Working text of a lecture delivered at the Meridian Institute
Bringing Poetry Back To Life by John Enright
All that's written
Yet song, its sister art, lives on, kicking and screaming in
rock lyrics, softly crooning in popular ballads, continuing
to draw a huge popular audience -- a paying audience, I might
Why is this so?
By way of answer, I would point to the fact, that poetry
today no longer sounds like poetry, that no matter what it
sounds like, it has nothing to say that anyone wants to hear,
and that today's song lyrics, taken all in all, are far more
interesting, and far more poetic, than today's poetry.
Let me give you one example:
As I look back on yesteryear
A picture's coming clear
I see my father work the fields
My mother holds me near
I travelled far but now I'm here
To sing for you my tears
The yellow moon shines in my eyes
And watches while I cry
This is from an album that's been on the dance charts
recently, Shaday by a young Israeli woman named Ofra Haza.
It sounds a lot like traditional poetry, doesn't it?
Let me give you another example:
the phone rings in the middle of the night
my father yells what you gonna do with your life
oh daddy dear you know you're still number one
but girls they want to have fun
some boys take a beautiful girl
and hide her away from the rest of the world
I want to be the one to walk in the sun
oh girls they want to have fun
If you've heard Cyndi Lauper sing this, I'm sure it sounds
funny to hear me read it out loud without music.
But I hope you noticed some things about both these examples.
They both rhymed. They both followed fairly regular rhythms.
They both were understandable -- made sense. What is more,
in the process of making sense, both expressed human feelings
-- human values.
Now, you may ask whether the words of the songs mean anything
at all to people who like rock music. Do rock fans really
care at all about the lyrics? You bet they do. The evidence
is clear and simple. Instrumentals - compositions without
words -- almost never make the hit charts. What makes the
hit charts are songs.
I would like to quote some typical contemporary poetry for
you, but none comes to mind. If you can remember some, I
invite you to reflect upon it.
(moment of silence)
I was able to think of some things typical of the modern
poetry movement, but things have fallen to such a state that
nothing written since the sixties is particularly well known.
Here, in its entirety, is a well-known poem by William Carlos
Williams. It is titled, The Red Wheelbarrow.
so much depends
a red wheel
glazed with rain
beside the white
Williams was writing in the twenties, and is a key figure in
the development of modern poetry. My example from the early
sixties is Sylvia Plath. This is the beginning of the title
poem from her posthumous book, Ariel:
Stasis in darkness.
Then the substanceless blue
Pour of tor and distances.
How one we grow,
Pivot of heels and knees! -- The furrow
Splits and passes, sister to
The brown arc
Of the neck I cannot catch,
Let me say that I think this last poem is about the poet's
reaction to a sunrise. I'm not too sure.
Let me also say, that I purposely picked two pieces that
lacked most obvious musical qualities, and that failed to
express or evoke any direct feelings. In other words, I
picked poems that didn't really seem to be poems at all.
Alleged poems, that make rock lyrics, by comparison, sound
But, I did not come here to praise rock lyrics. I don't know
that they're all that good. Nor did I come here to bury
today's poetry. It seems, already, to have dug itself a deep
grave and jumped right in.
I came here to praise poetry.
So let me talk for a while about some of the good stuff.
It is often said that English poetry had two major heydays --
The first was the Elizabethan period -- the time of
Shakespeare -- in the sixteenth century. The second was the
Romantic period -- the time of Wordsworth -- in the
I agree that these were the big two periods. Let us look at
them in turn.
An Elizabethan poem:
When in disgrace with fortune and men's eyes
I all alone beweep my outcast state,
And trouble deaf heaven with my bootless cries,
And look upon myself, and curse my fate,
Wishing me like to one more rich in hope,
Featured like him, like him with friends possessed,
Desiring this man's art, and that man's scope,
With what I most enjoy, contented least;
Yet in these thoughts myself almost despising,
Haply I think on thee, and then my state,
Like to the lark at break of day arising
From sullen earth, sings hymns at heaven's gate;
For thy sweet love remembered such wealth brings
That then I scorn to change my state with kings.
This is Shakespeare's twenty-ninth sonnet.
It's a strongly worded poem. He scorns to change his state
with kings. He goes from an extreme of distress -- crying
out to a deaf heaven -- to an extreme of joy -- singing like
a lark at sunrise.
There is one extreme he does not reach. In a poem which is
otherwise notable for its uncompromising force of language,
Shakespeare feels it necessary to throw in one weakening
qualifier -- one use of the word "almost."
Did you notice it? "Myself almost despising." That's right.
Even though he is dissatisfied with himself, even though he
is wishing that he had other men's qualities, he can't quite
get around to actually despising himself.
