My title, borrowed from Sir Philip Sidney, is deliberately misleading; that is, it does not mean here what he intended when he used it for his posthumous work (1595), known in another edition as The Apologie for Poetrie. In the past, poetry needed no defense—if that means pleas to a hostile or indifferent audience. Sidney, a member, along with Spenser, of an important poets’ club, was also a royal appointee and a soldier, who, as a volunteer, received a fatal wound in an attack on the Spanish fleet for the relief of Zutphen, in the Netherlands. His influential treatise offered an examination of poetry in his time and considerations on the essence and principles of the art, especially in relation to philosophy and history. His contemporary Sir Walter Ralegh was likewise a military man and explorer, as well as a poet. To know, appreciate, even write poetry was, for many, part of the gentleman’s role; and it was entirely compatible with vigorous action and manliness. What was “defended” in treatises was the distinctiveness of poetry, its aims, means, effects, and appeal. Advice, both general and particular, was offered; models were proposed and aesthetic principles set out.
The high standing of poets endured for three more centuries. Dryden and Pope were honored, and the latter was even a “celebrity.” With the advent of Romanticism, poets aspired to be viewed as prophets and seers. Writing in the 1790’s, Wollstonecraft called poetry “the first effervescence of the imagination, and the forerunner of civilization.” In his tract “A Defence of Poetry” (1821), Shelley asserted that poets were “the unacknowledged legislators of the world.” It should be noted that this hyperbolic remark was a reply to Thomas Love Peacock’s rather sarcastic claim, in “The Four Ages of Poetry” (1820), that during the “Age of Iron,” or bardic age (the earliest)—the period before civilization—poets were “not only historians but theologians, moralists, and legislators.” For Peacock, that is, poetry was a surviving feature of a primitive world; Shelley understood the matter differently. Nineteenth-century poets enjoyed great popularity. Tennyson was madly admired, even mobbed. During a visit to England in 1869, Longfellow was assured by Queen Victoria that all her servants read his books.
In France poets similarly had enormous prestige from the Renaissance on, until the mid-19th century, at least. Voltaire was admired throughout Europe for his verse. The Romantic poet Lamartine, who boasted to a detractor that his book would soon be in every cobbler’s pocket, was what is now called an activist. After a short diplomatic career, he was elected to the Chamber, wrote a history of the Girondins (1789 Revolutionaries), and was the people’s idol during the Revolution of 1848. Victor Hugo, who was in his time recognized foremost as a poet, not a novelist or dramatist (as his book sales showed), played a political role in 1848 before going into exile in 1851 in protest against Louis-Napoleon. (From the Channel Islands, he continued to criticize the Second Empire.) He remained beloved after his return to France. Hundreds of thousands of admirers filed under his window on his birthday in 1881, and a million mourners, it is said, lined the route taken by his hearse four years later. Vigny, though politically and socially conservative, depicted the poet as seer, yet suggested that in the industrial world poetry would lose prestige. The hero of his play Chatterton (1835) is obliged to justify the role of poetry in a society based on utilitarian principles. (He answers that the poet is the one “who reads in the stars the route shown to us by God’s finger.”)
At least until the Great War audiences for poetry in France, England, and America remained large. Julian Bell recalled that, at Cambridge in the late 1920’s, “the central subject of ordinary intelligent conversation was poetry.” By the later 20th century, however, the practice of poetry had been turned on its head. Poets themselves were partly to blame, along with editors, critics (particularly the postmodernists), and teachers, who incorporated into the curriculum the worst critical trends. Reviewing an anthology called Postmodern American Poetry, the late Alaskan writer John Haines lamented the “loss of the public voice” and “the shift in writing from substance to technique”; contemporary poetry as represented there seemed to him generally “cut off from normal discourse and apparently content to speak to itself alone.” The pleasures and importance of poetry have been so discounted that innumerable adults look upon it as an alien undertaking. Even traditional Christian hymnology has been replaced in certain circles by inferior songs with guitar accompaniment and, sometimes, hand gestures. People will spend hundreds or thousands of dollars for tickets to musical and theatrical performances, go to gallery and museum openings, and collect expensive coffee-table books; but buying a volume of verse would not occur to them.
