The Re-Enchantment of Poetry

Why poetry should be heard, not seen


in Blog


The proxy war in Syria between Russia and Turkey is only the latest of many clashes between these two great powers. The Russo-Turkish War of 1877-78 left its mark in Anglo-American literature and culture, when it inspired the British songwriter Percy French to write “Abdul Abulbul Amir,” a comic ballad about the fatal duel between an Ottoman soldier and a Russian soldier:

The sons of the Prophet are brave men and bold
And quite unaccustomed to fear,
But the bravest by far in the ranks of the Shah,
Was Abdul Abulbul Amir …

Now the heroes were plenty and well known to fame
In the troops that were led by the Czar,
And the bravest of these was a man by the name
Of Ivan Skavinsky Skavar.

Sung or recited, the ballad became a staple of vaudeville halls in Britain and college glee clubs in the United States. The late Thomas M. Disch told me he heard it recited at county fairs in the Midwest in the mid-20th century. MGM made a cartoon based on the ballad in 1941, called “Abdul the Bulbul Ameer,” which I remember having seen as a child in the 1960s. In the 1980s, the British actor and writer Stephen Fry portrayed the Russian count in a Whitbread beer advertisement on television.

The literary merit of “Abdul Abulbul Amir” is slight and perhaps nonexistent and its mix of “Orientalism” and ethnic stereotypes with violence would no doubt prompt a trigger warning on today’s politically-correct campuses, as well as result in the expulsion of any college students who performed it. I mention it only because it came to mind as I was reading a brilliant new essay by the poet and critic Dana Gioia, “Poetry as Enchantment.”

A century ago, Gioia observes:

Poetry was read most widely in newspapers, magazines, almanacs, and popular anthologies. A poet could become internationally famous through the publication of a single poem, as in the case of Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Raven.” Edwin Markham’s poem “The Man with the Hoe,” which dramatized the oppression of labor, was quickly reprinted in 10,000 newspapers and magazines. Laurence Binyon’s “For the Fallen” gave solace to millions of mourners for the dead of World War I. Critics may denigrate these poems, but the magnitude of their reception is indisputable. Poetry permeated the culture at all levels. It was read and recited by people of all classes. They may not have admired the same texts as Ezra Pound did, and they didn’t discuss verse in the manner of T.S. Eliot, but poetry played a part in their personal formation and continued to shape their imagination.

What happened? Gioia, formerly the head of the National Endowment of the Arts and now the Poet Laureate of California, first pondered this question in a famous — in some circles, notorious — essay he published in The Atlantic in May 1991, “Can Poetry Matter?” That essay began:

American Poetry now belongs to a subculture. No longer part of the mainstream of artistic and intellectual life, it has become the specialized occupation of a relatively small and isolated group. Little of the frenetic activity it generates ever reaches outside that closed group. As a class poets are not without cultural status. Like priests in a town of agnostics, they still command a certain residual prestige. But as individual artists they are almost invisible.

A quarter century later, Gioia writes: “I suspect one thing that hurt poetry was being too well taught.” While professing his admiration for them, Gioia blames the “New Critics” of the mid-20th century — “R.P. Blackmur, Allen Tate, Kenneth Burke, Cleanth Brooks, John Crowe Ransom, and Yvor Winters” — for inadvertently alienating the public by inspiring generations of teachers to treat poems as difficult texts to be deciphered like the Rosetta Stone, rather than as enjoyable scripts for oral performance. Poetry was less like dance or drama than like philology or philosophy.

“By the time I entered high school in 1965,” Gioia writes, “California teenagers were taught poetry mostly as close reading of a visual text on a printed page.” Instead of being asked to memorize and recite poems, he and his classmates “read and analyzed poems, line by line, as clusters of meaning on the page.”

A decade later, I had a similar experience in junior high school in Texas. Enough of the older poetic culture survived that we recited poems in one class; I chose Poe’s “The Raven.” But we also had textbooks that treated poems as subjects of close critical analysis.

Gioia concludes his case with a quote from Oscar Wilde: “There are two ways of disliking art. One is to dislike it. The other, to like it rationally.”

I am not entirely persuaded by Gioia that the blame for the alienation of the public should fall chiefly on modernist critics, rather than on the major modernist poets who preceded them and whose works the critics taught students to decipher. Near the beginning of “Poetry as Enchantment,” Gioia makes the point that in most societies, and our own until a few generations ago, poetry was chanted, not spoken or sung: “Verse was not spoken in a conversational manner, which was an early 20th century development. Poetic speech was always stylized — usually either chanted rhythmically or sung, sometimes even sung and danced in chorus.” For whatever reason, chanting audibly metrical verse came to seem vulgar and ludicrous in Anglo-American culture a century or so ago.

