Furry Writers' Guild Forum

The Problem With Poetry, Or, Why I Think You'd Like Narrative Poetry.

This resulting post comes from something I’ve been thinking over the last few months. Apologies about my lack of activity here on the Guild, as I simply have felt that I had nothing further to add. Anyway, working on Civilised Beasts proved an eye-opener in many respects; mostly in editing, but also in people’s attitudes and practices of poetry. The number one thing that troubled me, honestly, was the amount of people I’ve encountered who say they just don’t get poetry - that it does nothing for them.

I’d like to think myself as someone who can write both prose and poetry, so this opinion worries me. Poetry essentially does something that prose cannot; I’d argue that this is having beautiful expression and imagery at it’s forefront. Prose that does so is often bad because it’s flowery, yet poetry gets away with that because it’s what’s expected. The only problem is, I think we tend to do it too much.

When I was at university, I was lucky enough to attend a free talk by the poet Simon Armitage, who has produced translations of ‘Sir Gawain and the Green Knight’ and ‘The Death of Arthur’. I’ll be referring to those poems later, however, the point of his hour plus lecture was to highlight a simple point. In his belief, poetry loses itself if it has no geographical space on the map. By this he meant a poem needs to have a strong sense of place to ground the reader in, so that place acts as an anchor that allows you to understand the poem. From his experience teaching poetry at university in workshops, poems that have no sense of place turn out to be ethereal, nebulous, muddled, and somewhat undecipherable. There’s a good point there, as if you’re spending time scratching your head to try to figure out what the poem was about, you’re not able to enjoy the beauty of the words themselves. I think this is spot on, as even at university, I would skim across poems that simply meant spending more time trying to decipher what they meant simply, before then thinking about analysis of it.

Returning to what I’ve been up to, recently I’ve been working on a series of narrative poems, mirroring the epic style (only in this case they’re much shorter). At first I was worried about revisiting this old style, as academic opinion from articles I’d read resoundingly centred on the opinion that epic poetry firmly belongs in the bast. But from tweaking the style so it fits modernity more, such as removing the long lists of names and genealogies you get in them, or that the story must start ‘in the middle of things’, you end of with a streamlined version of what the poem already was - a narrative with a geographical foundation.

It’s no secret my favourite epic is Beowulf, and approaching it on its security of place, we can see that it certainly has that (as do all epics). The main action of Beowulf centres around Heorot, acting as a secure imagination for us to get our heads around. It also mirrors a lot of northern traditions in storytelling - it uses Kennings, which I’d argue are it’s chief poetic device, and like a lot of Norse verse, it does not rhyme. In fact, reading a translation or even listening to it being spoken in Anglo Saxon, you can see that it seeks to tell a story, as well as being poetic. So, I’d like to hear from you as to what your thoughts on narrative poetry are. Considering it has a sense of place, and has a plot progressing through it, is it something that would appeal to you?

Narrative poetry certainly has a place in literature, but quite honestly I have to admit that most of the examples I’ve tried to read have not managed to hold my attention.

Beowulf is a wonderful antique that deserves more attention than it gets, but it comes from a tradition of battle and weaponry that simply bores me. The poetry I most enjoy begins with Shakespeare and John Donne and reaches through some 20th century poets, including Robert Frost and T.S. Eliot. Chaucer might be the best example of the narrative form that I ever found tolerable, but he loses in translation to modern English and that makes him inaccessible to most readers. The same is probably true of Beowulf I think.

William Morris made huge efforts to revive the narrative form, and his The Earthly Paradise (three volumes!) has sat on my shelves for decades. I’ve never managed to get beyond a few pages, and I will not be asking to have it buried with me either. :stuck_out_tongue:

Yeah, I agree, and I think that comes mostly from translations of older works. As such, they’ll mirror conventions that are no longer appealing to us today. However, I do think with a bit of adaptation, the form can work today. I do believe there was one such work that was nominated for a Booker Prize (I think) in recent years, however I cannot recall the name or date.

