The Philistine

The Vice of Versers

The single most frequently anthologised poem in American high school English textbooks is “The Red Wheelbarrow” by William Carlos Williams. At a mere sixteen words (none of them running to more than two syllables), it is perhaps not beyond the reading comprehension or attention span of even the most addicted TikTok user. It also doesn’t hurt that Williams’s mother was Puerto Rican; there are diversity points in that Hispanic middle name. Yet few Americans (and fewer non-Americans) have any idea who Williams was, and none can recite his (very short) poem from memory. The poem has had no meaningful cultural influence other than a slew of YouTube videos offering to help students interpret the poem. It appears that American high school students can more readily spare five to ten minutes for poetry analysis than they can spare five to ten seconds to read a poem.

Other, longer poems that make up the school canon get even less of a look-in. Two roads diverged in a yellow wood, and because I could not stop for Death, there’s some corner of a foreign field that is forever England. Quoth the Raven: “Nevermore”. And that’s about all the poetry that anyone needs to know.

Salvatore Babones appears in every Quadrant.
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The truth is that no one really likes poetry. To be fair, some people do like writing poetry, but no one likes to read it—or (I shudder) listen to it. Australia has a poet laureate, but no one knows who it is. There are no poetry anthologies on the best-seller lists, unless you count Dr Seuss, or anacrostics. If anyone really liked poetry, students would be using ChatGPT to write their online dating profiles. Success coaches would teach their clients to memorise names and faces by putting them in verse. If not as ubiquitous as prose, poetry would at least be encountered more often than furniture assembly instructions, to say nothing of cooking recipes. Poems were once published in newspapers; now, if you want to find new poetry you have to look for it in such obscure corners of the publishing world as literary magazines, and even then you’ll mostly find it filling in the spaces between articles. Here at Quadrant, only Barry reads the poems, and no one knows for certain that he does. We only know that if he doesn’t, he’s not telling.

Of course, if you count song lyrics, then you can make a case that today’s youth are crazy for poetry. Such “poems” are more popular and more widely distributed than ever before. But is Taylor Swift really a poet? In defining “poetry”, no less an authority than Aristotle specifically excluded songs set to music. And it doesn’t take a professor of poetry to recognise that Bob Dylan, notwithstanding his recent endorsement by the Swedish Academy, is no Bobbie Burns. As for other recent Nobel Prize winners, few people have ever heard of them. Admittedly, Rudyard Kipling (the 1907 laureate) and W.B. Yeats (1923) are not so obscure as to have been completely forgotten, but Kipling is now remembered mostly on occasions when people want to condemn the British Empire, and Yeats for being Irish, which amounts to much the same thing. The 1948 Nobel Prize winner, T.S. Eliot, is rarely read unless assigned, his masterwork The Waste Land running to 3000 words and including phrases in Greek, Latin, French, German, Italian—and Sanskrit. With the rise and rise of woke academia, he is unlikely ever to be assigned again.

Modern poetry is as much a contradiction in terms as contemporary classical music, for poetry is the language of the past. “Achilles’ wrath, to Greece the direful spring / Of woes unnumber’d, heavenly goddess, sing!” sounds to us good enough for ancient Greece, but “The Donald’s wrath, to Dems the direful spring / Of woes unnumber’d, heavenly goddess, sing!” would never make it into Quadrant, even as filler at the bottom of “The Philistine”. The problem is that poetry cannot be self-consciously created by self-aware poets, and these days we’re all so very self-consciously self-aware. Any number of websites will teach you (“step by step”) how to write a poem, but the result will not be poetry in the sense that Aristotle understood the term, or indeed in the sense that anyone understands the term. No English poem will ever again attain the status of a Beowulf, or of Shakespeare’s sonnets, or of Keats’s “Ode to a Nightingale”. People may deny that, especially people who call themselves poets, but the problem doesn’t lie in their lack of skill. It lies in the zeitgeist.

Modernity is a moving target, and the problem with poetry isn’t so much that it’s stuck in the past, as that it’s stuck in a forgotten frame of mind. Epic poetry is emblematic of the heroism—or the barbarism—of a bygone era, take your pick. Lyric poetry reeks of sentimentality, or of pastoralism. And dramatic poetry of the Elizabethan variety is hardly poetry at all (sorry Shakespeare, but Aristotle was quite firm in his insistence that the use of metre doth not a poet make). Aristotle’s Poetics could reasonably be published in Quadrant, but modern-day poetry looks nothing like that of Homer or Aeschylus. This distinction was already present in Aristotle’s own time. Aristotle was born more than a century after Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides, and at a time when Homer had already receded into legend. Yet for Aristotle, Homer represented the poetic ideal. Aeschylus and Sophocles were great poets, though a tad too innovative for traditional good taste. And Euripides, though a great tragedian, was somewhat suspect as a poet, being like the philosopher himself a bit too modern to unironically accede to the spiritual demands of the poetic art.

