OPINION | ON BOOKS: Poetry not as simple as it seems

  • Tell him to be different
  • from other people
  • if it comes natural
  • and easy being different.
  • — Carl Sandburg, "A Father to His Son"

Most people can learn to do most things adequately.

Ben Hogan believed that, given the right instruction and kind of practice, any able-bodied person could learn to play golf well enough to shoot in the 70s. Tone-deaf people can learn to play guitar and piano if they learn the math that undergirds music theory. And we all can learn to do math — some of us just don't want to.

There are books that claim "anyone can sing." (But no one has to listen.) We can all learn to write well enough, and maybe the largest part of learning to write well is wanting to write well.

But there are some things that require an innate ability. (We are not all created equal.) It is easy enough to scribble down thoughts and prayers, but not everyone can be a poet. It requires a kind of strangeness that most of us cannot — and might not want to — acquire.

In 1927, the Modern Library produced "An Anthology of Modern American Poetry," which consisted of poems selected by the esteemed Conrad Aiken, who would go on to win a Pulitzer Prize and serve as United States Poet Laureate.

Aiken was a young man then, and we might assume his particular strangeness might have had something to do with the fact that when he was 11 years old, his father, a prominent eye surgeon in Savannah, Ga., murdered his mother and immediately committed suicide. Young Conrad discovered the bodies; he was then spirited off to live with relatives in Massachusetts, who sent him to boarding school in Concord and then on to Harvard, where he became lifelong friends with a kid from St. Louis named Thomas Stearns "T.S." Eliot.

Aiken's anthology is an idiosyncratic collection, choosing poems from only 15 poets, apologizing in his preface for "the absence of Mr. Carl Sandburg, Mr. Ezra Pound, and Mr. Edgar Lee Masters" from his collection, and blaming his "own critical perversity" for their exclusion.

"The work of these poets interests me in the mass, if I may put it so," Aiken writes, "but disappoints me in the item."

This is a disingenuous statement by Aiken; he had actually sought and been denied permission to re-publish the work of Pound and Masters. Sandburg's work, however, was not to Aiken's taste. Yet if Aiken is saying that Sandburg's work lacks a certain specificity or eye for freighted detail, I have to disagree. Sandburg lumbers and sweeps, but he also pricks the eye with sharp bits of beauty and irony. You have to wade through the earnestness, but those moments are there. (Consider: "There is a look of eyes fierce as a big Bethelem open/hearth furnace/or a little green-fire acetylene torch.")

It's interesting to look back at Aiken's selections from the remove of 95 years; the poets he does select are mostly pretty chalk. E.A. Robinson and Aiken himself contribute nine poems, there are eight from Robert Frost, seven from Amy Lowell and Hilda Doolittle (who wrote as "H.D."), six from his buddy Eliot, John Gould Fletcher and Maxwell Bodenheim. Vachel Lindsay contributes two; William Carlos Williams and Edna St. Vincent Millay, one each.

What's surprising is that Aiken selected a dozen poems by Alfred Kreymborg — a competent but not terribly interesting poet better remembered as a literary talent scout (he "discovered" Marianne Moore), peripheral art scene maker and National Master chess player — and two by Anna Hempstead Branch, but nothing from E.E. Cummings or Langston Hughes, who don't even get apologies.

Aiken concedes that his inclusion of 13 poems from Emily Dickinson doesn't quite meet the requirements of the assignment, as she was a 19th-century poet, "a contemporary of Walt Whitman."

"I include ... her work," he writes, "partly because she is not nearly so well-known as she deserves to be, and partly because it seems to me a wise thing to include, in an anthology of the contemporary, one poet of an earlier generation ... And in any case I cannot conceal my feeling that Emily Dickinson is one of the most remarkable of American poets, and that her poetry is perhaps the finest, by a woman, in the English language."

So basically Aiken is putting Dickinson in the book because he wants to — which might be the only real reason any of us do anything.


Full disclosure: Frank Thurmond bought me lunch the other day.

I meant to buy him lunch, but he insisted, and you know how it is, you don't want to arm-wrestle over checks at Senor Tequila. So I told him I'd get the next one.

I hadn't seen Frank for a while and missed the launch party for his latest book, a 30-page pamphlet titled "Remembrance and Other Poems." I've known Thurmond, who teaches literature, composition and screenwriting at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock, for a while; he's the author of one of the best unproduced screenplays I've ever read (he later turned it into the 2015 story collection "Ring of Five: A Novella") and an outstanding memoir, 2012's "Before I Sleep: A Memoir of Travel and Reconciliation," published by Little Rock's Et Alia Press (which, disclosure again, published one of my books).

I didn't know Frank wrote poetry, but I'm not surprised. He has a deep interest in the formal structures of literary craft and an absorbent mind, but he's also fairly practical. He told me he'd written most of the poems collected in the book as a kind of self-care — they are, as the title implies, largely about loss and the ways we reconcile ourselves to loss.

