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Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
March 31, 2011

Every Day Is Special

First appeared in print in The Rhinoceros Times, Greensboro, NC.

What Is Good Poetry, and When Did It Die?

April has long been designated as "Poetry Month," though I imagine this passes most people by without attracting any more attention than if it were designated Popsicle Month.

This is no surprise: Academic-literary poetry has long since become mostly encrypted and anti-poetic, which is how it's generally taught in the public schools.

Teachers these days don't even try to teach meter and rhyme; usually, if they try to get kids to create poetry at all, they resort to haiku, a poetic form designed for another language, without any particular grace in English; or "slam poetry" that is little more than an unconstructed gush of emotion -- rather as if throwing up were an art form.

For instance, take the book The Best American Poetry 2010, edited by Amy Gerstler. The book is an inadvertent confession that poetry in America, at least in elite circles, has been dead so long that nobody can even identify the body.

Page after page is devoted to "prose poems," which are merely extravagant, narcissistic cascades of words with no music or structure to link them to what the words "poetry" and "verse" actually mean. Or meant, anyway.

Even the poems that can be read by ordinary English-speakers without a decoder ring show little sense of meter or even what a poetic line is for.

I think of this book, not as the tombstone of contemporary poetry, but rather as a cenotaph, because almost nobody in this book seems even to know what poetry was before it died.

This book is everything you hated about poetry in English class.

I publish a poetry magazine online, called StrongVerse. I recently took over as editor, and I have to say that I've found a number of very strong poets and many others who show great promise.

But of the hundreds of submissions I've read, I find few who understand the craft of versification. The cadences of traditional poetry are rarely present, and as for rhyme -- well, visit http://www.strongverse.org and see for yourself (the magazine is free). The number of poets there who use rhyme is very, very small.

I get plenty of rhyming submissions, but almost all of them are wretched, with line after line that exists only because the last word rhymes with something elsewhere in the "poem." These "poets" think that rhyme is the goal, so that achieving a rhyme is enough; the line is done, they can move on.

The truth is that rhyme is a tool that gives great power to the poet. If it's yoked with insightful ideas, apt diction, and the music of a well-controlled cadence, you can achieve something fine. But rhyme in itself is merely annoying, if that's all you've got.

A few months ago, though, I ran across a poem that rather took my breath away, if only because it was relatively recent -- from the 1940s. It's a sonnet -- one of the most demanding yet versatile of poetic forms -- and it was widely circulated during World War II as a comfort to those who were dealing with grief and loss:

I think that God is proud of those who bear

A sorrow bravely -- proud indeed of them

Who walk straight through the dark to find Him there

And kneel in faith to touch His garment's hem.

Oh, proud of them who lift their heads to shake

Away the tears from eyes that have grown dim,

Who tighten quivering lips and turn to take

The only road they know that leads to Him.

How proud He must be of them -- He who knows

All sorrow, and how hard grief is to bear!

I think He sees them coming, and He goes

With outstretched arms and hands to meet them there,

And with a look, a touch on hand or head,

Each finds his hurt heart strangely comforted.

Without forcing you to sit through a long disquisition on poetic form and diction, let me simply point out that this poem consists of naturally flowing language. It is never forced and twisted into jarring syntax in order to fit the meter. It is so masterfully composed that the apt words seem to have fallen into their perfectly ordered places quite naturally.

So why isn't a poem like this one respected today? Why aren't poets in writing programs in universities encouraged to learn the skills that this poet has so completely mastered?

Let me answer the first question: There is zero chance that a poem that simply takes Christian faith for granted, and which has as its purpose the comfort of believers in the face of death and loss, can be treated with anything but disdain in most modern university literature programs. Atheism is such an intolerant religion.

And student poets aren't taught to write like this because (a) it's hard and few can master it, and (b) it's not "experimental" but "traditional," and everyone knows that only "revolutionary" art is worth paying attention to, even if the "revolution" is a century old and all the "revolutionaries" are imitating each other and communicating with nobody and haven't had a new idea in a century.

I can just hear a literature professor sneering at this poem as "greeting card verse." But in doing so, he misses the point completely. This poem, and other works by the same poet, are what greeting card versifiers are imitating, because there was a time (the 1940s and 1950s) when this Texas poet laureate was the bestselling and best-loved poet in America.

I'll be you've never even heard her name: Grace Noll Crowell. Yet you've heard of other poets from the same era who lacked even a fraction of her skill, her compassion, her ability to sustain both a thought and a poetic line at the same time.

It is the "revolutionary poetry" that is quite easy to imitate and, after all the work of decoding it, almost always a disappointment. Grace Noll Crowell seems easy to imitate because her work is so easy to read; but in fact what she brings off in poem after poem is devilishly hard to do, and few poets today even know how to begin to match her.

And when someone sneers at poems like this, I want to demand of them: Why not value poems that speak simply and clearly to a heart in pain? The eloquence of Grace Noll Crowell lives on despite her being almost completely ignored by critics now, and despite her books all being out of print. Google the first line of this poem and see how her work is still circulating among the common people who know the value of a perfect poem, even if it's out of fashion among the elite.

Let me show you another of her "greeting card" poems -- and it is a poem that you might send to a friend, just like a greeting card, only far more powerful than anything Hallmark ever made:

Thank You Friend

by Grace Noll Crowell

I never came to you, my friend,

and went away without

some new enrichment of the heart;

More faith and less of doubt,

more courage in the days ahead.

