* The opinions in this article have been deprecated; see notes below.

Don't shoot until you see the yellow of their post-it notes! Let us discuss the writing of poetry. Here is an excerpt from a woefully typical modern-day poem.

A card table in the library stands ready To receive the puzzle which keeps never coming. Daylight shines in or lamplight down Upon the tense oasis of green felt. Full of unfulfillment, life goes on, Mirage arisen from time's trickling sands Or fallen piecemeal into place: German lesson, picnic, see-saw, walk With the collie who 'did everything but talk' — Sour windfalls of the orchard back of us.

It is pieces like these that have pretty well killed popular taste for poetry. Those were the opening lines from the aptly-titled Lost in Translation by James Merril, and they demonstrate very well what is wrong with most contemporary efforts at English poetry: randomness.

The appeal of poetry lies in expressing an idea within the boundaries of some kind of pattern, typically a rhyming or metrical pattern. To the degree that a poem lacks at least one easily discernible pattern, it will fail to be engaging, entertaining, and inspiring. The pattern forces the idea to be expressed efficiently and, may we say, musically:

The Moving Finger writes; and, having writ, Moves on: nor all your Piety nor Wit Shall lure it back to cancel half a Line Nor all your Tears wash out a Word of it.

Both poems are vivid, and potentially full of implication; But where Merril’s poem prances awkwardly from vagueness to vagueness, Fitzgerald gives us something to chew on, an idea made powerful by the discipline of its rhyme and metre. Take note: We are not merely saying we prefer Fitzgerald to Merril. We are differentiating between real poetry and fake poetry.

In modern poems such as Merril’s, random surreality carries the day, and is given the title of Inspired Art. This trend is largely a feature of academia, a self-contained world where tasselled charlatans write material for each other and turn up their noses at the real world. Even many who call themselves ‘outsider’ artists achieve what fame they can by imitating their academic counterparts. This is all fine and good, except that, by and large, all this uber-progressiveness is edging out forms of poetry that require real creative ability, the ability to inspire the Common Man.

Anyone with an ear towards the artistic community cannot fail to note how disparagingly they speak of ‘public taste.’ Anything accessible and inspiring to the common man is hauled away in their wide net of ‘mass-marketing.’ To be sure, there is a lot of cheap, unoriginal work out there, but it at least does not make any claim of being more than what it is. What if a chef in a resturaunt should cook a fine steak? Is he “pandering to the interests of the public,” merely because his creations are both accepted and widely applauded? Should he abandon established forms and cook something that tastes bad so he can claim to be ‘progressive’ and ‘modern’?

And so the fellow on the street, encountering a poem that only its author could possibly understand, is told that this is Real Art, and is made to think that it is above him. Nothing could be further from the truth; he really cannot understand it because it is below him. The author made no effort to reach up towards the mind of You or Me, to crystallize his vague ideas in a way that would be even understandable, let alone convincing. Proponents of things like this give very elaborate explanations for why their work is so stiflingly self-absorbed, discontinuous, and random; but mark our words: what they are really saying is, “We want to be hailed as geniuses without possessing the talent or expending the effort.”


Like thousands, I took just pride and more than just, struck matches that brought my blood to a boil; I memorized the tricks to set the river on fire— somehow never wrote something to go back to.

Lowell might have had something interesting to say in there somewhere, something to suggest that he had something worth listening to, but we search in vain to find it. It combines the boredom of prose with the awkwardness of bad poetry, and no one can stand to read much of it. But find a writer who really can use English to its best effect, and the light shines in!

In a theme where the thoughts have a pedant strut, In a changing quarrel of 'Ayes' and 'Noes' In a starched procession of 'If' and 'But,' There is place and enough for the pains of prose;— But whenever a soft glance softer glows, And the light-hours dance to the trysting-time, And the secret is told "that nobody knows," Then hey!—for the ripple of laughing rhyme!         (—Austin Dobson.)

We concern ourselves with English poetry, since that is more along our line of specialty, but any reader can recall other areas of art, such as music and architecture, where the same problem applies. Common man, do not believe all who call themselves Artists. The inner witness of the spirit is the only test of art—which is as much as to say, Beauty is in the Eye of the Beholder.


Ten years after posting this, my views on poetry had changed. In the Sep 2013 episode of Howell Creek Radio, I had this to say about the original article:

For example, there’s this short essay on my website from 2003 called Art Fare For the Common Man, in which 22-year old me basically argues (not very well, I now see) that “modern” poetry — meaning pretty much anything after the 1800s that doesn’t rhyme — is all of poor quality because modern poets don’t put enough effort into their poems to make them appeal to normal people on first reading. 22-year old me believes this pretty strongly; 32-year old me finds all kinds of problems with that essay.

I tried to explain the substance of my new position in a chapter of Noise of Creation (‘0019. Non-Imitation’):

You asked me once about “modern poetry,” and whether I had any favourite modern poets, and by some delightful mental process each of us understood modern to mean both “doesn’t rhyme” and “written during my lifetime.”

Because of course “rhyming” is a traditional form, and one meaning of “modern” has to do with departing from tradition.

I didn’t know how to explain modern poetry to you except to explain that novelty is the essence of true communication… Whenever someone says something and you truly get it — when you hear it in your head exactly the way they do — it is always unprecedented. It’s like seeing a new color, or tasting a flavour you’ve never encountered. Tradition is the opposite of communication. Any tradition becomes a coating in your mouth; and poets, being into real communication, have a positive need for invention. At some point it becomes less a question of particular forms and structures, and more a hunt for the taste of that chemical reaction on your tongue.

Joel (Author) ·