Understanding Poetry 8: Poems and Today

The final lesson looks at the way poetry defines modern sensibilities. We’ll trace ways poetic form has opened up to chart modern perception and explorations of identity. Our last case reading, Adrienne Rich’s “Diving into the Wreck,” will sum up our look at poetry’s place in today’s world.

Poet Reform School

Attention, young poets! Don’t express your deepest thoughts; experiment with form first. Says W. H. Auden: “As a rule, the sign that a beginner has a genuine original talent is that he is more interested in playing with words than in saying something original.” He also found free verse suspect, saying it’s “original and impressive” in “a few exceptional cases,” but “more often the result is squalor.”

A Break With the Past

We’re now ready to merge the emphases of the last three lessons — place, time, and audience– into a focus on poetry in today’s world. Of course, “today’s world” is fiction. Nobody could ever sum up the variety of the world, and even if someone could, that summation would be instantly outdated. But that doesn’t stop poetry from trying to define what it means to be living in the present moment. So for our last lesson, we’ll look at poems that emphasize a contrast to the past and, in the process, define modern perspectives.

This modern perspective, by the way, is not exactly brand-new. Many poems of the last hundred years or so highlight a disconnection to convention, to the past. It’s a disconnection running through modernism and postmodernism. The poems we’ll look at were written over the space of many years, but all of them are interested in the new — with all the unsteady relationships to the past that “new” implies.

The novelty of contemporary poetry can be exhilarating — there is great freedom to be found in the fresh approaches of poems like Frank O’Hara’s “Ave Maria” (MP, p. 272) or Sharon Olds’ “The Language of the Brag” (MP, p. 280). But even these celebrations of the new carry with them a modern sense of division.

We’ll start by looking at the way a poem can chafe against form. Next, we’ll consider how poems reflect modernity’s ambivalence to tradition — how they acknowledge our distance from the past and explore marginal, untraditional identity. We’ll end with a final case reading, Adrienne Rich’s amazing “Diving into the Wreck,” a poem that seeks a way out of modern isolation.

Unconventional Convention

What is deliberately modern poetry? The definition is wide open, but let’s start by ruling out one equation: modern poetry is not necessarily free verse, lacking in meter entirely. It can be as patterned and metrical as W.B. Yeats’ “The Circus Animals’ Desertion” (MP, p. 260) or as truly unpatterned as Carolyn Forche’s “The Colonel” (MP, p. 281).

A modern poem, no matter what its shape, will push at the bounds of traditional form. It can do so by exploding form altogether and adhering to no set patterns. But sometimes it’s an inside job: a fixed, traditional form is overwhelmed by its content. Let’s look at an example.

There are few forms that are more traditional than a sonnet — so what is a most untraditional poet like E.E. Cummings doing writing one (MP, p. 66)? Certainly Cummings masks his choice of form with very conversational, irregular meter. If you were to hear the poem read out loud, you might think it prose. A dash, an ellipsis, a parenthetical remark, the drastic caesura of the ninth line, enjambment at the end of several lines . . . all these break up form.

And yet look at how patterned this excerpt from Cummings’ “Tulips and Chimneys” really is. Its rhyme scheme is almost symmetrical; only a subtly discordant “the” in the 13th line prevents the sonnet from following an abcddcba eeffee rhyme scheme. The focus of the poem obligingly takes a turn in the ninth line, as is the case in many sonnets — from superficial activity to gossip and a whiff of real emotion.

What is Cummings up to here? The patterned form allows him to deepen his satire of these Cambridge ladies who only act according to proscription (“the church’s protestant blessings”) and “dead,” but enduring beliefs (“they believe in Christ and Longfellow, both dead”).

As is the case with so much satire, pretension and false permanence are highlighted: these ladies will never change because they are “invariably interested.” They’re as enduring and splintered off from their own emotions as a fragment of candy. But what about the invariably formed sonnet? Is it also an irrelevant sliver of the world, conventional detritus? This sonnet’s utter dismissal of its subject threatens to turn on its own form.

Cummings’ sonnet, as conventionally as it’s shaped, dismantles convention with unmistakable ferocity. Let’s now turn to poems with a more nostalgic view of the past that they cannot connect to — and cannot forget.


James Dickey’s “The Bee” (AFP, p. 67), like “Strawberries,” also spaces out lines to explore the interaction of past and present. It zigzags between memories of football and the immediate moment of rescuing a son. But here some lines manage to come all the way together. The panic of action overcomes fragmentation, if only temporarily.

Dickey’s son Christopher would later poignantly write about his father: “Even when I fled him, I missed him.”

The Ruptured Past

Poetry that regards itself as modern is fixated on tradition. That doesn’t mean it’s traditional — far from it. But every deliberate rupture with the past is liable to bring the past back, like a ghost haunting a place it used to be. Underneath the experimentation of modern poetry, you can often discern a longing for continuity. Let’s look at a few examples.