For Aristotle as for us, the oldies were the goodies because the old poets lived in simpler times. No Greek blinked an eye when the literal gods joined in battle alongside ordinary mortals in Book 5 of the Iliad. Audiences listening to Beowulf would have cheered when the great Geat ripped off Grendel’s arm (well, everyone except the Swedes, but then “the men of the Swedelands / for truce or for truth trust I but little”). It’s the same situation for the classical Greek tragedies, which were first performed at the very dawn of literacy, and hearkened back to a much dimmer past. The much-loved lyric poetry of nineteenth-century England similarly tended to be set in a mythical world, whether ancient Greece, or the Orient, or (most mysterious of all) the countryside. One could no more imagine a serious poem being set in Charles Dickens’s London than in Woody Allen’s New York. Poetry is not an appropriate art form for our quotidian world of mobile apps, mortgage payments and fast-food lunch. Poetry is the natural language of the primitive mind.

Who says civilisation, says prose. Most of us living in today’s civilised (I use the term broadly) world take it for granted that it is easier to write prose than to write poetry because prose is supposed to be the printed form of ordinary speech. In fact, dictionaries typically make no distinction between written and spoken “prose”. But anyone who has ever visited an elementary school knows that children who can speak all too fluently often struggle to read a book out loud. And consider how difficult it is to represent everyday conversations in print. Only a very skilled novelist can write convincing dialogue, which to be believed must sit in a netherworld between the conventions of actual human speech and acceptable written prose. Speech comes naturally to us; prose does not. Proper prose is as highly stylised as proper poetry, and probably just as difficult to learn to write. If we all grew up being read, then reading, then writing poetry, we would probably write verse emails as readily (and as badly) as we now write prose ones.

In short, our latter-day minds are trained in prose … and in the era of cancel culture, that may create an opening for the return of poetry. Say something controversial in prose, and the cancellation clock starts ticking in Twitter time. Convey the same message in poetry, and you could potentially fly beneath the cancellation radar. To be sure, the online world of poetry publishing is itself a hotbed of cancel culture, but interestingly most of the cancelled poets seem to have been targeted for their unrelated prose writing, not for their poetry as such. Of course, politically incorrect poets run the risk of not being understood at all in today’s prose society, but that may be a risk worth taking. Consider it poetical samizdat. Anyway a whiff of danger could be just what’s needed to get the kids interested in reading poetry again. Maybe so much does depend upon a red wheelbarrow after all.

5 thoughts on “The Vice of Versers

  • 48header says:

    Why did the chicken cross the road?
    It got a free ride in a red wheelbarrow
    deep fried on the far side.

  • 48header says:


    Tolkien –

    “All that is gold does not glitter,
    not all who wander are lost;
    the old that is strong does not wither,
    deep roots are not touched by the frost.
    From the ashes a fire shall be woken,
    a light from the shadows shall spring;
    renewed shall be blade that was broken,
    the crownless again shall be king.”

  • Sean Wayman says:

    ‘Poetry is the natural language of the primitive mind.’

    I guess so, but only if one sees Dante, Chaucer, Milton, Shakespeare, Wordsworth, Whitman, and Dickinson as primitive minds. Personally, this seems deeply untrue to me. The opposite of the truth.

    I might also note that in this edition of ‘Quadrant’, we have Kevin Hart, one of the finest living poets in the language.

  • sirtony says:

    Two quotes from Dead Poet’s Society (1989 Robin Williams’ film):

    “We don’t read and write poetry because it’s cute. We read and write poetry because we are members of the human race, and the human race is filled with passion. Medicine, law, business, engineering, these are noble pursuits and necessary to sustain life. But poetry, beauty, romance, love, these are what we stay alive for.”

    “No matter what anybody tells you, words and ideas can change the world.”

  • Stephen Due says:

    When Homer was heard he was recited – it was a performance art. Today poetry is ‘taught’ and students are ecouraged to ‘say what it means’ – in prose. In other words, the purpose is subverted and the meaning destroyed by the very method used to ‘teach’ poetry. My mother was taught poetry by being made to hear it, to learn it by heart, and recite it.
    One community in which poetry still lives, in today’s prose-ridden world, is that of the more conservative Christian churches. There one regularly hears and recites (sings) excellent poetry. Much of the Bible is poetry, and so are all of the hymns. One of my favourite hymns, enjoyed for its robust simplicity, is ‘Let us Then With Gladsome Mind’ by the young John Milton. Many fine, poetic hymns of the Victorian era are still sung in churches – such as ‘Immortal, Invisible, God Only Wise’ and ‘Crown With Many Crowns’ – the latter memorably describing God as ‘the potentate of time’. Finally in those Anglican and Lutheran churches where the old prayer book is till in use, we have the privilege of reciting liturgical responses that are essentially a poetry in action – as are many of psalms still sung in the worship of God.
    The churches have a priceless heritage in living poetry. Rather like the American republic, the cultural treasure bequeathed to us by our ancestors will only be there for our children “if you can keep it”.

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