The Top Five Poetry Fallacies, Debunked
Myths about Subject Matter, the Relevance of Rhyme, and More
by Marilyn L. Taylor
Myths about Subject Matter, the Relevance of Rhyme, and More
by Marilyn L. Taylor
Consider. for a moment, the “Urban Legend.” Possibly the predecessor of what might now be called “fake news,” the phenomenon has a history of its own that reaches back for decades. And unless you are just emerging from an extended stay under a rock, you know what they are, but just in case, here’s a generally accepted definition: According to WordNet.com, urban legends are “stories that appear mysteriously and spread spontaneously in various forms, and are usually false. They contain elements of humor or horror, and are popularly believed to be true.” Most of them are set against a backdrop of contemporary urban culture-- like that famous but completely erroneous one about the unfortunate soul—usually the friend-of-a-friend-of-a-friend-- who finds the drowned mouse in the bottom of his soft-drink bottle. Or your neighbor’s roommate’s cousin and the ferocious ankle-slasher who lurks under parked cars at the mall.
A slew of legends haunt the world of contemporary poetry as well, although in somewhat less lurid form—but they can be just as unreliable and full of holes as the urban variety flooding the Internet. I’d therefore like to devote this essay to poking a few holes in what I consider to be the most misleading of these— the ones that continue to grow exponentially, spreading their false shadow over our poetry classes and workshops, indoctrinating good poets with bogus warnings and pronouncements. Worst of all, they tend to encourage a subculture of self-appointed Poetry Soothsayers who are always on the lookout for new recruits.
In taking up this challenge, I’m fully aware that some of these legends are based upon a grain or two of truth. I’m also aware that I’ll never convince some True Believers that these warnings might be false, or at least partially so. But I’ve decided to stick my neck out anyway. So here goes.
Legend No. 1. A truly good poem must have a serious subject. A light poem by its very nature tends to be dispensable.
Although it’s true that the majority of important poems in English come up on the dark side, there are countless cheerful ones that have achieved immortality as well. Think, for example, of Walt Whitman:
I hear America singing, the varied carols I hear,
Those of mechanics--each one singing his, as it should be, blithe and strong,
The carpenter singing his, as he measures his plank or beam. . .
And on he goes from there, honoring the sheer joy of everyday labor.
Then there’s Robert Frost’s immortal “The Road Less Travelled” which ends in its own wonderfully upbeat way:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I,
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.
Consider, too, this delightful pair of lines by contemporary poet Barbara Crooker, from her poem called “Strewn”:
Every dog within fifty miles is off-leash, running
for the sheer dopey joy of it. . .
Not to mention Elizabeth Bishop’s surge of jubilation at the end of her famous narrative, “The Fish”:
. . . everything
was rainbow, rainbow, rainbow!
And I let the fish go.
The message here is pretty obvious. If there’s something joyful, celebratory, exhilarating, or hopeful that you’ve been wanting to write a poem about, then do it. And if anyone in your workshop or critique group tells you not to because all good poems are sad poems, ignore them. They are dead wrong.
Legend No. 2: Free verse is no more than cut-up prose, and the only good poem is a rhymed poem.
Of course there is a special kind of music in rhymed poetry that free verse doesn’t project. But free verse (i.e. unrhymed, unmetered poetry) is still awash in a music of its own, even if it requires a slightly keener, more attentive ear to hear it. Rhymed poetry calls the reader’s attention to the end of every line, as in William Blake’s “The Tyger”:
Tyger, Tyger, burning bright
In the forests of the night. . .
In free verse the musicality might be a little less evident, but it’s still there, and nearly impossible to miss. To prove it, read this snippet by D,H. Lawrence’s “Gloire de Dijon,” preferably out loud:
In the window full of sunlight
Concentrates her golden shadow
Fold on fold, until it glows
as mellow as the glory roses. . .
And while you’re at it, listen to this poem by Wallace Stevens’ “The Load of Sugar Cane” (paying special attention to the astonishing sound-effects of the 3rd stanza):
The going of the glade-boat
Is like water flowing;
Like water flowing
Through the green saw-grass,
Under the rainbows;
Under the rainbows
That are like birds,
While the wind still whistles
As kildeer do,
When they rise
At the red turban
Of the boatman.
