"It's [just] verse, not poetry."
This works as humor, similar to Truman Capote's assessment of Jack Kerouac's "spontaneous prose": "That's not writing, it's typewriting." When people say it in earnest, though, they cross a line into imbecility. Were Shakespeare's sonnets "not poetry"? Even if we apply this "standard" only to bad verse we're confronted with the question: "So William McGonigal's 'The Tay Bridge Disaster' is...prose?"
Some poetry is very bad. Hell, most of it is.
Deal with it.
"Poetry has to..."
It really doesn't matter how you finish this sentence; it belongs on this list. Has to...be profound? So humorous verse like Chaucer's "The Miller's Tale" and emotive entreaties like "Do Not Go Gentle into That Good Night" aren't poetry? Has to...be passionate? So didactic, mnemonic and most modern works aren't poetry? "Poetry has...to have a moral or political imperative?" Oh? Whose morality? What if, like most adults, I'm happy with my sense of morality and don't care to be lectured--subtly or otherwise--on the subject? Is poetry not me for? Should only Jehovah Witnessses and Mormon missionaries be allowed to write it? Do those politics have to be of the left or of the right? All that romantic and light verse isn't poetry?
There are plenty of candidates for the title of most idiotic article ever written on the subject of poetry. As you may know, that dubious honor has always been reserved for Edgar Allan Poe's "The Rationale of Verse", where he concluded, after many risably misguided attempts, that a section of Byron's "The Bride of Abydos", which any grade 6 graduate of his time understood was anapestic tetrameter, "refuses to be scanned".
Personally, I never expected anyone to match Poe's historic flameout. Imagine my surprise when I first read "Is It Poetry or Is It Verse?" by the Poetry Foundation's Chairman, John Barr. We need to bear in mind that this is coming from someone overseeing, among other initiatives, a magazine that, in its mission statement, expressed a "desire to print the best English verse".
In case you haven't been following my blog, I need to point out that I have been and remain an admirer of the Foundation, of "Poetry" magazine's editor, Christian Wiman, and of senior editor, Don Share. Even in regards to this article, I applaud the Foundation's willingness to retain it on their website as the monument to stupidity that it is. This isn't a personal attack on the John Barr we know today who has, as his 2006 essay, "American Poetry in the New Century", suggests, grown into the job and, we hope, distanced himself from the folly that follows.
The article begins with dreadful examples of verse by Wallace McRae, Tupac Shakur, and Jack Prelutsky. Is this really going to be his argument? Pick the worst examples of something, tar all of it with the same brush, and hope no one picks up on a tactic most eight-year-olds have outgrown? I understand that this may work for John Barr's political party but we're talking about people sufficiently literate to read poetry.
"Efforts to define the difference between poetry and verse...have been with us for a long time."
Not really. Verse is poetry with meter. It's in all the books. Look it up.
"Verse is often a term of disparagement in the poetry world..."
Not by those who study, read or write verse. Perhaps he should have spoken in terms of "the exclusively free verse and prose poetry communities".
"Somewhat defensively, the serious poetry crowd dismisses such work as verse, not poetry..."
No. They dismiss it as doggerel, a key word that Mr. Barr needed to add to his vocabulary.
"It also matters to the Poetry Foundation and organizations like it..."
Not one of which explicitly shares John's bias against verse. Doggerel? Certainly. Verse? No. (Granted, some magazines do, just as others discriminate against non-metrical poetry, but, fortunately and unsurprisingly, none of the top print publications--including "Poetry" magazine--share Mr. Barr's prejudice.)
I know what you're thinking: As other non-metrists have done, John was merely abducting the term "verse", collapsing it down to a subset of itself so that we'd have two words for lousy metered lines, "verse" and "doggerel", and no common term for competent metered lines. (I won't ask: "To what end?") What about the classics, most of which were metrical? He didn't acknowledge their existence but let's presume that he would call them "[metrical] poetry". In his idiolect, then, "poetry" must have been the good stuff, not to be confused with "verse/doggerel" and, we imagine, prose-with-linebreaks.
