The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down. American Pie is a metaphorical history lesson & The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down is a testament to my theory that the current decadence began innocently enough in the middle 1800’s with the Impressionists in Europe & the Transcendentalists in America.

At 2:07 PM, October 23, 2005, Blogger David said...

"in the past poetry still had those memorable lines as well. Why did poetry have to lose them?"...In business, the characteristics of the distribution channel largely determines what products will be successful. If your sales force consists of big-deal sales reps who identify as "elephant hunters", then you won't be successful with a low-cost high-volume product, no matter how good it is. Conversely, if the sales reps are sleazy guys with limited IQs, you won't be able to sell high-end, technically-sophisticated items.

Lots of products fail because the existing distribution channel won't sell them, even though there is a big market out there waiting to snap them up.

I suspect that in poetry, the "distribution channel" has been captured by people who have certain style preferences, which are not those of any market of significant size. "Distribution channel" in this case consists of publishers, book reviewers, and academic endorsers.

At 9:20 PM, October 23, 2005, Blogger Charlie (Colorado) said...

So read Mr Gobley.

Is he the new Eliot, or Hopkins? maybe not. But he's a poet with an audience.

At 10:23 PM, October 23, 2005, Blogger Meade said...

Here on the pulse of this new day
You may have the grace to look up and out
And into your sister's eyes, into
Your brother's face, your country
And say simply
Very simply
With hope
Good morning.

At 11:14 PM, October 23, 2005, Blogger ligneus said...

Philip Larkin.
What will survive of us is love.

And saying so to some
Means nothing;
Others, it leaves
Nothing to be said.

At 11:27 PM, October 23, 2005, Anonymous hg wells said...

There are many lines of American poetry of the past fifty years that I find beautful and memorable, but since only poets have been reading poetry for the most part these lines have gained no collective currency. I would also grant that poets have moved away from writing such poetry.

Poets have belatedly noticed this disconnection. In the nineties Dana Gioia wrote a big essay which turned into a book titled Can Poetry Matter? The recent Poet Laureates, Billy Collins and Ted Kooser are attempting to address the problem, but it might be too late for poety to restore a broader audience.

As impatient as I am with much poetry, I don't think it is entirely the fault of poets. The lavish attractions of TV, film, popular song, and the internet are considerable compared to spartan minimalism of one human voice. American novels have also lost ground when it comes to injecting memorable phrases and ideas into collective consciousness.

At 11:44 PM, October 23, 2005, Anonymous hg wells said...

neo -- You might find John McWhorter's Doing Our Own Thing: The Degradation of Language and Music and Why We Should, Like, Care an interesting read. He concludes that poetry and eloquent speech in general was a casualty of the Sixties.

McWhorter is a rare beast--a conservative black professor of linguistics at Berkeley.

At 12:00 AM, October 24, 2005, Blogger Alex said...

Today I mentioned this discussion to a friend who studied modern poetry in college and now teaches high school English. He gave me a rather simple explanation I hadn't thought of: people don't read poetry anymore. You can't have famous lines if nobody's reading them, and people don't read poetry like they did 50 years ago.

At 7:05 AM, October 24, 2005, Blogger Tom Grey said...

All that is gold, does not glitter. 819 000 Ghits
Not all those who wander are lost.

First published 1965 in the USA (1956 in UK).

Poetry is now in fantasy, if not in pop-songs or movies.
I like Dr. Strangelove's:
"Sacrifices must be made!"
(giving up monogomy, for men, who will live in the mine-shafts while the post-Bomb radioactive cloud dissipates.)

I'd guess too many "poets" are too comfy with material lives to fully articulate beautiful, unmet longings that are still worthy and noble.

At 2:20 PM, October 24, 2005, Blogger David said...

Some modern works of fiction incorporate poetry. Thomas Pynchon, for instance, uses poetry heavily..within the plot of the novel, it's usually supposed to be the lyrics of songs, but since only the lyrics are given, I think we can count it as poetry.

Quoting from memory:

I dreamed that I had found us both again
With spring so many strangers' lives away
And we, so free
Out walking by the sea
With someone else's paper words to say

(from Gravity's Rainbow)

The eyes of a New York woman
Are the twilight side of the moon
Nobody knows what's going on there
Where it's always late afternoon

(From "V", IIRC)

At 12:56 AM, October 25, 2005, Anonymous john moulder said...

Meter, rhyme, metaphor, alliteration & the other poetic devices were originally utilized as mnemonic assists – to help a reciter memorize a body of poetry. When these are no longer used the words & lines fade quickly from memory. As a side effect these poetic techniques, if used cleverly, also impart beauty to the sound & meaning of words.

I’ve read that today in Italy you will find cab drivers, bakers & janitors that follow & know all about opera. It used to be like that with poetry in America. Ordinary people, people in all walks of life, not just intellectuals, used to read & care about poetry.