Rumors about the death of poetry in the Occident are, however, false. The output of what passes for poetry is huge. The very schools that turned away from traditional verse and its appreciation (including memorization) and from its moral content and presumed elitism spend enormous sums on “poets-in-the-schools” and creative-writing courses. Poets’ prestige is still recognized in high places; Frost read at President Kennedy’s inauguration, and—showing the steep decline of standards in slightly more than 30 years—the pseudopoet Maya Angelou at Clinton’s. Many states as well as the nation have a poet laureate. Some trade presses and good university presses, including Johns Hopkins, Wesleyan, LSU, Carnegie-Mellon, Mercer, and Illinois, publish new poetry regularly, and there are scores of small literary presses and little magazines. Certain monthly magazines, Chronicles among them, and major quarterlies continue to run poems in every issue.
Much of this writing, however, is bad, some very bad, some offensive. Self-indulgence is rampant. The poet’s ego is thrust in our face; artistic discipline and self-control have given way to indolent writing that, as David Orr puts it in his Beautiful & Pointless: A Guide to Modern Poetry, consists in “Here I sit, having poetic thoughts.” The effect is infantilism— like children’s or lunatics’ efforts. The “thoughts” are generally feelings, trite (hasn’t everyone been happy or unhappy?), vague, or hostile, as in the writing of Sharon Olds, a winner of major prizes. (Google her name if you dare.) America being a society of feeling more than of reasoning and reflection, such writing seems to please. As Valéry remarked, however, feelings do not make good verse; by themselves they are incapable of creating a single good line. “To feel does not mean necessarily to make felt, and still less, beautifully felt.”
Even worse are tantrums, or what John Wain called “the ravings of a drug addict.” Verbal beauty, viewed as snobbish, though once within the ken of nearly everyone, has been thrown overboard. Ears are no longer attuned to sound values; regular forms, which often lead poets to their best lines, have been abandoned. (They are based on rules, widely unpopular in all circles now.) Instead, visual effects (brief evocations, images for the eye) dominate. Painterly descriptions are generally disdained, however; surprise, incongruity, shock—modernist poetic values inherited from the early 20th century—are exploited excessively. An opposite but unfortunate characteristic is an arrogant, wilful obscurity, likewise inherited from the modernists. Still less appealing in poetry today is coarse realism—an unspeakable vulgarity. Then there is the dominant leftism of current poets (and publishers and editors). Most of the bad writing I have in mind here is pretentious, certainly not popular as Victor Hugo and Tennyson were popular. What Americans want most, in fact, is not even this bad (mostly unread) work but what is democratically accessible (greeting-card verse, rock music, rap). When the late Michael Jackson is called an artist, how can an authentic verbal art exist?
To write on poetry for a general audience, then, is to risk confronting readers’ skepticism and misapprehensions. The genre is notoriously difficult to define and discuss anyhow. Terms such as content, form, style, image, symbol, and metaphor cannot be pinned down; aesthetic categories such as the sublime lend themselves even more to disagreement. Why talk about poetry at all—is there really anything left?
Well, one might pay attention to poetry simply as an antidote to Jackson (like playing Bach loudly on your car radio when vile noise emanates from a subwoofer in the next lane) and in defiance of others who have contributed to degraded taste. We owe that to ourselves. How will such attention pay off? Poetry offers knowledge, experience, morality, and order. Those 20th-century critics who suggested that form was everything went too far; matter counts also. “Art and matter in poetry are perfectly distinguishable . . . neither is of any value without the other,” observed a wise commentator. Unlike the back and front of a lamp, which is an entity but which the brain must reassemble as such, these interconnected aspects can be viewed together. In varying proportions, they constitute a whole, not a sum of discrete parts. Whereas some knowledge and experience are often available in bad as well as good poetry, beauty, order, and morality are largely confined to writing of the past and a minority of poets today.
What knowledge is worthwhile is another matter. No discourse on the topic can be fitted in here, but it is scarcely needed, since common sense can generally serve as a guide.
