Monday, December 10, 2007

My Favorite Modern Poet

"Modern poetry" suggests to many people innovations in technique--free verse instead of sonnets, unconventional capitalization, and the like. If I thought such innovations actually resulted in writing better poems, perhaps I would agree—but I don't and don't. To me, the interesting feature of modern poetry is content, not form.

Consider, for an example, Hymn to Breaking Strain, which takes as its central image the table of breaking strains in the back of an engineering handbook, a table which tells "what traffic wrecks macadam, what concrete should endure" but does not provide the equivalent information for human beings who, like materials, are sometimes subject to strains "too merciless to bear." That poem could not have been written very far into the past because no such tables existed then.

Or consider The Secret of the Machines and The Miracles. The central point of each poem is how miraculous the world of modern technology is, a point made by describing it in a poet's language.

You will find the Mauretania at the quay,
Till her captain turns the lever ‘neath his hand,
And the monstrous nine-decked city goes to sea.

I sent a message to my dear --
A thousand leagues and more to Her --
The dumb sea-levels thrilled to hear,
And Lost Atlantis bore to Her.

Behind my message hard I came,
And nigh had found a grave for me;
But that I launched of steel and flame
Did war against the wave for me.

Which may help to explain why my favorite modern poet is Rudyard Kipling.

To be fair, e.e. cummings, more conventionally thought of as modern for his stylistic quirks, has some modern content as well:

"Lenses extend unwish through curving wherewhen till unwish returns on its unself"

or the poem that uses driving a new car as a metaphor for making love to a virgin.

But Kipling is better.


Chris Hibbert said...

Thanks for the Kipling. I didn't know it was worth reading. E. E. Cummings is still my favorite, but maybe familiarity with Kipling will change that.

Cummings mostly talked about people and emotions. I liked your selection of Kipling; I'll look for more.

Anonymous said...

I had to read cummings in school. It made we want to die. Also, I clearly remember having to write a report on this "poem:"

Much depends upon a red wheelbarrow
Glazed with rain water
Beside the white chickens

That also made me want to die. Twice. To this day, I'm afraid to read any poetry because it might be so bad that I could finally just die. I am of the mind that that is a possible thing.

David Friedman said...

For Chris:

My favorite Kipling poem is probably "The Mary Gloster." It's a Browning monologue--but better, in my judgement, than any of Browning's.

And about people--in particular one dying person.

Chris Hibbert said...

Variable: I didn't recognize the poem you quoted, so I looked for a copy. Turns out it's not Cummings, it's William Carlos Williams. I don't see how I could write more than a sentence or two about that poem without knowing a lot more about Williams' habits. My condolences.

DF: I'll find a copy of "The Mary Gloster". Thanks.

Joshua Kronengold said...

Oh, yeah. Also, the reason I really like the the columns at St John the [s]perpetually unfinished[/s] Divine -- which mix christian apocalyptic imagery and pre-20th C motifs with 20th century apocalyptic imagery and motifs.

Kipling also effectivley uses modern motifs in Recessional, among others.

Anonymous said...

I think my favorite Kipling poem is The King. Particularly the point it turns on:

"Romance!" the season-tickets mourn,
"~He~ never ran to catch his train,
But passed with coach and guard and horn --
And left the local -- late again!"
Confound Romance! . . . And all unseen
Romance brought up the nine-fifteen.

But for those unfamiliar with the poem, the rest is all beautiful too - you get to see age after age with the same complaint, all shown to be false when you look more closely.

Anonymous said...

I like Kipling a lot, too, and I remember with pleasure the sf convention in San Diego where you and I walked out of a panel reciting "MacDonough's Song" to each other. I've memorized a number of Kipling's poems (scansion, rhyme, and regular form are great aids to memory, which might be why Memory is the mother of the Muses) and lines from many others stick with me. I've grown increasingly to admire "The Hymn of Breaking Strain," among other things for its sfnal feel.

I would note, though, that a lot of e. e. cummings' poems use very traditional forms; he was one of the major sonnet writers of the 20th century, for example.

Another poet who has some "modern" subject matter in your sense—one who writes almost nothing but free verse, though he did write the odd sonnet—is Robinson Jeffers. See for example "Nova," about what would happen if the sun went supercritical (okay, we now know it's not going to, but the idea that it might was a plausible scientific speculation when he wrote that poem, or "The Purse-Seine," about the technology of deep sea fishing and about the growth of mass societies. He's also one of the century's most libertarian poets, notably in his World War II antiwar volume Be Angry at the Sun, but earlier in "Shine, Perishing Republic":

While this America settles in the mold of its vulgarity, heavily thickening to empire,
And protest, only a bubble in the molten mass, pops out, sighing, and the mass hardens. . . .

[note, too, the use of metallurgical technology in the imagery]

Anonymous said...

Turns out it's not Cummings, it's William Carlos Williams. I don't see how I could write more than a sentence or two about that poem without knowing a lot more about Williams' habits.

The brief summary, I think, is that Williams is trying to do in that poem what Japanese poets did in haiku. That was a fairly common impulse in early 20th century verse; see for example Pound's "In a Station of the M├ętro"—

The apparition of these faces in the crowd:
Petals on a wet, black bough.

I'm pretty sure, by the way, that the Williams poem's first line is actually

So much depends upon

David Friedman said...

"I would note, though, that a lot of e. e. cummings' poems use very traditional forms; he was one of the major sonnet writers of the 20th century, for example."

One I like is:

it may not always be so;and i say
that if your lips,which i have loved,should touch
another's,and your dear strong fingers clutch
his heart,as mine in time not far away;
if on another's face your sweet hair lay
in such a silence as i know,or such
great writhing words as,uttering overmuch,
stand helplessly before the spirit at bay;

if this should be,i say if this should be-
you of my heart,send me a little word;
that i may go unto him,and take his hands,
saying,Accept all happiness from me.
Then shall i turn my face,and hear one bird
sing terribly afar in the lost lands.

Anonymous said...

In a very different mood, there is the still timely

"next to of course God America I
love you. land of the Pilgrims and so forth O
say can you see by the dawn's early my
country 'tis of centuries come and go
and are no more. what of it? we should worry.
in every language even deafanddumb
Thy sons acclaim Your glorious name by gorry
by jingo by gee by gosh by gum

"why talk of beauty what could be more beaut-
iful than those heroic happy dead
who rushed like lions to the roaring slaughter?
they did not stop to think they died instead.
then shall the voice of Liberty be mute?"
he spoke. and drank rapidly a glass of water