Still, I think the best work that gives an indication of how the style can work is Simon Armitage’s Translation of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. I read it in my first year at university, as it was a really enjoyable read. Thematically, it was also interesting as it actually subverted expectations in terms of heroic themes, which made it in some ways an opposite of what we find in Beowulf.

That being said, I think the form primarily suits itself to fantasy. I’m currently using it as a way of creating tales within the story of a world I’m working on. I think it certainly can be used in other ways, it just requires more adaptation and flexibility in thinking.

Do you consider Tennyson’s Idylls of the King to be narrative? Just trying to find the boundary of what we’re discussing.

As for Sir Gawain, I managed to grasp the original, but like Chaucer I think it doesn’t reach most modern readers in that form. I don’t know the translation you mention, though I think Tolkien’s version is pretty decent.

Certainly it’s true that many people have difficulty with poetry as a whole. Partly that’s because they hated it in school, partly because “modern” poetry tends to resemble “modern” art that elicits responses of “What is it?” or “I don’t get it” from casual viewers.

Poetry appreciation requires a certain love of language for its own sake. That in turn seems to fit into cultures that move more slowly and have less attention deficit disorder than our own world of television, comic books, and whizbang motion pictures. (Not to mention the bang-bang of video gaming.) I have pretty much resigned myself to enjoy my favorites and just not bring them up for discussion. :slight_smile:

Gosh, lucky you to attend a lecture by Simon Armitage!

I have fairly old-fashioned tastes when it comes to poetry (I love Kipling and Tennyson). My favourite poems often rhyme, but that’s not necessary; I just want a demonstration that the poet isn’t just throwing words together with random line breaks.

I do like poetry that tells a story, especially if it has a nice ‘aha!’ moment at the end; I’m thinking of Ozymandias, or Abou ben Adhem (may his tribe increase). These are both short, snappy poems, however; I don’t always take to lengthy epics.

My boyfriend recently made the claim that he didn’t get poetry and it didn’t do anything for him. I took him through Anthem for Doomed Youth and why it’s clever, and I think I’ve begun to change his mind…

Studying Gray’s “Elegy” was a high point of my college career. There’s just something about deeply meaningful poetry done right that in certain unnameable ways artistically transcends anything else I’ve ever experienced in terms of the written word. And yet, I never seek out and read the stuff anymore.(Certainly I lack the talent to write it). Indeed, I tend to actively avoid the stuff to the point that, presented with a poem in the midst of a bunch of short stories, I’ll tend to skip over it entirely and leave the thing unread. Why? In short…

…because work of “Elegy’s” quality is so extraordinarily rare, badly done dreck is so disappointingly common, and life is so terribly short. It’s perhaps petty or even shortsighted of me to throw out the baby with the bath water, but I think understandable given the prevailing circumstances.

Oh my. There are lots of poems at a similar quality level to the Elegy and they can easily be found by letting someone with an academic background make a selection for you (as is often done with books from university presses.)

I agree that there’s a lot of second (third, fourth, and lower) rate poetry around, but my approach is to read enough of any poem I find just to make sure. I also have a longish list of well known poets whose work I will read and revisit.

I can also recommend The Writers’ Almanac, which is a daily radio spot by Garrison Keillor. You can hear it on many PBS stations, or get it on the web or as a podcast. Keillor selects and reads one short poem each day. He also comments on literary anniversaries that take place on that day. The whole thing lasts about five minutes and is almost always worthwhile.

I would welcome the opportunity to read more stuff at “Elegy”'s level; is there anything you specifically recommend? Preferably something I can get on Kindle? Thanks in advance!

For a start, you might look for any collection edited by Arthur Quiller-Couch and published by Oxford University Press. Most of those are in the public domain now and should be available for free or at a pretty nominal cost.