Knowledge may be conveyed explicitly (episodes of the Trojan War in the Iliad) and may be factual; or it may be indirect, subtle, or a blend of fact and imagination (Evangeline as imagined by Longfellow); it may be mostly speculation (how one can think about plums). Such knowledge may be old or new. To write poetry, asserted Cather, is “to say the oldest thing in the world as though it had never been said before.”
Experience (even “feelings”) may be the poets’ own, that of others, or, ideally, experience of the poem itself. Speaking of poetry as connaissance (knowledge), Claudel argued that it was also co-naissance (co-birth). To know something of value or know it anew is a type of creation, a renewal. While European poetry always included a subjective element (pleasing personal lyrics on nature in the Middle Ages, dense poems on erotic love and religious devotion in the Renaissance), the role of personal experience became much more prominent under Romanticism (“the overflow of powerful feelings,” in Wordsworth’s term). Subjectivity has dominated poetry since, despite modernist and postmodernist experimentation; formlessness favors subjectivity. The 1950’s confessional school and its innumerable imitators produced the excesses of ego and self-dramatizing referred to above. Poetry workshops in the schools feature little else. The question is whether this experience can and should be communicated to others, and, in Valéry’s word, beautifully. Somehow, the poem must evoke in readers’ sensibilities experience of value or provide the pleasures of recognition—the experience being “ne’er so well expressed.”
Morality would seem to be a topic of poetry, not an aspect of it. Much canonic work is now dismissed because of its moral messages, its preachiness. This is so notwithstanding the subtlety and delicacy with which many earlier poems treated moral issues. That is not the main thing. The best poetry embodied moral excellence by its own characteristics—what Matthew Arnold called high truth and high seriousness. In narrative and dramatic poetry of the past, evil was duly identified and punished; poems praising depravity and wickedness did not achieve greatness. Even scurrilous verses that vilified enemies and erotic or scabrous poems, unfit for the young, generally aimed at some sort of truth or beauty transcending the unsavory topic. “To please and instruct”—that was the goal of poetry according to Horace in his Ars poetica, echoed by Dr. Johnson. For poetry to accomplish these aims the poet must have moral convictions, and there must be consensus among readers on standards of behavior and beliefs. Alas, that is why it is not frequently conceded today that poetry can be moral; if there are no standards—if every code, even moral anarchy, is valid—then the very idea of moral excellence is false.
These three aspects—knowledge, experience, morality—are, in a good poem, one with its words and their arrangement—that is, its order. Poetic order illustrates and helps satisfy the need for personal and universal order; ordinary language also does this, but poetry goes further, being an order within an order. Words disposed according to rules or even the subtler arrangements of good free verse (with shaping, beat, and sound echoes) are inherently pleasing to the Occidental mind, ear, and eye. Rhythm, appealing sound, repetitions and variations satisfy by themselves and as evidence of the hand and mind at work on the world’s material. Small children delight in repeated sounds, with or without variation; older children often pick up and learn verses to which they are exposed, and many write rhymes of their own. Numerous observers, Claudel among them, have pointed to the connection between the stresses of poetry (various sorts of long-and-short or strong-and-weak sound patterns) and the human heartbeat, with its systolic and diastolic rhythm. (In prosody, or verse analysis, the term diastole is applied to the lengthening of a short quantity or syllable.)
The principles of verse are not identical in the different modern Occidental languages, but all have patterns of one sort or another, and rhyme is found widely. Conventional French verse used a syllabic count, chiefly in 12-syllable lines; English favored the iambic foot (unstressed-stressed), mainly in pentameters. Free verse of varying types has been effective in France since the late 1800’s; since French versification did not depend on fixed beats, poets were accustomed to using other resources, more easily retained in free verse. Claudel favored what he called versets: long free-verse lines based on biblical verses. Apollinaire often used rhyme and octosyllabic lines but eliminated punctuation. Francis Ponge, René Char, Pierre Jean Jouve (a tormented Catholic poet), and my late friend Jean-Claude Renard cultivated very short, incisive prose poems.
The pleasure of a well-wrought poem is the fulfillment of its aspects. It is broadly cultural; at its finest, it is vision. It deserves and needs a cultivated and supportive audience. While language by definition has meaning, poetry provides heightened meaning. The poem is where valences change.