Bridging the Gap

In W.S. Merwin’s “Strawberries” (AFP, p. 186), innovative cuts in the lines mimic the interplay of present and past. And both convey the often uneasy, but necessary task of assimilating these bygone presences into the current moment.

In Merwin’s poem, the force of grief seems to have dulled perception into disconnected impressions.

I was hoeing the sand of a small vegetable plot
for my mother in the deepening twilight
and looked up in time to see a farm wagon

There is no punctuation, no intricate syntax — just new pulses of information that build with some indifference on top of each other. But look what happens at the end of the poem:

my mother was awake already and asked me
if I wanted a shower before breakfast
and for breakfast she said we have strawberries.

Merwin ends with a surprising repetition of “strawberries.” It’s a repetition that overcomes disjunction by making the speaker’s earlier observation of a strawberry wagon significant. The final lines of the poem even seem ready to hold together: they concentrate on the mother and what she says. Though the death of the father opens up an undeniable gap between the poet and the past, a mother’s perseverance helps cure the numbness of this modern elegy.

The Idea of Order

Nostalgia for the past turns wistful and philosophical in Wallace Stevens’ “The Idea of Order at Key West” (MP, p. 266). We get that just from the poem’s rhythms. It’s hypnotically repetitive; the same elemental words keep washing up at the ends of lines: voice, sound, sang, sea.

But Stevens’ nature poem turns right against the hopes of “Tintern Abbey.” There is no power that rolls through all things; humans are separate from the world around them. A woman singing at the sea is not really connecting with the waves:

For she was the maker of the song she sang.
The ever-hooded, tragic-gestured sea
Was merely a place by which she walked to sing.

Stevens’ poem very much appreciates the simultaneity of nature and the woman’s song, and even glorifies her as “the single artificer of the world / In which she sang.” But a drumming emphasis on her solitude (“sound alone,” “single artificer,” “striding there alone” — even at the height of her shoreline song — fills the poem with isolation.

Where “Tintern Abbey” turned outward, “The Idea of Order” turns toward itself. The characterization of the singing woman as “the maker” swings attention directly to the maker of this poem, who might similarly be locked in his own world:

Then we,
As we beheld her striding there alone,
Knew that there never was a world for her
Except the one she sang and, singing, made.

A connecting presence is mourned, and Stevens reluctantly shifts to the disparate beauty of artifice. The nature poem has been rerouted.

Though very different, the poems by Merwin and Stevens touch longingly on connection, but register isolation. The isolated perspective is endemic to modern poetry and often leads to a yearning to belong. We’ll now turn to these marginal longings.

Let Me Entertain You

A voice from the margin doesn’t have to be angry or despairing. Frank O’Hara’s “Ave Maria” (MP, p. 272) is a good example of a breezy contemporary poem. The verse is stretched out and friendly, celebrating the virtues of “fresh air.” Yet it holds advice that few mothers of America are likely to follow. By locating true entertainment in “the darker joys,” O’Hara’s poem celebrates the margin, despite its sweeping address.

Overcoming Isolation

Distance from tradition often means distance from a fixed sense of identity. Many modern poems start from a marginal place and seek to rejoin or connect with a larger whole. This approach has opened up poetry to a great variety of voices that are fragmented from larger communities and are seeking new connections. Let’s listen to two.

Talking to Myself

We already glanced at the satirical edge of Allen Ginsberg’s “America” (MP, p. 269) in Lesson 6. But the poem isn’t just a satire — it’s a larger statement about Ginsberg’s country. In order to see that, we have to appreciate the ways “America” invokes and wrestles with the ode.

Note that Ginsberg’s poem isn’t “to” America or even “on” it — signaling the uncertain relationship the speaker has to his subject. Ginsberg says he is in an “argument” with his country, but much of that argument is with himself: How do I connect with this large subject?

This is a question we’ve watched Shelley, Keats, and Crane wrestle with. Odes, as we’ve seen, can end in riddles or questions — but Ginsberg is pushing for a surprising triumph. “I’m addressing you,” he tells America. Eight lines down, we read, “It occurs to me that I am America.” It’s an epiphany, but one that’s quickly laughed away — “I’m talking to myself again.”

The colliding tones of the poem guarantee that Ginsberg’s contradictory stances toward his country aren’t settled. Yet “America” struggles at the end to reconcile the poet’s senses of belonging and not belonging:

It’s true I don’t want to join the Army or turn lathes in precision
parts factories, I’m nearsighted and psychopathic anyway.
America I’m putting my queer shoulder to the wheel.

Divided to the Vein

Derek Walcott’s “A Far Cry from Africa” (AFP, p. 278) struggles against another isolation: the isolation of colliding cultures. Tradition can give no guidance in such a case. The poet’s dilemma is evident right in the title: he’s sounding a cry from far away, Africa, but at the same time he’s speaking in “the English tongue I love” and has experience that’s far from African.

Faced with unspeakable slaughter juxtaposed with colonial oppression, the speaker cannot find his ground; he understands both sides and is horrified by both.