An excellent online resource would be Bartleby, where you can find the complete contents of these and other great anthologies right on the web. Browsing there could help you choose a collection that suits your preferences. Another good online resource is The Poetry Foundation, though it tends to be much more contemporary and I suspect that (like myself) you would prefer more traditional material.

Since you liked Thomas Gray, I’d suggest Shakespeare’s sonnets. I also like the poetry of Thomas Hardy (who is better known for his novels,) Rudyard Kipling, Vachel Lindsay, Robert Frost, and John Donne. British poet T. S. Eliot ranges from witty to profound as well. Another of my all-time favorites is Edward FitzGerald’s translation of Omar’s Rubaiyat.

For something more American and very etherial, Gerard Manley Hopkins would be a good start. From Canada, there’s poet laureate Robert W. Service, well known for “The Cremation of Sam McGee” which is a comic poem, but he also wrote some long and serious works such as “Death in the Arctic.” And let’s not leave out Australia, with poets Henry Lawson and Banjo Patterson.

I could go on for a long time, but maybe that’s enough to help you find something.

Thank you!

Quite a couple of things to reply back too. I haven’t read that work of Tennyson’s, so I can’t say. On work I have read, but wouldn’t hold up as a good example at all, is Shelley’s ‘Prometheus Unbound’, which despite being a great work of poetry, was tedious to read. Pretty good example of sacrificing clarity for poetic devices.

When it comes to translation, I lie on the side that translation is something we just have to accept and deal with. I encountered even thinking that we’re always translating what we read, in that we take our own interpretations from things, even when it’s the same language. Moving from that aside, I do think it is possible to have modern translations that keep intact the essence, less say of the original. It’s good that you mention Chaucer at the same time, as I’ve read his work in the original English, and it was an experience. Sure, a purist would argue that I don’t know enough, but the time spent trying to understand it didn’t help bring it up as something that would fit today. After all, the modern reader does have enough knowledge to read Chaucer in the original. What I’m also trying to say that it’s not just language that is translated, but also time - something from the past is translated so it fits in our modern day.

As for your last two points, I agree. Poetry is something that we’re not entirely equipped to appreciate when we’re young, and that can be what puts many off literature for good. What I do find disappointing though, is that it’s not something many try again when they are adults. We seem to have our opinions formed, and then stick to them. I’d argue for some exploration and open-mindedness, as after all, we’d often reply to a dislike of books saying that “It’s because you haven’t found one you like.” I’d say the same for poetry.

Aha, nice! As I was saying in my reply to Altivo, I think a dislike of poetry should be treated the same as a dislike of books. You know, where we say that the person simply hasn’t found the book they like. There are tonnes of poems and poets out there!

I’ll stop my spam, but seeing the responses between Altivo and Rabbit makes me so happy! I do agree, there is a lot of poor poetry around (I love sometimes going and reading emo poetry on Deviantart to cringe). However, there’s good stuff too. It just takes the will to explore the field like we do with books. =)

Not spam at all, Tele. This is an excellent topic and conversation.

I credit my love of poetry to my paternal grandmother as well as my father. Dad’s mother was born in 1872, 77 years old when I was born and well past 80 at the time of my earliest memory of her. She lived just down the street from us, so I saw her often, and she loved poetry. Most of the books on her bookshelves were poetry, and she would sit and read to me for hours. By the time I was in school, I had already mastered the basics of reading so teachers gave me extra things to read while they were working with the other kids. A lot of that was children’s poetry as well.

When Grandma passed at age 89, her books ended up at our house and I continued to read them right up through high school. I still have a few, and my younger brother passed some more of them back to me this last summer.

Children may not grasp the depths and multiple meanings of poetry, but they can certainly be enchanted by the sounds and words. I ran around reciting lines from Robert Louis Stevenson, Emily Dickinson, James Whitcomb Riley, and Eugene Field throughout my childhood. By fourth grade I was trying to write my own.