Free verse poems like these have “no music”? "Well, anyone who thinks so might seriously consider getting tested for a hearing aid.”
Legend No. 3: Rhymed poetry is a throwback; nobody writes it anymore.
Nobody, that is, except a throng of our finest contemporary poets, including Maxine Kumin in “Morning Swim”:
Into my empty head there come
a cotton beach, a dock wherefrom
I set out, oily and nude
through mist, in chilly solitude. . .
And Thomas Lux in “All the Slaves”:
All the slaves within me
are tired or nearly dead.
They won’t work for money,
not for a slice of bread. . .
And former U.S. Poet Laureate W.S. Merwin in "River Sound Remembered”:
From having listened absently but for so long
It will be the seethe and drag of the river
That I will hear longer than any mortal song. . .
Of course, we can’t forget other “nobodies” such as Ted Kooser, A.E. Stallings, Thom Gunn, Marilyn Nelson, Richard Wilbur, Molly Peacock, Gary Snyder-- all of whom have written relevantly and splendidly in rhyme.
Legend No. 4: “Poetic license” means grammar doesn’t matter.
It’s true that the rules of grammar loosen up to large extent in poetry; but to say that grammar doesn’t matter is asking for trouble. Eliminating a comma or a period is one thing (and often the line-break does a fine job substituting for these), but a poem that includes outright grammatical errors is quite another. If Elizabeth Barrett Browning, for instance, had begun her most famous poem with the words, How does I love thee? , she’d never have gotten away with it.
On the other hand, no one would dream of red-penciling Frank O’Hara’s punctuation in his poem of grief at the death of singer Billie Holiday:
It is 12:20 in New York a Friday
three days after Bastille day, yes
it is 1959 and I go get a shoeshine. . .
-- would they? And the same is certainly true of Jim Hall’s outrageous spellings in his hilarious poem, “Maybe Dats Your Pwoblem Too”:
All my pwoblems,
who knows, maybe evwybody’s pwoblems
is due to da fact, due to da awful twuth
dat I am SPIDERMAN. . .
I would be the first to agree that there certainly is a such a thing as poetic license. With poetry, far more than with prose, grammatical and even spelling conventions can be pushed and stretched—sometimes quite a bit. But actual errors? Another issue entirely, and guaranteed to get your poem nowhere.
Legend No. 5: Poems are basically autobiographical.
If this myth had legs, it would mean that I had somehow visited ancient Greece, which I haven’t; that I have a daughter, which I don’t; that I‘m capable of playing a scratch game of golf, which I’m not; and that I live in a tree, which perhaps I wish I did sometimes, but I don’t. But I’ve written poems about every single one of these falsehoods. A big misunderstanding on the part of some readers of poetry, as well as a few poets, involves the misconception that a poem must literally reflect the actual experiences and emotions of either the poem’s speaker or its central character. Untrue! If this were the case, we might have a very difficult time explaining Billy Collins’ poem titled “Nostalgia”—which begins:
Remember the 1340s? We were doing a dance called the Catapult.. .
Or Charles Simic’s “I was stolen. . .”
I was stolen by the gypsies. My parents stole
me right back. Then the gypsies stole me again. . .
Of course I’m aware that this myth is rarely taken at face value. But even so, it remains a big mistake to confront somebody else’s poem and pronounce it autobiographical, no matter how many first-person pronouns it contains. If it really is autobiographical, that’s fine—but depending upon the poet’s motive for writing it in the first place, any ties it has to the historical truth should be viewed as pure speculation.
There are plenty of additional legends infiltrating the world of poetry, but for now I would urge you to be skeptical of any and all pronouncements about poems that contain the word “should”—unless it’s immediately followed by the phrase “make some kind of sense.” That, of course, is not a legend at all, but the whole idea.
Editor's Note: If you would like to write to Marilyn about this article, her email address is: firstname.lastname@example.org
©2017 Marilyn L. Taylor