Sadly, this theory didn't survive the next turn in Mr. Barr's rabbit hole:
"Yes, there is plenty of poorly written verse out there, but there is also plenty of poorly written poetry..."
Huh? What, then, would be the difference between that "poorly written poetry" and "verse/doggerel" or, if unmetered, prose-with-linebreaks?
"To use verse as a pejorative term, then, is to lose the use of it as a true distinction."
Normally, we'd be saying "Duh!" here but, for John, this sounded like a revelation. Could it last?
Not a chance.
He proceeded with a complete misreading of some comments by George Orwell, overlooking the fact that Orwell used the terms "poetry" and "verse" more or less interchangeably, in sharp contrast to the point Barr was trying to make. Later, he misrepresented Orwell's comments by dropping the critical qualifier "good bad" before "Verse":
"Verse, as Orwell says, tells us something we already know—as often as not something we know we already know."
Perhaps John believed that we'd read this as carelessly as he wrote it. He then went from the moronic to the oxymoronic in saying that verse does not or can not address the same themes that every mode of communication (of which poetry and verse are subsets) can:
"Verse, I have come to think, is poetry written in pursuit of limited objectives: to entertain us with a joke or tall tale, to give us the inherent pleasures of meter and rhyme. It is not great art, nor is it trying to be."
I'm sure we all agree that Homer's "Iliad", which is, indeed, a "tall tale", is "not great art". Right?
"Writers of verse have done their job when they make lines that conform to the chosen meter..."
What versers was this guy reading?!?"
Oh, sorry, I forgot: Mother Goose, Dr. Seuss, Edgar Guest, Wallace McRae, Tupac Shakur, and Jack Prelutsky. Carry on, please.
Wait! You'd never guess what poet's name begins John's very next sentence: "Frost's"! You know, Robert Frost, the guy who apparently never wrote a line of poetry in his life.
Mr. Barr then confirmed our worst suspicions about his familiarity with excellent verse:
"Verse does not seek to know the unknown or to express the unexpected, nor does it undertake the risk of failure that both entail."
What versers was this guy reading?!?"
Sorry. I promise not to ask that question again. Back to Mr. Barr:
"'Serious' poetry, on the other hand, is..."
If you read "The 9 Dumbest Things Poets Say" you just know this statement ain't gonna end well. Sure enough...
“Serious” poetry, on the other hand, is written in pursuit of an open-ended goal."
If only he'd reviewed the Poetry Foundation's mission statement and stuck with:
"'Serious' poetry, on the other hand, is written in pursuit of the largest possible audience."
But I digress.
As with Orwell, he then quoted Frost, unaware that the latter was contradicting everything John himself was saying, from definition and premise to conclusion.
Undaunted, John continued:
"Verse tells us, finally, that all is well."
Yes, "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" and "Beans" are all about sunshine, lollipops and roses.
John then goes nuclear with:
"Verse does not ask us to change our lives. Poetry does."
My apologies for the interruption, but even with everything he'd written thus far we really should be warned when something this asinine is coming. It's hard to measure which contention is the sillier.
- "Verse does not ask us to change our lives." So, in none of their verses did Donne or Shakespeare ever encourage audiences to change their lives?
- "Poetry does." Asking people to change their lives is a defining element of poetry? So divorce papers, eviction notices and arrest warrants are poetry? Leaving aside verse, how does this separate poetry from prose in general, rhetoric in particular? How does this co-exist with John's position that poetry deals with "the unknown"? We're encouraged to "change our lives"...to what, exactly? To becoming philosopher wannabes with no sense of humor, logic, adventure, irony, romance, conviction, drama, or the beauty of the classics?
It gets better. He raises another brief, faint flicker of hope:
"At its best, verse can cross over into the realm of serious poetry."
His example? Lewis Carroll's "Jabberwocky".
I'm not making this up.
Fittingly, Mr. Barr ends with a statement of policy which his own "Poetry" editors have wisely ignored.
I rest my case.