Early exposure to poetry is not a bad thing. I think the problem may lie in trying to over-analyze it with school children, rather than just letting them enjoy it. Answer their questions, but don’t demand that they break down the meter or rhyme schemes or explicate the poet’s intentions.

Those are some pretty familiar names, and it’s great to hear that you had a positive start with them. I think that’s the key - if it’s introduced in such a way, it’s something that can be enjoyed.

Certainly! Introducing poetry to a class full of children never went well, and I remember well enough from my own school days that it wasn’t met very well for a number of reasons. Considering analysis of poetry, and literature in general was actively mocked at university, I agree with your opinion here. Academics actively slated the prescriptive methods of ‘analysis’ I was taught at school. Pointing out technical devices was pretty much a tick list, and didn’t exactly engage with the piece, and ultimately it was just boring. Especially considering the subject was compulsory up to 16, it didn’t exactly help matters. I could go on for a while about how poorly the curriculum deals with literature.

I was in my local library yesterday evening, looking for books on several subjects, and came across two that I brought home, along with two other books. One is obviously narrative poetry, C.S.Lewis, Narrative Poems, edited by Walter Hooper, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, New York, 1969. It contains four big poems, Dymer, Launcelot, The Nameless Isle, and The Queen of Drum . Here’s a brief example, from Dymer, Canto I, 6 :

At Dymer’s birth no comets scared the nation,
The public creche engulfed him with the rest,
And twenty separate Boards of Education
Closed round him. He passed through every test,
Was vaccinated, numbered, washed and dressed,
Proctored, inspected, whipt, examined weekly,
And for some nineteen years he bore it meekly.

Before acquiring this book all I knew of C.S. Lewis was that he was the author of Chronicles of Narnia, which I have not read but I enjoyed the movie. (Sorry to be such a Phillistine.) Fortunately I do read prefaces to most books and the one in this explained a great deal about Lewis and thus shed some light on his Dymer character. I’m just getting started reading this book.

The other book contains mostly narrative poetry, as far as I can tell, such as this example, from The Saga of Borax Bill:

Old Borax Bill was a tough old pill,
An old case-hardened sinner
Who went his ways in the early days,
An old time long-line skinner.

He knew more schemes for jerk-line teams,
Than anyone of his time ;
He could curse by rote and swear by note,
To music, rhythm and rhyme.

This is from Songs of the Sage, The Cowboy Poetry of Curley Fletcher, edited and with a preface by Hal Cannon, Gibbs Smith publisher, Layton, Utah, 1986.

I’ve now read the Wikipedia on C.S. Lewis, and I already know a fair amount about cowboy poetry, so I feel that I can read both these books of poetry with some confidence of my ability to grasp the stories. I think that is a crucial point for a reader of narrative poetry. I think it’s necessary for the reader to have at least a general idea of the story that is expressed in narrative poetry, especially epic narrative poetry. If you just put an epic narrative in front of an unskilled reader and expect them to grasp the story, I believe they can get bogged down when they don’t understand much about the central figure and the figures with which he/she interacts. I find that to be true of prose also. I hope you can see how this relates to your finding where you wrote, “The number one thing that troubled me, honestly, was the amount of people I’ve encountered who say they just don’t get poetry - that it does nothing for them.” I believe many people don’t get poetry, or at least some kinds of poetry, because they don’t have an adequate knowledge base to begin with. In that way, modern poetry is like other modern arts–the viewer/reader actually needs some education in the art form to understand what they are looking at. The Lewis and Fletcher poems above have the advantage of being written in easy rhyme. They only become difficult if the reader doesn’t know some of the specific terms and references, such as “long-line skinner” (a mule team driver, a teamster transporting the mineral borax mined in California’s Death Valley) in Saga of Borax Bill. And I don’t mean to impugn the education establishments. Much poetry comes to us today from nineteenth and twentieth century culture that is quickly fading. I’m not surprised to see young readers struggle with poetry when video games, YouTube, FA, whatever is so easy to engage.