You don’t need to understand poetry to be moved by it.

pen-fountain-pen-ink-gold-39065I think that many people are not alone in thinking that they can’t understand poetry. I believe lots of people feel that way. There are many people who truly feel and believe that they don’t understand poetry, further that they can’t understand poetry, and that poetry is something best understood by particularly intellectual people.

I believe that nothing can be further from the truth.

Ignoring for a moment the distinction between high poetry and low poetry, it is important to realize that verse and versification have long been part of many cultures and language communities. I think that is also important to realize that poetry, or rather the idea of poetry, is very much a mental construction on top of the bare naked reality of verse itself.

What do I mean by this? Well simply put, verse is part of language. Verse is a way of arranging words. Versification and prosody, rhyme and meter, to whatever degrees they can be found in modern poetry, they are matters of language. Essentially matters of language itself. Prosody evokes things that can be felt, a beat. This can be perceived and felt without any sort of sophisticated intellectual training.

Here’s a proof; ‘Mary had a little lamb it’s fleece was white as snow, and everywhere that Mary went, the lamb was sure to go.

That line of text was metered and it had rhyme to it. I trust that no great heights of intellectual speculation were necessary to understand. It was about a little girl, named Mary, of whom a lamb was quite infatuated. Dig it?


All things in this world are characterized by heights and lows, and stuff in the middle. So too with poetry. Poetry can ring bells on monasteries on top of Mount Parnassus, rake the coals at the bottom of the valley of Jahannam, and sell breakfast cereal on the telly.

I think that poetry is often presented as something intellectually high, refined and sophisticated. But poetry can really be as simple as ‘Mary had a Little Lamb‘.

While verse and poetry can be separated, and typically are nowadays, the two share a close, more ambiguous relationship which, aforetime, was tighter.

For poetry to have a significant cultural role, it must be authentically part of the culture. High cultures are almost by definition matters of elite, often imperial, patronage and support. This means high cultures obey standards that are artificially maintained; typically reified standards drawn from the basis of some old hoary thing dug out of the closet, quite mummified, and stuffed in full regalia in front of the people.

The maintainers and advocates of ‘high culture’ may seem to over-protest. High culture typically has some sort of basis in the broader culture it is found in. Often, however, the connection is extraneous and non-essential connection. Someone somewhere has to maintain it like a difficult and moody orchid, sensitive and needing constant tending lest the delicate thing keels over pouting and rolling its eyes.

I won’t assert that all high culture is just extraneous to a people’s realities. Far from it. But at a certain point you sometimes seem to have at hand something that was once a bit more living and spunky, but long since extremely refined to the point of the life being sucked out of it.

Do remember, much classical music was at one time pop music. This is something older than the ‘Pops orchestras’ that are part of urban higher cultural establishments in the Anglosphere today. Mozart in his age was a bit of a rock star. So too, Ballet once had copulation as a theme. I’d use the F- word but someone reading this would have a hissy-fit. Ballet, or rather the theatrical dances that eventually became ballet, really could be almost pornographic in theme, once upon a time.

In a word, if you go back two or three hundred years ago, you would see that – in the West anyway – quite a bit of what people believe today to be high culture was part of the lower middle culture of that age.

Let’s leave alone the theme of decadence – and there was a time not so long ago in which many critics believed Tchaikovsky and Wagner were decadent composers, and avoiding an observation I once heard Seyyed Hossein Nasr make, in which he asserted in the middle of class that classical music after Bach had essentially lost a good deal of its higher intellectual grounding, there is a simple fact that humans have a tendency to over-romanticize the past. How we view the arts, poetry included, is part of this.

I’m sympathetic here; being a guy who rarely felt at home in his century much less than his decade. But part of trying to develop a historical consciousness, a feeling for history, is developing the ability to see things of a past age as they were in there mundane glory. Chamber pots, iron and flint fire-starters, plagues, child whores, summary executions in the middle of the street, and all.

That was all a tangent. The question is how did that tangent relate to the question at hand? Well, let’s tie it to the point. In order for poetry to be something alive and vibrant, part a living culture, it has to be something that is not in museums. It has to be something that is inside of people’s hearts and on the tongues. For this to be the case poetry must be understandable by people broadly speaking, not just a recondite erudite few sitting around patting each others’ backs..

This does not mean there is no room for high and difficult poetry. Take Geoffrey Hill, the Oxford poet laureate, or T.S. Eliot, of whom Hill is a contemporary heir. Or take Frederick Seidel. These three people, among others, are certainly near the height of the twentieth century’s formalist and aristocratic poetic establishment. Throw in Ezra Pound as well. Each of these poets is somewhat difficult, challenging, and formalistic. In a word, marked by a type of difficulty that requires some intellectual aptitude to tackle with.