What happened? For one thing, craft was tossed aside in all the arts. Now you need at least a graduate degree related to the discipline to be able to appreciate contemporary art. When there’s a paucity of craft you need the priest/critic to interpret the work because an ordinary person is not ‘qualified.’ Whether a work of art is good or not has virtually become an article of faith. Art has become kind of like a religion, complete with received word, bibles, saints & Christ-figures.

The cult of personality has been insinuating itself into the arts since the Renaissance but it really gained a lot of ground during the last century. When the emphasis is on the artist instead of the art can decadence be far behind?

There’s another profound problem for contemporary art – people don’t buy it. The middle class doesn’t waste their money anymore. I think I read somewhere that Jackson Pollock said, “If I’m so f*****g famous why aren’t I rich?” The guy made barely enough money to rent a space & buy materials.

That’s why art subsidies are so sought after – otherwise they would have to work for a living – like for instance, teach – as so many poets do. And that’s why contemporary poetry is mainly the province of academia. No one makes a living with poetry so you have to have a day job. The overwhelming majority, I’d say 90%, of prizes & awards go to college professors. Pick up any volume of poetry & read the bio. The book is almost sure to have been written by a college professor. And of course, poetry being mainly a thing engaged in by academics, politics, specifically lefty politics, was injected into poesy. That probably turns off some would-be poetry lovers who may detest being preached at on social issues by some stupidly righteous poet.

Charlie Colorado, I’ve read much of Ginsberg. He’s obligatory if you are interested in contemporary poetry but my opinion is he wrote 2 or 3 mediocre poems that wont stand the test of time & the rest is utterly forgettable. Get what you can from him & move on to better stuff. There is good poetry being published.

Yes indeed Alex, people don't read poetry anymore. The question is why. Elitism killed poetry. The father of modern poetry was Walt Whitman. He would be puzzled & saddened by the present state of poetry & the arts. He wrote for the uneducated as much as he wrote for the educated. He was the opposite of an elitist. All the rest, from W. C. Williams on, follow his footsteps. If I had to choose one book of poetry to read it would be “Leaves of Grass.”

At 5:53 AM, October 25, 2005, Blogger Ymarsakar said...

If poetry emits the soul, then if it is not remembered, it can only be because it does not present the soul of the warrior nor of the civilian in these times.

At 12:34 AM, October 26, 2005, Blogger ljmcinnis said...

Nice challenge neo. On my worst day, I believed I could recall something that met your requirements but I could not.

50 years is a short timeframe, even in the world of "modern poetry" and "commonly known" may be more age, era, and culturally dependent than you or I might care to admit.

As usual, some of your readers have left insightful and interesting comments. I agree with Mr. Moulder, that poetry has been seized by academic elitists.

Poetry can't just be read. It has to be heard.

At 10:46 PM, October 26, 2005, Anonymous john moulder said...

I agree with ljmcinnis that generally poetry needs to be heard. Good poetry recited by a good reader is thrilling. When I am alone & reading poetry I read it aloud to myself much of the time. The ear must be brought into play for the fullest enjoyment & appreciation. Yet some of modern poetry must be seen on the page in order to be fully understood. Cummings, for instance, is very visual & some of his poems are problematic in recitation. One wonders how the following could be recited:



a)s w(e loo)k







S a


rIvInG .gRrEaPsPhOs)




Poetry has been seized by elitists – of which the majority happen to be academics. However, my problem is not with academia per se because academia doesn’t have to be elitist. Elitism is not the whole story of poetry’s demise.

At 10:12 PM, October 29, 2005, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I think if everybody went out and bought my book we wouldn't have this problem.

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At 9:31 PM, October 17, 2006, Blogger "hatch" said...

I can think of several lines from Pushkin's poetry but it follows the rule. One line that might break the rule is from Nikki Giovanni's famous poem Ego Trippin'-

and I can fly like a bird in the sky...

Its date is the late 60's. Well, that's my input.

At 12:49 AM, April 09, 2007, Blogger Sleeplittlehobo said...

"A four-foot box, a foot for every year."
-- Seamus Heaney, "Mid-term Break," 1966 in Death of a Naturalist

Read "Facing It" by Yusef Komunyakaa...published, I think, 1988 in the collection Dein Cai Dau. He's only about 50 anyway.

"And still I rise"
Maya Angelou, 1978

"I work all day, and get half drunk at night."
Philip Larkin, "Aubade," 1977

You also might not realize that in contemporary poetic circles a shift has occured in which the forceful, possibly somewhat obvious, and fulfilling type of lines that you're looking for - that pat and illustrious ending or the beginning with ravenous flourishes - is no longer desired.

At 3:57 AM, July 30, 2007, Blogger daniel said...

i hate you


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