When he showed them to his UALR colleague Jeffrey Condran, he was looking for advice and feedback, not a publishing contract. Thurmond thought he might mock up his own chapbook and make it available via some print-on-demand service.

But Condran, who in addition to teaching at UALR is a co-founder of Braddock Avenue Books, a Pennsylvania-based literary press, offered to publish the poems. Nobody expects to get rich off the project, but that's not what poetry is for. I expect most of it is written because the poet is impelled by something other than the desire for cash, attention or critical approbation.

Still, the woods are full of real poets from unlikely places, and plenty of others who might interest us in the mass but disappoint us in the particular. The more comfortable a person is calling themself a poet, the more unlikely they are one.


In a recent Facebook post that could be called a poem, singer-songwriter Todd Snider remembered his relationship with the late Loretta Lynn, specifically his songwriting sessions with her. He remembers how she asked him to sing some of her lyrics:

  • so i just sang a melody without thinking
  • and she said that was it.
  • then she made up the rest
  • as if "we" were doing it.
  • i couldn't keep my mouth shut
  • but not cuz i was talking.
  • she said "always keep the poetry out"
  • she said they ruined lyrics.
  • swoon ...

I think we should keep the "poetry" out of poetry as well.

Because "poetry" has become a kind of euphemism for supercilious and self-aggrandizing advertisements for one's sensitivity to beauty and horror. Sensible newspapers reject it-- we can't have all the retirees sending in rhyming letters about their cats. We don't want reporters to start thinking that they're "writers."

Very quickly, "poetry" becomes a dismissive pejorative, a hard word to say without a protective layer of irony.

But we need unsentimental poetry that is the opposite of sentimental — which I'd define as the intention to evoke more feeling than what the portrayed situation calls for, to portray the would-be poet as a creature of heightened sensitivity, more alert to beauty, tragedy and emotional complication than regular folks.

Poetry, Miller Williams once told me (he may have been quoting John Ciardi) is a way of lying one's way to the truth. It is a way of compressing language to get the words to mean more than they say. Lots of people confuse attempts at expressing overwhelming feeling in superheated language for poetry. It's not. It's not spew. It is the opposite of the instinctual, emotive and earnest flow that some believe is the most authentic form of human expression. Poetry is slow talk, not babble.

You can't learn to do this in the way most people can learn to do most things, and I don't know that I'd call it a "gift." Maybe it's a knack — an innate quality for which one cannot take credit or be forgiven.

You see it in "Remembrance and Other Poems," particularly when Thurmond remembers how his own cruelty earned him a beating at the hands of a "hyperactive kid" he and his buddies had tormented in his collection's penultimate poem "The Lesson," or when he remembers his cousin, the scholar and writer Jon D. Cash, who died in a fire earlier this year, in "The Ruins."

Thurmond is given to playing with classical forms — he uses sonnet form in a couple of works, haiku, pantoum, American cinquain — and during our lunch he agreed with me that the rules actually serve the poet by imposing discipline and limiting choices. But his real strength is his understated, calm reserve — he harnesses the power of

  • ... the uncertain beat
  • of an open heart.


Nicole Bethune Winters has the knack as well; her first collection of poetry, "brackish," has recently been published by Finishing Line Press (finishinglinepress.com) and betrays a musical sensibility married to a graphic sense that's not surprising, given her background as a visual (she illustrated the book, with smartly inked line drawings evoking beachy pastorals) and ceramic artist.

(More disclosure here: Winters is the granddaughter of my friends, former U.S. Rep. Ed Bethune and his wife, Lana. Ed has written an exceptional memoir and two very good novels that I've had to recuse myself from writing about because we share an editor, my wife Karen. Winters also made my two favorite coffee mugs of all time, which you can order from omshakahandmade.com/collections/pottery, though the inventory looks pretty low at the moment.)

These are the free-verse observations of a young person operating (I'm guessing) almost instinctively, without the benefit (or burden) of the sort of formal academic rigor that comes naturally to English professors. Yet "brackish," which consists of 71 poems, only a couple of which are more than a few lines long, economically evokes a universe.

There's a lightness and intelligence to the poems, which play off the drawings and provide us with something like a soul map of the creator spirit:

  • like an osprey
  • I can nest
  • anywhere;
  • but
  • migration is
  • essential.

Winters sets a few words on a page with a jeweler's precision — "rouged shoulders/match the rubies my father/found in afghanistan," "the sun buries us in light," "beauty turns to poison" — and quotidian rituals like espresso-making can be elevated to rites. There's humor here, and enough darkness. The requisite strangeness is present, albeit mostly washed and blue-skied.

Email: pmartin@adgnewsroom.com