Not very modern of him. But this was an age of pride and
passion. This was the English Renaissance.
Now, a poem from the Romantic period:
I wandered lonely as a cloud
That floats on high o'er vales and hills,
When all at once I saw a crowd,
A host, of golden daffodils;
Beside the lake, beneath the trees,
Fluttering and dancing in the breeze.
Continuous as the stars that shine
And twinkle on the milky way,
They stretched in never-ending line
Along the margin of a bay:
Ten thousand saw I at a glance,
Tossing their heads in sprightly dance.
The waves beside them danced; but they
Out-did the sparkling waves in glee;
A poet could not but be gay,
In such a jocund company:
I gazed -- and gazed -- but little thought
What wealth the show to me had brought:
For oft, when on my couch I lie
In vacant or in pensive mood,
They flash upon that inward eye
Which is the bliss of solitude;
And then my heart with pleasure fills,
And dances with the daffodils.
This is by William Wordsworth, and is known by it first line,
I Wandered Lonely As A Cloud.
It is a nature poem, of course. Its descriptions of the
daffodils are lively and lovely. But the final focus of the
poems is on the lasting value that this experience provided
to the poet. Compared to the Shakespeare sonnet, this poem
is much more of one mood. It is undeniably enthusiastic.
And it is utterly without irony.
Very un-modern, again. But the feeling is quite different.
The pride and passion of the Elizabethans has here given way
to the freedom and enthusiasm of the Romantics.
Common to both groups, is the delight they take in letting
you know what is on their minds -- and in their hearts.
This delight in baring one's soul, turns out to be important
to the creation of good poetry -- because poetry, more than
the other art forms, is a frighteningly naked form of
In fiction, you may hide behind the story,
In painting, you may hide behind the scene;
But if in poetry you seek for glory,
You must come out and tell us what you mean.
Music and architecture are not directly representational
arts at all, and the very abstractness of their forms puts a
certain distance between the artist and his creation. The
self-revelation, though real, is not so concrete and
Now, I do not mean to say that poetry's main or sole function
is confessional, or that it should feel itself confined to
the expression of intimate feelings only. Poetry is
exquisitely suited to such expression, but it is quite
capable of making loud public statements as well. In either
case, the expression is closely identified with the personal
values of the individual poet.
Between the Elizabethan and the Romantic ages, was the age of
Reason and Enlightenment. Was this an especially good time
for poetry? No. Is this because poetry is inherently
irrational? Again, no. But the issues are connected.
The enlightenment, while championing reason, took a dim view
of intense emotions. "Enthusiasm" was considered a vice, not
a virtue. These people were not exactly opposed to emotion,
but thought it should be well-tempered -- balanced and
The enlightenment, while championing individual rights,
tended to downplay the value and importance of individual
differences. Their stress was on mankind's common nature,
and they were acutely aware of its common failings.
Here is part of an Enlightenment poem:
Let Observation, with extensive view,
Survey mankind, from China to Peru;
Remark each anxious toil, each eager strife,
And watch the busy scenes of crowded life;
Then say how hope and fear, desire and hate
O'erspread with snares the clouded maze of fate,
Where wavering man, betrayed by venturous pride
To tread the dreary paths without a guide,
As treacherous phantoms in the mist delude,
Shuns fancied ills, or chases airy good;
How rarely Reason guides the stubborn choice,
Rules the bold hand, or prompts the suppliant voice;
How nations sink, by darling schemes oppressed,
When Vengeance listens to the fool's request.
This is the opening of Samuel Johnson's "The Vanity Of Human
Wishes." Perhaps you think it boring and didactic.
Certainly I do. Didacticism is indeed the snare that waits
for those who come to art with the idea that reason must be
favored over emotion. After all, if reason must be favored,
why work to achieve an emotional impact? Doesn't emotional
impact just interfere with the audience's ability to listen
carefully and truly understand? Isn't it better to strive
for muted but pleasant emotional effects that entice the
attention without overloading the heart?
This is what the Romantics were rebelling against.
So let me say something about the banner of this get-
together: Art Within Reason. Please do not imagine this
means Art Without Emotion. In art, as in life, reason and
emotion should work together toward common ends -- as the eye
and the hunger of the eagle work together when the eagle goes
a-hunting. The hunger is what gets the eagle flying. The
eye -- the vision -- is what tells the eagle where to dive.
I would like to read to you a poem about an eagle, a poem
called The Eagle, by Alfred Tennyson. Tennyson is probably
the best known of the Victorian poets -- the poets who
came right after the Romantic period -- and who came right
before the modern period.
He clasps the crag with crooked hands;
Close to the sun in lonely lands,
Ringed with the azure world, he stands.