At the same time, silent reading replaced public declamation or public reading in family circles as the main way that poetry was experienced. And the invention of the typewriter made possible “free verse.” Typewriters enabled poets to see more or less at once how their poems would look on the published page. The result has been a century of poems created for the eye, not the ear.

In most, though not all, historic literary traditions, verse is distinguished from prose by the fact that the lines or stanzas are identified as such by recurrent patterns of sound (quantity, accent, rhyme, or assonance) which are independent of both the syntax and the meaning. This strict definition of verse excludes rhythmic prose like ancient Hebrew poetry and the free verse of Walt Whitman, in which the “verses” or lines are defined not by fixed, recurrent sound patterns, as in Greek hexameters or English heroic couplets, but rather by syntactical devices used in conventional prose as well, like parallelism.

Silent reading plus the typewriter permitted a new kind of poetry which was not verse, in the traditional sense — that is, composed of lines or stanzas identifiable to listeners. Most modern free verse is verse only to the eye. When I say that free verse is unconventionally-enjambed prose, I do not mean to be insulting. A good poem in prose is better than a bad poem in verse. But the distinction between verse and prose is real and important.

Here is the opening of a poem in verse, which as Gioia notes is the most frequently anthologized poem in English, William Blake’s “The Tyger,” written as prose:

“Tyger, Tyger, burning bright in the forests of the night, what immortal hand or eye could frame thy fearful symmetry?”

And here is a famous modern free verse poem by William Carlos Williams, in its entirety, also rewritten as prose on the page:

“So much depends upon a red wheel barrow glazed with rain water beside the white chickens.”

“The Tyger” is meant to be heard, not read, and its meter and rhymed line endings are audible no matter whether it is written in stanzas or as continuous prose. Someone who heard it and knew the conventions of published verse could easily reconstruct Blake’s stanza pattern. But nobody, reading the sentence from Williams above for the first time, would be likely to guess the way he arranged the lines on the page and dispensed with capitalization and punctuation:

so much depends

a red wheel

glazed with rain

beside the white

The impact of this poem depends chiefly on the surprising effects of breaks among lines printed on the page: “depends/upon,” “wheel/barrow,” “rain/water,” “white/chickens.” These enjambements can be seen, but they cannot be heard. Or rather, they cannot be heard unless the poem is read in a grotesque and exaggerated way, with long pauses indicating the breaks: “So much depends….upon…a red wheel…barrow…glazed with rain…water…beside the white…chickens.” A reading like this, with unexpected pauses, would bring to mind the bombastic, often-parodied style of the actor William Shatner or the annoying, deliberate distortion of songs by a stereotypical “lounge lizard” singer of Las Vegas.

I have been taught since I was a child that anybody who doubts that “The Red Wheel Barrow” is a great work of literature is a philistine, so I will stipulate that the damn thing is one of a few artistic masterpieces that should be chosen to represent human civilization in a time capsule should humanity ever be threatened with mass extinction. My point is simply that poems for the eye of this kind were not and could not have been composed and valued before the age of typewriters and silent reading.

Typewriters have given way to PCs, iPhones, and even computer voice dictation, but the college-educated still live mainly in a text-based world of silent reading. The college-educated, however, have always been a minority, even in the richest western societies, and a case can be made that the dominance of aural culture never ended for the working-class majorities in North America, Europe, and East Asia, to say nothing of the rest of the world. Americans may no longer recite “Abdul Abulbul Amir” or “Casey at the Bat” at rural county fairs, but, from its origins in American cities, rap — a modern version of chanted verse — has spread worldwide. The redefinition of “poetry” as mostly short, arbitrarily-enjambed prose passages published in little magazines by academics to be read by other academics may turn out to have been a fad of a century or so. If a post-print oral and aural culture of the kind predicted by Marshall McLuhan eventually does arise, then perhaps a kind of popular and accessible verse like that of Homeric bards or Norse skalds or modern rap and popular songs will evolve.

In the meantime, Gioia is surely right when he suggests, “Memorization and recitation should be restored as foundational techniques… Like song or dance, poetry needs to be experienced in performance before it can be fully understood.” William Blake would approve. •