And often in great need coming to you,

I went away comforted indeed.

How can I find the shining word,

the glowing phrase that tells all that

your love has meant to me,

all that your friendship spells?

There is no word, no phrase for

you on whom I so depend.

All I can say to you is this,

God bless you precious friend.

Yes, it is a plain-spoken emotional message, as simple as can be. But so are most of Elizabeth Barrett Browning's sonnets. Crowell's purpose here was not lofty: It was to put a warm feeling of the heart into words that would evoke the same emotion in other people. That is actually a very generous thing to do -- a motive rare among the literati, who seem to think that only negative emotions are worth poeticizing.

Remember, too, that Crowell was writing in a time when Americans were suffering some terrible things together; when we were one people in a way that we don't even pretend to be today. After the Great Depression and World War II, a poem like this one touched a nearly universal chord:

A Prayer for Courage

by Grace Noll Crowell

God, make me brave for life,

Oh, braver than this!

Let me straighten after pain

As a tree straightens after the rain,

Shining and lovely again.

God, make me brave for life,

Much braver than this!

As the blown grass lifts let me rise

From sorrow with quiet eyes,

Knowing thy way is wise.

God, make me brave. Life brings

Such blinding things.

Help me to keep my sight,

Help me to see aright,

That out of the dark comes light.

And because you can't find her poems in print, I'll give you another -- one that isn't a greeting card of any kind:

Quiet Things

by Grace Noll Crowell

These I have loved with passion, loved them long:

The house that stands when the building hammers cease,

After wild syncopation, a sane song,

A tree that straightens after the winds' release,

The cool green stillness of an April wood,

A silver pool, unruffled by the breeze,

The clean expanse of a prairie's solitude

And calm, unhurried hours -- I love these.

I have been tangled in the nets too long;

I shall escape and find my way again

Back to the quiet place where I belong,

Far from the tinseled provinces of men.

These will be waiting after my release:

The sheltered ways, the quiet ways of peace.

Crowell, who lived from 1877 to 1969, was a near-contemporary of a poet nearly as direct, Robert Frost; I imagine that if Crowell had been a man, she would have been given similar respect -- for both Frost and Crowell did their work in the prefeminist era when women just flat out didn't get taken as seriously in the arts. (Yet the state of Texas did manage to realize what she was, and honor her.)

Born in Inland, Iowa, on Halloween of 1877, Grace Noll got a B.A. at the German-English College in Wilton, Iowa, then married Norman H. Crowell, with whom she had three sons. In 1917 they moved to Wichita Falls, Texas, and then to Dallas, where they lived the rest of their lives.

Her poems were published in major magazines in the U.S. and abroad; she won many awards, including an honorary doctorate; she was called "the most popular writer of verse in America" and "one of the most beloved poets in America" and no one had reason to disagree. People made pilgrimages to meet her; her husband eventually had to quit his day job to manage her career. She published over 35 books, including a final collection in 1977 eight years after her death. And you've probably never heard her name.

This, too, will pass. O heart, say it over and over,

Out of your deepest sorrow, out of your deepest grief,

No hurt can last forever -- perhaps tomorrow will bring relief.

This, too, will pass. It will spend itself -- its fury

Will die as the wind dies down with the setting sun.

Assuaged and calm, you will rest again,

Forgetting a thing that is done.

Repeat it again and again, O heart for your comfort:

This, too, will pass as surely as passed before

The old forgotten pain, and the other sorrows

That once you bore.

As certain as stars at night, or dawn after darkness,

Inherent as the lift of the blowing grass,

Whatever your despair or your frustration,

This, too, will pass.

-- Grace Noll Crowell

During poetry month, let's celebrate poems like these -- poems that are actually talking to real people with real lives, poems that are offered to us as a gift, as a blessing in our lives.

Over the next few weeks, I'll talk about other poets. But since I've found many of Grace Noll Crowell's poetry books, and they are hard indeed to find, I may include a few more of hers. I can never have too much of clarity and beauty and intelligence and compassion in the poems that inform and explain my life. And it won't hurt my feelings at all if we can raise such a clamor that a publisher restores the poems of Grace Noll Crowell to print.

Let me close this column with the words of a hymn by Grace Noll Crowell which, since I first heard it back in the 1980s, has become my favorite -- so moving to me, though, that I can hardly sing it:

Because I have been given much, I too must give.

Because of thy great bounty, Lord, each day I live

I shall divide my gifts from thee

With every brother that I see

Who has the need of help from me.

Because I have been sheltered, fed by thy good care,

I cannot see another's lack and I not share

My glowing fire, my loaf of bread,

My roof's safe shelter overhead,

That he too might be comforted.

Because I have been blessed by thy great love, dear Lord,

I'll share thy love again, according to thy word.

I shall give love to those in need.

I'll show that love by word and deed.

Thus shall my thanks be thanks indeed.

Most Christians that I know actually try to live by these words; in fact, I think this is as fair a test of sincerity of Christian belief as you can find. It is Grace Noll Crowell's greatness that she was able to put these tenets into words that so powerfully and memorably stir the heart.

If poets can't -- or won't -- do that, it's hard to imagine what else they can write that even matters.

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