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Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
June 7, 2012

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

Dance, Idol, Remembered Poems

Watching So You Think You Can Dance reminds me once again how much better these dancers have to be than the singers on any of the singing shows or the amateur dancers on the celebrity-dancing show.

Two episodes in, and I'm blown away yet again by what some of these dancers can do before they get to dance to some of the brilliant choreography they're given during the course of the competition.

I'm glad that both Idol and So You Think have eschewed most of the how-sad or train-wreck auditions that used to take up so much time. Both shows seem to have caught on to the fact that the audience is there to be entertained by good artists, not embarrassed by people who lack skill or good sense.

Having said that, I must say that American Idol has finally got the judging right. No false "banter" between Simon and Ryan; now the judges actually talk sensibly about the art.

And if the judges' love affair with the talented but unready Jessica Sanchez sometimes got embarrassing (great pipes aren't enough to make a great singer, kids; you've got to understand the words), there was always Jimmy Iovine to offer a corrective.

No judge was right every time; but none of them was useless, either. Steven Tyler, Jennifer Lopez, and Randy Jackson: All of them were -- and acted like -- professionals who knew both the art and the business of pop singing.

And even though of my two favorite singers, one was eliminated way too early (Elise Testone), Phillip Phillips was obviously the best thing on that stage, week after week.

Then again, I'm the guy who still thinks Taylor Hicks was a terrific choice in his year.

I don't actually care who sells the most records afterward -- though I like his album way more than a lot of other winners' albums! -- because the show isn't about outguessing subsequent record sales.

It's about who puts on the best show. That was Phillip Phillips this year. But I also loved Adam Lambert, Chris Daughtry, David Cook, David Archuleta, Scotty McCreery, Casey Abrams, Joshua Ledet, and Crystal Bowersox; in fact, I have a lot of favorites since I started watching in season three.

And I don't think there's any point in talking about whether Idol "got it right" in any year.

By definition Idol always gets it right -- it picks the most-voted-for singer every season. Duh. What happens afterward is another matter entirely, having far more to do with the music business than with the judgment of the voters who pick, not a future recording artist, but a present television performer.


I was lucky enough to attend elementary school in California back when that state had the finest schools in the world.

They ability-grouped us, so that the better students weren't held back, and the slower students weren't constantly frustrated by material they weren't ready for.

Yes, it caused students to be clearly divided by scholarly ability -- but let's be serious here. If you have them all mixed together, how many days into a school year do you think it will be before every single student knows who the fast and slow learners are?

Ability-grouping merely names officially what everyone can already see. Whatever harm having a label might do, it can't possibly be as damaging to a slower student as having to be in the same classroom with the better students day after day, while the harried teacher can't possibly give you the help you need.

One of the features of that great public education system was that, slow or quick, we all got poetry.

Both meanings of "got" apply -- we had poetry thrust upon us, and we understood it.

That's because we were taught that poetry was clever and beautiful language with nifty ideas or stories. We were definitely not introduced to poetry as something that needed to be decoded.

That came later.

At Barnes & Noble I recently picked up Best Remembered Poems, edited by Martin Gardner. Along with many other jewels, it includes most of the poems that were given to us in grade school.

In fourth grade, Mrs. Schroeder took us through the joys of Hunt's "Abou Ben Adhem," Longfellow's "The Children's Hour" and "Paul Revere's Ride," McCrae's "In Flanders Fields," Moore's "A Visit from St. Nicholas," Burgess's "The Purple Cow," Poe's "Annabel Lee," Saxe's "The Blind Men and the Elephant," Thayer's "Casey at the Bat," Whittier's "The Barefoot Boy," Field's "Wynken, Blynken, and Nod," Frost's "Fire and Ice," Kilmer's "Trees," and, above all, Noyes's "The Highwayman."

I didn't need a school class to give me some others in the book, like Hale's "Mary's Lamb," Henley's "Invictus," Kipling's "Recessional" and "If," Procter's "The Lost Chord," Howe's "Battle Hymn of the Republic," Longfellow's "There Was a Little Girl," Mearns's "Antigonish," Stevenson's "Requiem," or Lear's "The Owl and the Pussycat." I learned those by singing or reciting them at home with my family.

