Modern Poetry

Teaching Modern Poetry

If I were to teach a course in modern poetry today, I’d go about it something like this:

Most poems in today’s literary journals are interior monologues, in which the speaker muses in private, provocative, words and images about a subject, inviting the reader into an intimate, though tenuous and strangely distant, dialogue about what the words mean. Or they are collages of freely associated words of a similar tone and point of view. These poems are called lyrics.

Behind these poems dances a series of ideas about what makes a poem.

1. The pleasure of poetry arises when language is disjunctive, that is, when the informational expectations of grammatical clarity are violated, and openings or abysses in meaning are created.

2. Poetry is exciting when the reader must participate substantially, be a collaborator, in the effort to produce closure, understanding, or meaning out of the linguistic string on the page.

3. Poetry is even more exciting when readers’ attempts at understanding are thwarted, leaving them with a sense of mystery, the hint of a higher level of seriousness beyond what language is usually capable of expressing.

These ideas are not entirely new. The uproar over the publication of Wordsworth and Coleridge’s Lyrical Ballads in 1798 arose because of their application of these principles in ways new for their time, but very moderate now. The critics were angry because the spiritual openings in the poems were not clearly Christian, and the social openings suggested heroic or moral value for the lives of the poor and uneducated.

The title of their book showed they knew they were involved in a conflict. The word Ballad pointed toward the ancient tradition of rhymed, rhythmical narrative poems that told a clear understandable story, and the word Lyrical announced they were going to write in a more personal tone.

Over the 212 years since the publication of their volume, the Lyrical part of their title has triumphed over the Ballad. Today very few published poems tell a story; the narrative poem is hardly poetry these days.

I think a course with this prospectus would be very interesting, not to say exciting. What’s more, as you might have guessed, I have a personal stake in it, because I like to write story poems. I have written lyrics, and two of the poems I read at our meeting were of that genre.

But much of my work is narrative, as you can see from the examples that follow.


Up here rocks slide until they stick;

torn from the peak by wind and water,

they cling, slip, and stop,

abate their quarrel with gravity

in an angle of repose

not really restful.

My boot the unsettler,

two steps up and a gliss down;

thighs wear in the rock mass,

my body twists and tightens,

meshed in the world's long leveling.

In the cosmic scree, whether I climb or slip;

I will become the dust of a dead sphere,

stirred only by idle accidents

of exploded stars, where the unmasked sun

awaits his execution, and forgotten storms

whirl off into silence.

Still I will strive to the top,

where on a pinnacle I can face

the wearing wind, water, and failing sun,

and when I'm ready, turn,

join with cobbles, chips, flakes and grains

that sift eternally down,

not as time's trash, but a companion

who has just climbed a mountain.


Through tangled twigs he darts untouched,

brilliant wings neat, folded,

breast calm, unruffled,

2000 storm-thrashed miles from Costa Rica,

the intricate navigation performed

with thoughtless grace,

neither looking back nor counting the lost;

sings from a sunlit limb

enticing notes in the old key of need,

gleans crawling food from leaves and crevices,

eats without taste,

mates without love,

dies without regret;

returning south speeds into a building,

or falls in the sea,

wings beating the wild foam,

leaving the way he came,

always head first,

the end as bright and new as the beginning.

 The Windward Mark

 A late September front has whipped away

the last soft flesh of summer, northwest gusts

hammer the throbbing jib, and quick-chilled spray

stings through our slitted lids; among the whitecaps

we seek the windward mark, an orange target

lost in the surf ahead. The race is close;

metal masts skreek from strain, rails run awash,

wavetops batter the plunging bow; and rough

wakes of guile and desire spread in the sea.

Scattered by currents, weather, choice and chance,

we close with shouts and winch-whirs toward the turn

where we will all converge but never touch,

bitter by struggle, sweet by grace of sail,

like saints at war, fierce and inviolate.

Partly Cloudy

No raingear

that wets from inside out,

my small pack likely to be soaked without a cover,

I look unready for rain,

and so I am today by choice;

I carry bright hopes up the mountain,

let rain be an emergent occasion,

like a chance meeting with a slighted girlfriend:

not exactly looked for, but not allowed

to color my life forever with preparation

On the Zen Chair in the Delray Beach Museum

I wonder why the Museum Zen Room

needs a big meditation throne

such a light thing is Zen

more invisible than air

talks in cloudy circles

outside you can’t understand

inside you can’t explain

how can it live in a museum

so many predictable symmetries



explanatory signs

I carry mine in an open paper bag

to let it breathe

every once in a while I look in

if I don’t see anything

I know it’s still there.