The wrinkled sea beneath him crawls;
He watches from his mountain walls,
And like a thunderbolt, he falls.
You may think this is beautiful, musical, perfectly clear,
and startlingly dramatic. I do.
This is what the modern poetry movement was rebelling
Why? What was it that early twentieth century poets didn't
like about late nineteenth century verse?
Well, they thought it was sentimental, sing-songy and
complacent. Their plan, in the wake of the first world war,
was to bring poetry up to date with the times by making it
alienated, anxious, and musically flat.
The operation was a success, and the patient has never
The alienated poet is unable to make a statement because he
feels distant from reality -- because the world doesn't make
sense to him. But a statement, precisely, claims to make
sense of the world. So statements will not do. In their
place goes the kind of wording a man can hide behind.
Wording ambiguous, ironical, and incoherent.
The alienated poet is unable to express his feelings, because
he is at odds with himself, and his feelings don't make sense
to him either. They are a messy jumble.
The sound effects should be a messy jumble too. Regular
sound effects -- regular rhythm, regular rhyme -- seem to
betoken a settled framework of thought and feeling. Seem to
betoken an orderly universe.
An orderly universe? In an age of cosmic anxiety? Not too
likely. Remember, the poet is to express the age by sharing
its anxiety -- its nameless ball of a thousand unfaced fears
-- its endless swarm of infectious mosquito-sized worries.
The poet is left as an anxiety-ridden, mosquito-bitten
wretch, unable to concentrate, emotionally exhausted. Even
if he wanted to express his thoughts and feelings, he's
hardly got any left to express.
T.S. Eliot is often regarded as the key figure in the
development of modern English poetry. He was a learned man
who still knew how to write in verse.
Let us look at one of his more musical passages, and catch
his drift. I will set the scene for you. A young woman, a
typist, has invited a pimply-faced young man, a clerk, over
to her apartment. They have just finished dinner.
The time is now propitious, as he guesses,
The meal is ended, she is bored and tired
Endeavors to engage her in caresses,
Which still are unreproved if undesired.
Flushed and decided, he assaults at once;
Exploring hands encounter no defence;
His vanity requires no response,
And makes a welcome of indifference.
This is from Eliot's The Wasteland. Note the emotional
quality of this seduction scene -- a kind of fascinated
disdain -- a disdain which is actually reminiscent of Samuel
Johnson's Vanity of Human Wishes. Remember, "wavering man,
betrayed by venturous pride" treading "dreary paths without a
guide." I think Johnson was talking about Eliot's clerk and
If Eliot's Wasteland reflected alienation from the world,
another of his poems better reflects his alienation from
No! I am not Prince Hamlet, nor was meant to be;
Am an attendant lord, one that will do
To swell a progress, start a scene or two,
Advise the prince; no doubt an easy tool
Deferential, glad to be of use,
Politic, cautious, and meticulous;
Full of high sentence, but a bit obtuse;
At times, indeed, almost ridiculous--
Almost, at times the fool.
I grow old... I grow old...
I shall wear the bottom of my trousers rolled.
Shall I part my hair behind? Do I dare to eat a peach?
I shall wear white flannel trousers, and walk upon the beach
I have heard the mermaids singing, each to each.
I do not think that they will sing to me.
Earlier in the same poem, he asks:
Do I dare
Disturb the universe?
In a minute there is time
For decisions and revisions
which a minute will reverse.
This is alienation, anxiety and uncertainty. This is the
Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.
The portions I have read you are still metered and rhymed,
but perhaps you noticed their flatness -- their lack of
The content too, you may have noticed, is somewhat rambling,
Here is the danger for the poet. The flat sound and the
pointlessness undercut the poem -- undercut its effect.
But what I have read to you is among Eliot's most striking
and memorable lines. The main direction for modern poetry
was into utter flatness, utter pointlessness.
so much depends
a red wheel
glazed with rain
beside the white
But the drought was not total. Here and there, fresh water
continued to spring forth, and I would like to talk about two
modern poets, two of my favorites, who wrote stuff that still
had some real bounce and life to it -- real poetry.
I point to these two as proof that even in our time, poetry
can live. Both of these men were acutely aware of the
problems of the modern age, and both attempted to come to
grips with some of these problems in their poetry.
My first example is William Butler Yeats. Some of his stuff
is obscure, some unrhymed and harsh. But he had a lyrical
gift that did not stop until he died.
One of his last poems, written shortly before the beginning
of World War II, is set against the idea that politics should
be a man's central concern.
How can I, that girl standing there,
My attention fix
On Roman or on Russian
Or on Spanish politics?
Yet here's a traveled man that knows
What he talks about,
And here's a politician
That has read and thought
And maybe what they say is true
Of war and wars alarms
But O that I were young again
And held her in my arms!