These are just the poems from my childhood that happen to be in Gardner's anthology. To test the accuracy of the book's title, let's see how many of them you remember.

If you were born before 1960, I'll bet you can put all these lines with the above-listed author and title of the poem they come from:

"... I'd rather see than be one."

"... Sailed off in a wooden shoe."

"...Which was against the rule ..."

"And -- which is more -- you'll be a Man, my son!"

"I am the master of my fate: I am the captain of my soul."

"I have seen him in the watch-fires of a hundred circling camps."

"Poems are made by fools like me ..."

"But if it had to perish twice ..."

"Lest we forget -- lest we forget!"

"... Right in the middle of her forehead ..."

"They danced by the light of the moon, / The moon, / The moon, / They danced by the light of the moon."

"Listen, my children, and you shall hear ..."

"Between the crosses, row on row ..."

"As I was going up the stair / I met a man who wasn't there!"

"His eyes -- how they twinkled! -- his dimples how merry!"

"The moon was a ghostly galleon tossed upon cloudy seas."

"I hear in the chamber above me / The patter of little feet ..."

"It was many and many a year ago, / In a kingdom by the sea ..."

"Seated one day at the Organ, / I was weary and ill at ease / And my fingers wandered idly / Over the noisy keys."

"Home is the sailor, home from the sea, / And the hunter home from the hill."

"The outlook wasn't brilliant for the Mudville nine that day."

"One, if by land, and two, if by sea; / And I on the opposite shore will be ..."

"Blessings on thee, little man, ..."

"And show'd the names whom love of God had blest, ..."

"And so these men of Indostan / Disputed loud and long, / Each in his own opinion / Exceeding stiff and strong, / Though each was partly in the right / And all were in the wrong!"

I admit, "Antigonish" is a title that probably didn't stay in your memory, and "Requiem" and "Recessional" may not remain tied to their poems. I also cheated by including two quotations from one poem. So sue me.

In Gardner's delightful commentary, he gives us lots of extras -- like many parody versions of Hughes Mearns's "Antigonish," written by Mearns himself, including:

As I was sitting in my chair

I knew the bottom wasn't there;

Nor legs, nor back, but I just sat

Ignoring little things like that.

One night I met when stepping out

A gal who wasn't thereabout;

I said, "Hel-lo! And how are you!"

She didn't say; so I never knew.

There are also many poems in Gardner's book that I didn't hear or read till I was out of elementary school, including Shelley's "Ozymandias," Grey's "Elegy in a Country Churchyard" -- truly, many of the best-loved poems in our language.

But today, poetry is taught in only two ways, both of them calculated to make poetry-haters out of students.

First, kids are taught to write poetry, not as an art, but as therapy. Whatever they feel, they write down and get praised for. So they get no sense of just how much craft goes into getting the numbers right, and why even much-despised poems like Edgar Guests's "Home" ("It takes a heap o' livin' in a house t' make it home ...") are very hard to bring off.

Second, kids are taught that "great poetry" is a deep puzzle, meaning nothing at all on the surface, and needing to be decoded. It's a game with no prize.

But no one has to be taught to decode Stevenson's "Requiem." It's the epitaph on a tombstone, and it's gaspingly beautiful and brilliant on first reading and on all subsequent readings:

Under the wide and starry sky

Dig the grave and let me lie:

Glad did I live and gladly die,

And I laid me down with a will.

This be the verse you grave for me:

Here he lies where he long'd to be;

Home is the sailor, home from the sea,

And the hunter home from the hill.

A great poem does not have to be obscure or figured or concealed; most great poems don't need a teacher to help you understand them. Why? Because the poet was competent, and the goal was to communicate.

As Alexander Pope put it in his Essay on Criticism: "True Wit is Nature to Advantage drest, / What oft was Thought, but ne'er so well Exprest."

Today, a high school or college graduate can come away from school believing that poetry is a loathsome, difficult, useless thing. But the truth is that there are poets still writing works of great beauty and clarity; and others doing very clever things that are within the immediate grasp of any reader.

For instance, Denise Duhamel's Kinky, a book of poems about or from the point of view of Mattel's Barbie doll.

Look at "Barbie in Therapy," a poem in which Dr. Midge tries to get Barbie to do more than smile:

She never had time for any kind of childhood.