So what. Each of those poets wrote a large amount of verse that simply requires the type of active imaginative faculty that your average teenager has, to navigate. In other words, you don’t have to be an intellectual to read T.S. Eliot, and be struck by his imagery.

I think this is a sign of successful poetry. Even if it seems to be over your head on some level, mainly because everyone around you keeps saying that it is, it can still move you as long as you understand the words.

I think these things can be overcomplicated. If you can understand ‘Mary Had a Little Lamb’ then you have the tools necessary to apprehend poetry, to feel poetry if you hear it or read it. This is because you have the linguistic tools to viscerally feel poetry, which is what we’re talking about if we use words like ‘move’. Something that moves you does something kinetic to you, like push, shove, punch, caress, engage in frottage with, or kiss you. It’s a matter of the type of movement, and its intensity.

Verse, and most good poetry even ‘free verse’ ends up to some degree using verse-like elements even unconsciously on the poet’s part, uses rhythm and timing in speech. Verse makes you feel things, ‘beats,’ and this is powerful. Rhythm is powerful.

Verse is not equivalent to poetry. But verse and poetry spring from the same mother’s loins, and were probably wrapped around each others’ umbilical cords en utero. If you can feel the effects of verse, then you have the tools to get poetry. Just relax and don’t psych yourself out, thinking that you can’t get it.


3 Interesting Things about History, Entertainment, and Class I’m Pondering

Three things have been striking my mind as interesting. One interesting thing about modernity is that the strangest things are inverted. In terms of their roles in historical traditional society, modernity inverts certain forms and patterns. Take one example; contrary to the idea that only women adorn themselves, except a few simpering metrosexuals, when we actually look at history often men have adorned themselves. This is true both east and west, in the global north and south – with some exceptions I admit. In some cases this adornment has been even more than women, and much of it for the purpose of attracting mates.

I find that interesting. Historically Peacocking was a bit of a norm then.

Another thing. Whatever we think today about the harem and polygamous societies (polygynous anyway) and the excessive female seclusion of many past eastern cultures, both Muslim and non-Muslim, something to ponder is that the concept of Harem is more nuanced than usually considered. The word itself – Harem – literally means sacred or hallowed. Hence the three temple complexes of great sanctity in Islam, the Kaaba in Mecca, The Prophetic Mosque in Madina, and the Temple Mount in Jerusalem, are all known as the Harems. And the Kaaba itself is draped and veiled in black. It’s also little remembered in contemporary Islam, or in the West, that female veiling was originally a prerogative of elite women.

Free women went veiled, upper status free women typically observed the hijab or purdah, seclusion in the family harem, slave girls could go unveiled and at times even bare breasted. Something very similar was the case in early Rome and Greece for upper class women, in particular the early Romans. This, interestingly enough, was not the case for non-Mediterranean Europeans like Celts and Germans.

I draw no conclusions from any of this but musing over the history is interesting.

A third thing that I find interesting, is that entertainment, particularly Singing, was often admired in the pre-modern world but was typically also lower in status. In particularly singing girls. This was the case for popular entertainers not just in the East, but also in Western Christendom, and pre-Christian Rome. Actors Singers Mimes, all were typically of low status or actually slaves.

In the early modern world, actors and actresses in early Modern England were often not just prostitutes rising up from the poor, but in many ways a successful stage career was – for all intents and purposes – actually a modality of upper strata Prostitution. Put differently, a successful acting career put one in front of the nobility and the actress then had access to sexually service the nobility. Some very successful actresses engaged in general public whoring as well as elite private courtesan work. This was most blatant in the reign of Charles II but it was a constant in Post-Elizabethan modern England until well into the 19th century.

In our modern era, in the origins of Hollywood, this still held true to some degree, for both male and female actors drawn from poor or humble backgrounds, I have no idea what to make of this but I find it, and the origins of modern celebrity culture, very very interesting. In Black America, musical entertainment was one of the very few avenues open to talented Blacks during Jim Crow. The Jazz era created a demimonde in which Blacks were still suppressed and occupying a very low social status but paradoxically gained social access, albeit on a patronizing and highly circumscribed level, to upper class whites and could in many ways benefit their families even with the crushing oppression of a Jim Crow social order in the South, and the more diffuse social racism of the North.