I who am poisoned with the blood of both, Where shall I turn, divided to the vein?

Walcott’s poem doesn’t reconcile this divide; it leaves us with an unresolved cry. It’s a nightmare version of modernity: one in which disjunction cannot be overcome, even temporarily, by artifice or sheer will.

We’ll close our survey with a more hopeful poem — one that acknowledges the isolation of modernity and yet finds consolation in the past, however wrecked.

More Reading!

As fond as you’ve undoubtedly become of our textbooks, you might be ready to move on to fresh woods and pastures new. As a start, I recommend the following:

The Top 500 Poems: A Columbia Anthology (ISBN: 023108028X)

Unsettling America: An Anthology of Contemporary Multicultural Poetry (ISBN: 014023778X)

A Book of Luminous Things: An International Anthology of Poetry (ISBN: 0156005743)

The Heart Aroused: Poetry and the Preservation of the Soul in Corporate America (ISBN: 0385484186)

Case Reading: “Diving into the Wreck”

Adrienne Rich’s “Diving into the Wreck” (MP, p. 276) can be read in many ways: as a description of sea diving, as an exploration of the way gender can shift, as an allegory of accessing subconscious thoughts. But your study of poetic forms can be the basis for another rich reading of this poem: as an allegory, or sustained symbolic story, of what it means to dive into the traditions of poetry.

I came to explore the wreck.
The words are purposes.
The words are maps.
I came to see the damage that was done
and the treasures that prevail.

The repeated emphasis on “words” suggests a visit to old verse, to words now detached from immediate purposes and mapping lost worlds. Our diver’s initial sense of disconnection from these words — the fact that to see them, she has to be literally out of her element — seems a sure sign of “damage.” We could read it as cultural damage, as the divide between today’s world and the poetry of the past.

The way down to the wreck is isolating. Our traveler has to gear up with a book of myths, a camera, and a knife: she intends to explore and must be ready with all kinds of various instruments to try to capture and contain her subject. Her clothing is awkward and further isolating:

I put on
the body-armor of black rubber
the absurd flippers
the grave and awkward mask.

It’s a lonely and awkward descent down the ladder to the water, with our speaker too swaddled up with equipment and protection to even know “when the ocean / will begin.” The confusion that she feels once in the ocean, the element of wreckage, is suggested through the meter:

black I am blacking out and yet
my mask is powerful
it pumps my blood with power
the sea is another story
the sea is not a question of power
I have to learn alone
to turn my body without force
in the deep element.

The pumping iambics of the third line above are quickly washed over by dactyls like “question of” and “element.” The speaker’s submission to the deep element is nothing she could have prepared for: she has to learn as she goes.

The sense of purpose in Rich’s poem is striking. Our speaker might be isolated and out of her element, yet she knows exactly what she came for:

the wreck and not the story of the wreck
the thing itself and not the myth

This purpose stands our speaker in good stead: it helps keep her oriented in very disorienting circumstances and leads to what poetry always tries to lead us to: a sense of real connection.

This is the place.
And I am here, the mermaid whose dark hair
streams black, the merman in his armored body.
We circle silently
about the wreck
we dive into the hold.
I am she: I am he

Note what happens at this magical point: the solitary “I” suddenly becomes “We.” Plurality and identification take hold in the poem. The speaker’s absolute submersion into the element of the past allows her to overcome the separation of myths (“in which / our names do not appear”) and participate, instead, in “the thing itself.”

Goodbye and Good Luck

Our last case reading circles back on our first — “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” was also a modern poem, also concerned with isolation and longing for identification, also focused on mermaids at its end. In “Prufrock,” you’ll remember, the mermaids were singing “each to each,” but Prufrock doubted they would sing to him. Why would they? His self-consciousness and fear of contact would not let him get beyond the beach.

The richness of poetry cannot be lived so secondhand — it takes true immersion and personal identification, even with what seems like wreckage of the past. The tools we’ve developed in this course will take you down to a close encounter with any poem. You now have the equipment, a range of tools, a knowledge of poetry’s basic myths and concerns. But the surprise treasure of poetry, the profusion of selves at the bottom of the sea, can only be had by diving and diving again.

As we part, I wish you a long and happy life of plunging — and don’t hoard the treasure you find! The Message Board, for starters, is a good place to share your recommendations and experiences. There’s more poetry in the world than anyone could possibly experience. It’s up to us all to lead each other to discovered favorites, as well as lingering mysteries.

Assignment: Open Forms
Choose a poem that we haven’t covered in class from the “Open Forms” section of MP, pp. 260-286. Read it closely and answer the following questions about it.

  1. What fixed forms or shaping forms are suggested by your poem?
  2. In what way does the form of your poem reflect a break from the past?
  3. What attitude does your poem have toward tradition? Does that attitude change?
  4. How important is isolation in your poem? Is it resolved at the end of the poem? How?
  5. What does your poem suggest about contemporary life?

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