Sunday, July 01, 2007


Since taking off to Bishop's my main literary entertainment has been listening when I can -- busrides, etc -- to the audiobook version of The Classic Hundred Poems, which I recently downloaded from (This the result of a long-delayed Xmas gift -- a $50 certificate -- from a friend.) Of course, the poems are from the canon, which is obviously as arbitrary as any "best of" list. The compilers -- or rather anthologies they drew their ratings from -- seem to have had quite a thing for John Donne. Could it really be possible that Donne wrote 7% of the best -- even the best"classic" -- poems in the language? (7 poems he got in this selection, no less, if I counted right.) "Try to Catch a Falling Star" is a clever bit of writing, but is there anything to consider, really, beyond its first line? Nevertheless, it's great to go over not only the likes of Donne, but Shakespeare sonnets, Marvell's To His Coy Mistress & the Garden, etc. once again... I've listened to nearly two hours out of six, and I've just finished a careful listen of Marvell. Who is truly marvelous. Many poems, because of the straying of my own errant thought, I've had to rewind and play again, twice, thrice or more (notice how my own diction is influenc'd). It's been quite an experience to orally savor the subtle and intricate music of those masters as the Quebec countryside rolls by, as a sun sets over rolling hills round Lennoxville, or looking out a picture window at a pine grove in the Bishop's U. cafeteria. (I don't have the print version to read along with -- which makes the experience more interesting: ear training.) The readings, by the likes of Rita Dove, James Merrill, Anthony Hecht and Jorie Graham, are mostly very good.

It strikes me once again that one reason writers of that time were so adept -- so natural, even if it was a highly evolved second-natural -- at fixed forms was that the language, or at least the accepted conventions of poetic language, were so much more flexible than they are today. Convenient memes like adjectives after nouns, the use of the auxiliary "do" before the verb, elisions like o'er, do not seem precious or intrusive in such hands as those. Now of course people who try to revive fixed forms are hobbled by our culture's commitment to sound "natural" by sticking with the rigid, fixed, predictable prosody of, well, the language of everyday. (Or at least, every other day.) One obvious solution is to unfix the forms -- sonnets that don't rhyme, etc. Another is simply to go on free-versifying -- this spoken by a naturalized citizen of the Land of the Free. Another is the Verbomatic Phrasal Formula Chopper: Flarf, etc. It's always easier, of course, to do a weird job than a nice one.

Note Oct. 5: Can you believe that Keats' "Ode Upon a Grecian Urn" didn't make the cut???? I'm scandalized!

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