Not quite an orphan, yet not quite part of a family,

Barbie finds she's been give so little vocabulary

to talk about her feelings.... What do I wear

to therapy? Barbie wants to know....

In another poem, these lines: "Barbie is as vulnerable as Cinderella / in that split second between her dissolving rags / and the instant gown her Fairy God Mother bestowed her."

The poems reel back and forth between giving Barbie ordinary human feelings and keeping her as a plastic doll.

The book ends with Barbie going into a bodiless afterlife, where at first she thinks that she's free at last from having to look perfect all the time.

But along the way, she has to deal with problems like how to get a breast exam when your plastic body isn't exactly pliable.

And what need I add to a poem entitled "Barbie, Her Identity as an Extra-Terrestrial Finally Suspected, Bravely Battles the Interrogation of the Pentagon Task Force Who's Captured Her"?

(Except, perhaps, to point out that "task force" either takes the plural "Who've" or the impersonal singular "Which has." But that's the old copy editor in me, which I try to keep suppressed.)

Duhamel's poetry is not always spot on, but it makes you think about what Barbie means in our culture, about all kinds of cool things. But what it never makes you think is: "What in the world does this poem mean?"

Gary Jackson's poetry book Missing You, Metropolis did give me pause, now and then, but not because he meant to be obscure. Rather, it was because more than half the poems required that the reader be more than merely conversant with the world of American superhero comic books.

I'm not. So while I got many of the Superman, Batman, and Spider-man references because of the movies, others sailed right over my head.

Jackson is writing serious poetry for people who hold all the superheroes from Marvel and DC as an important part of their memories.

Think about that: Poetry, not for professors to explain, but to communicate immediately with the kind of people who grew up hanging around the comic book store. You know who you are.

Woven among the superhero poems are others that are much more personal, but gradually you realize that Jackson's autobiographical poetry is not a digression.

Rather, we see that the superheroes have lives not all that different from the life of a young black man in the American middle class -- and vice versa. Again, the poems are not always perfect, but they are never anything less than entertaining.

One might make the case that David Trinidad's Plasticville poems are, as often as not, not poems at all. What do we make of a long list of lists, each group beginning with the next letter of the alphabet?

It's more like a culture quiz -- in fact, rather like the list of poems with which I began this essay.

But we live in this culture, don't we? And we immediately recognize each list for what it is:

Days of Our Lives, The Guiding Light, Search for Tomorrow, All My Children, and As the World Turns

Farrah Fawcett-Majors, Kate Jackson, Jaclyn Smith, Cheryl Ladd, and Shelley Hack

Jan & Dean, Chad & Jeremy, Peter & Gordon, Simon & Garfunkel, and Sonny & Cher

Main Street, Adventureland, Frontierland, Fantasyland, and Tomorrowland

Do these lists mean anything beyond just being what they are -- soap operas, the original Charlie's Angels, pop-singing duos, and the original areas of Disneyland?

Are they poetry?

Who cares? They were a delight to me, because I'm of a generation that understood all of Trinidad's references. (And he does understand the music of language -- the lines all scan well.)

Many of the poems in Plasticville are more traditional in form and substance -- though the subject matter may not be for everyone. With only a few exceptions, the poems are quite clear; Trinidad is not trying to hide his meanings, but to express them.

Still, my favorite pop-culture poet in the group I recently read is Maureen A. Sherbondy, whose After the Fairy Tale does what the TV show Once Upon a Time is doing -- only she did it first.

For instance, here are the first two stanzas of the poem "If the Giant Retired and the Beanstalk Was Intact":

When the Giant retires

he climbs down the beanstalk

away from that big house

in the sky. It is no easy task shimmying

down, the stalk nearly breaks

beneath the burden of his weight.

His hands are arthritic, his

heart enlarged.

And what does he find

when he reaches land?

No pension or social security check,

no grandchildren to take him in,

just Jack who grew into a man,

holds grudges, turns the Giant

away, shuts the door

in his big face.

All these contemporary poets, while very talented, are working almost exclusively in free verse. This is not inherently bad -- but poets are much better at free verse if they have also worked on and mastered the traditional meters and lines.

I'm amused sometimes at the poets who sneer at Edgar Guest or Henry Wadsworth Longfellow because so much of their verse is "sing-song" in the regularity of its meter.