I can think of one major exception – literary entertainment, and in particular poetry. Literary entertainers were often drawn from elite strata, or at least middle social strata. In Christian Europe, and in the Islamic East, likewise in the non-Islamic East, like Confucian and Buddhist China, and Hindu India. Added to this the musical arts most associated with literary expression and performance, or with the Court. This is where we get our Western Classical music. When not performed by higher class artists it at least gave access to the higher classes and the opportunity to move into an ambiguous and highly respective middle strata. Troubadours for example were of noble birth, and certain Filie and Bards in the older Celtic order were of higher rank origins. Those performers who were not initially of higher class could gain intimate access to aristocrats and thus their fortunes and status would rise.

This was the case with very, very, good British actresses between the late 1600’s and early 1800’s as well, and also pay writers and poets of common birth.

Somewhere in all of this are some interesting puzzles to figuring some aspects of our present day class system in America and Britain, I think. It’s at least something I’m finding interesting to think about.


A few musings, Sept 10 2011

Some random musings:

I learned more about human nature from a serendipitous and careful reading of interesting poetry and novels than from 4 semesters of undergrad psychology survey courses. History books are as useful as novels here, but there is something about the novel that lays bare human motives yearnings and dreams.

Aldous Huxleyonce wrote: “The poet is, etymologically, the maker. Like all makers, he requires a stock of raw materials — in his case, experience. Now experience is not a matter of having actually swum the Hellespont, or danced with the dervishes, or slept in a doss-house. It is a matter of sensibility and intuition, of seeing and hearing the significant things, of paying attention at the right moments, of understanding and co-ordinating.”

I think that it is this gathering of deep ‘experience‘ through perception, intuition, observation, and lived experiences, that makes literature, poetry and in particular the novel such an interesting and useful distillation of the human condition, and what makes studying other people’s poetry stories and novels a very important stage. You don’t have to drown in the crap, and you should read a bit distanced and removed – for every writer has an agenda on some level, and you should be able to fairly evaluate that agenda and weight it without being sucked into it by the force of their words alone – but at some level if you don’t read some literature you may find yourself at a disadvantage in dealing with other people.

If you read too much of it, you risk becoming a schmuck…

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The answer, my friend, is brushing your teeth from the right bowl

By Kemal

“The sun is high up in the sky and I’m in my car
Drifting down into the abattoir
Do you see what I see, dear?

..I wanted to be your Superman but I turned out such a jerk
I got the abattoir blues
I got the abattoir blues…”– Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, Abattoir Blues

“Consider now the valley
of Hinnom – the trucks
from the abattoir
skidding their loads,
the shameless body parts.
Ezekiel’s wheel
shall encompass all..” –Geoffrey Hill, in Ezekiel’s Wheel

The answer, my friend, is certainly not just “blowing with the wind” – unless you’re a leaf.

The answer is to know your hour, and what is due from you to it, and what it is giving to you; and to take what that hour offers you, and then to do what the hour demands. Being appropriate, in other words. Like, do you brush your teeth out a toilet bowl?


Consider the following:
I contend that you can tell a lot about the true greatness of a civilization by how noble, or insipid, they are in their decadence – right before the fall into senility. I contend, further, that a mistake people make, out of nostalgia, is to hearken back to that specific point; not realizing in their sincere, naive, and dangerous delusion that what they yearn for, out of nostalgia, was that civilization’s extreme illness. I contend, further, that one who is truly perceptive can discern the proper measure of a civilization’s true inner greatness by looking at its earlier, less grand, and primitive stages. The least sexy and glamorous parts of its history. I fear, however, that many people lack the imagination, insight, or discernment to do so, frankly.

Dead civilizations are best left moldering in their graves. Attempts to resurrect them simply creates revenants.

What in the world am I babbling ’bout here, you ask? Well consider the following.

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Song Lyrics, Poetry or Not?

Floating around the “poetosphere” I’m noticing a good deal of debate about the validity of song lyric, especially popular song lyric, and rap in particular, as poetry.

In my not-so humble opinion the debate – though well intentioned – often hits stupid levels, this is less the fault of the people on either side debating, and more the fault of our language itself.

The debate reflects a massive ambiguity, in meaning, in the terms being used: lyric, poetry and verse. This ambiguity, in our language, at this point of time, really is the problem. Also a forgetting of historical origins.

There is also the aspect of an elite literary culture forgetting the category of folk poetry, forgetting orality in favor of the literary.

To me, the Doors are poetic, Poor Righteous Teachers are poetic, Gangstar are poetic, Iron Maiden are poetic, Massive Attack are poetic, Ani DeFranco is poetic, Tracy Chapman is poetic, Henry Rollins era Black Flag is poetic.
Bathory, for gods sake, are poetic – whether I enjoy Bathory’s aesthetic or not is another matter.

None of this is to say that I necessarily like, or do not like, the poetry in the lyrics in question. It’s to point out what I see as a fact.

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