That poem was titled Politics. The other poem I want to read
you, dated 1929, is titled Death.
Nor dread nor hope attend
A dying animal;
A man awaits his end
Dreading and hoping all;
Many times he died,
Many times rose again.
A great man in his pride
Confronting murderous men
Casts derision upon
Supersession of breath,
He knows death to the bone --
Man has created death.
Please note the admiring portrait of the great man who spits
on death. This is the kind of pride that allowed Yeats to
scorn most of the trends of modern poetry.
My second example is a man who was best known as a
philosopher and translator, who also happened to publish a
book of his own poems. His name was Walter Kaufmann. He was
German born, but came to America as a young man to escape
Hitler. He died in 1980.
In 1940, he wrote this poem, entitled Exile, addressed to
This was my land before you came.
For both of us it was too small.
I left, but I expect to tell
one day the story of your fall.
Kaufmann favored short poems with a sharp point, a form very
typical of German poetry.
One of his shortest poems, is as follows:
What is hard
Often hides lard
Or is hollow.
This is dated 1961.
Finally, here is a poem called Kaufmann's Laws:
This is the first of Kaufmann's Laws;
the weakling always fails because
somebody else did wrong.
The second: those who don't despair
but grow when others are unfair
give proof that they are strong.
Kaufmann was incensed by T.S. Eliot's claim that modern day
existence made it impossible for a poet to achieve greatness.
In his book, From Shakespeare To Existentialism, Kaufmann
"The prime source of any feeling of futility, frustration,
and anxiety lies in the self Shakespeare could face the
thought that ... life is 'a tale told by an idiot' without
being overwhelmed by self pity. ...[P]eople who now blame
their time for many of their shortcomings [should] recognize
Indeed, the first requirement for bringing poetry back to
life, is to throw off this idea that the poet must conform to
the fashions of his time.
In the best of times, fashion provides merely a cloak of
mediocrity. At present, fashion provides a shroud.
Here, then, would be my advice to aspiring poets.
Throw off all fashion. Throw off the fashions of poetry, and
the fashions of philosophy as well.
Look at the world with your own eyes. Listen to its songs
with your own ears. Have the courage to judge them for
Only then will you have something to say to the world. Only
then will you have an idea of how your song should sound.
Above all, do not be scared by sneers. Do not be scared away
from rhyme by mere sneers. Do not be scared away from deep
feelings by mere sneers.
If you feel lost in confusion, then by all means find your
way out. As a starting point, I would recommend the works of
Ayn Rand, the Russian-American philosopher and novelist. The
author of The Fountainhead. She never wrote much about
poetry, but she had a lot to say about art and life, and her
outlook has greatly colored my own.
Finally, above all, find poetry that you really like --
poetry that you love, and try to figure out, by the light of
reason, what makes you love it. Focus in on the how of the
lines that stir your soul. It is the how that you need to
understand and emulate.
I would like to end by thanking you for listening to me so
patiently, and by reading a poem of my own which I feel is
appropriate to the occasion.
I wrote it for Walter Kaufmann, but not only for him…
Amid the wasteland, he
Created an alternative
Refuting the dung
The age demands
His temple stands.
The age cries out
That he has missed
What it's all about!
Better yet -- that he doesn't exist!
But the dung shall fade
In the sun --
And his work live on.
Works and authors quoted, in order
Shaday, Ofra Haza and Bezalel Aloni
(title track from Ofra Haza album: Shaday)
Girls Just Want To Have Fun, Robert Hazard
(big hit from Cyndi Lauper album, She's So Unusual)
The Red Wheelbarrow, William Carlos Williams
Ariel, Sylvia Plath
29th Sonnet, William Shakespeare
I Wandered Lonely As A Cloud, William Wordsworth
The Vanity Of Human Wishes, Samuel Johnson
The Eagle, Alfred Tennyson
The Wasteland, T.S. Eliot
The Love Song Of J. Alfred Prufrock, T.S. Eliot
Politics, William Butler Yeats
Death, William Butler Yeats
Exile, Walter Kaufmann
The Core, Walter Kaufmann
Kaufmann's Laws, Walter Kaufmann
For Walter Kaufmann, John Enright
Book note: Kaufmann's "Cain And Other Poems" is out of print.
So is his book of translations: "Twenty German Poets."
But I recommend them to your attention if you can find them.
Theme: The role of self-valuation in poetic creation.
A. State of contemporary poetry
compared to state of contemporary song
B. Heydays of English poetry: Elizabethan & Romantic
C. The lull between: The Enlightenment
D. The wasteland beyond: Modern times
E. 2 moderns who didn't fit in
William Butler Yeats
F. What is needed now