That "sing-song" meter is part of what makes the poems memorable, and part of what makes them fun. Besides, it's devilishly hard to do -- and until one can match it in one's own poetry, I would think it best not to sneer at it.

I edit a small online poetry magazine, where I am constantly in search of poets who have mastered meter and even -- gasp -- rhyme. But the vast majority of the poems on the Strong Verse site (http://www.strongverse.org) are free verse.

Why? Because with rare exceptions, the metered and rhymed verse I'm offered shows not even minimal competence. Poets today are not taught to do the numbers, as they called it in the days of Dryden and Pope.

They no more hear the stresses in a poetic line than kids at a prom move their feet in time to the beat in the music. It's a lost art, except for a few eccentrics and diehards like me.

So my poetry website publishes the best poems I am offered -- which rarely follow traditional forms and meters. You have to go with the quality.

If you pick up Best Remembered Poems and read them aloud, I won't guarantee you'll love them all -- indeed, I can promise you that you most certainly will not.

Still, you'll get a sense of how poetry used to sound, the sheer pleasure of a good poetic line.

Which is why I remembered Alfred Noyes's "The Highwayman" above all. Even though it tells a simple enough story, and there are no grand figures in the language, Noyes knew how to give the verses energy and drive, so that the sheer music of the lines is part of the story, like the soundtrack of a movie.

At the inn, the landlord's daughter Bess keeps watch for the return of her beloved Highwayman, but the officers who plan to arrest him have tied her up, leaning on a musket. Hoping to fire the musket to warn him, she struggles to get control of it:

She twisted her hands behind her; but all the knots held good!

She writhed her hands till her fingers were wet with sweat or blood!

They stretched and strained in the darkness, and the hours crawled by like years,

Till, now, on the stroke of midnight,

Cold, on the stroke of midnight,

The tip of one finger touched it! The trigger at least was hers!

You don't have to be an expert in poetry readings to feel the rhythm and beat of those lines, the pounding energy behind them. It's like the pulse of her heart; it's like the hooves of the Highwayman's horse. We nine-year-olds read it aloud in class and it was thrilling.

Is it a great poem? Is it comparable to Eliot's "The Waste Land"?

Who cares? It succeeds at everything it tries to do. What artist can hope to do more?

Too many poets -- too many artists -- think that the latest fad erases all that went before. They embrace the myth of "progress," with its inherent assumption that whatever is new is an improvement on what went before.

Warhol's Campbell Soup cans do not erase Merritt's "Love Locked Out" or Michelangelo's Sistine Chapel. Nor do we have any evidence that Warhol mastered the craft of painting well enough to compete with them. He was doing something else, that's all, not something better or smarter.

The truth is that great art can be created in any style that ever existed, by anyone who masters the craft and has the mind and heart to create something good and true.

And there are so many ways to create memorable and brilliant art that it seems a shame that we do not give our schoolchildren any understanding of the craft of poetry outside a narrow range that misses most of what makes the art so powerful.

Fortunately, popular music has stepped in to fill the gap left by the literature professors and the brainwashed schoolteachers who got A's in their classes.

Most songwriters, you see, still learn a bit about rhyme, and a few of them aim for and reach the sublime.

Beth Nielsen Chapman works in meter and rhyme when she creates a stanza like this (from "Life Goes On"):

There was a third grade boy that we knew in school

He was found face down in a swimming pool

And as they worked on that kid every minute was an hour

And when his eyes fluttered open we could feel that power

Life holds on

Given the slightest chance

Or the powerful nostalgia in Mary Chapin Carpenter's "Come On Come On":

Some people remember the first time, some can't forget the last

Some just select what they want to from the past

It's a song that you danced to in high school

It's a moon you tried to bring down

On a four in the morning drive through the streets of town

Carpenter then goes on to a couplet that any poet could be proud of:

It's a need you never get used to, so fierce and so confused

It's a loss you never get over the first time you lose

You can't tell me that rhymed and metered poetry is dead when verses like these are still being written. The fact that they are written to be sung merely brings them closer to the deepest root of poetry.

We're hungry for good poetry. It's in our bones. We'll take it where we can find it. Too bad that it's so rare nowadays for school to be that place.

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