“Imaginary Gardens with Real Toads in Them” – Why Bother with Poetry?

moore toadThis poem by the contentious, straightforward major American poet Marianne Moore came to mind tonight and I thought it was worth sharing.
Cogently and succinctly she takes on the common objections and antipathy of the general public to the reading of poems that are any more complicated and indirect than “I Think I Shall Never See a Poem as Lovely as a Tree.”  The first line has stuck in my mind since I first encountered it many decades ago.
As Flannery O’Connor so notably said, “Art is not for everybody;” it takes thought, reflection and a certain intuitive gift to appreciate it.
Poetry in the Twitterizing-haiku hamstrung, Facebook friend age, really separates the sheep from the goats when it comes to the aesthetic sense and seriousness of purpose , whether the arts are visual, aural or words on a page (or on YouTube).  Poetry takes time and thought to write and time and thought to “get” and savor.
Nothing new, really, historically.  But Marianne Moore will always seem fresh and new–profound-as will great poetry.
Love this little defense of poesy and the phrase “literalists of the imagination.”
I, too, dislike it: there are things that are important beyond
      all this fiddle.
   Reading it, however, with a perfect contempt for it, one
      discovers in
   it after all, a place for the genuine.
      Hands that can grasp, eyes
      that can dilate, hair that can rise
         if it must, these things are important not because a

high-sounding interpretation can be put upon them but because
      they are
   useful. When they become so derivative as to become
   the same thing may be said for all of us, that we
      do not admire what
      we cannot understand: the bat
         holding on upside down or in quest of something to 

eat, elephants pushing, a wild horse taking a roll, a tireless
      wolf under
   a tree, the immovable critic twitching his skin like a horse
      that feels a flea, the base-
   ball fan, the statistician--
      nor is it valid
         to discriminate against “business documents and

school-books”; all these phenomena are important. One must make
      a distinction
   however: when dragged into prominence by half poets, the
      result is not poetry,
   nor till the poets among us can be
     “literalists of
      the imagination”--above
         insolence and triviality and can present

for inspection, “imaginary gardens with real toads in them,"
      shall we have
   it. In the meantime, if you demand on the one hand,
   the raw material of poetry in
      all its rawness and
      that which is on the other hand
         genuine, you are interested in poetry.

From Others for 1919: An Anthology of the New Verse, edited by Alfred Kreymborg.

Marianne Moore

Marianne Moore

Born in 1887, Marianne Moore wrote with the freedom characteristic of the other Modernist poets, often incorporating quotes from other sources into the text, yet her use of language was always extraordinarily condensed and precise
Posted in Literature, poetry, writing | Tagged , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Anonymous Ancient Poets Often Said it Better and More Memorably

Haunted by these lines tonight, their rawness and honesty. A straight shot of the unvarnished longing in everyone’s heart.  No dodges, frills, or confounding metaphors. Said to date from 16th century, but it feels earlier, more primal than than that date.  Definitely not of the English Renaissance, goes way back before that, think lonely campfires, homesickness, elemental fear and doubt. No tortured figures of speech, no posturing. Read it a couple of times, let it sink in.


O WESTERN wind, when wilt thou blow

  That the small rain down can rain?
Christ, that my love were in my arms
  And I in my bed again!
 “A Lover Plaineth for the Spring”

from The Oxford Book of English Verse

Long week here, but these straight unadorned lines ring so true, are an aid to sleep.

Happy weekend, friends ;)


Posted in poetry | Tagged , | Leave a comment

Have Hit a Major Roadblock – POETS ON POETRY – No “Emotional Slither!”

ShelleyMy library is fated to swell and I to be buried in the falling, cascading books from the shelves. An appropriate end for a misspent life, I suppose, monomaniacally focused on books.

Have unearthed a modest looking old paperback anthology entitled POETS ON POETRY (amazing! it’s still in print! click that link!) which I haven’t seen in years. Dog-eared (but not yet dog buried), it collects the landmark essays by major poets (and a few critics) dealing with the crucial question: what is poetry and why should we bother with it?

No small fry gabbers are included, only essays by those who helped define and refine our views of “poetry,” what makes it good/great, how and why.

An epigraph from that old lyrical over-educated cozzener, take-no-prisoners Ezra Pound is on the verso of the title page. Amazing to me how much we read, assimilate over the years and forget where the influences and wisdom originated:

As to twentieth century poetry, and the poetry which I expect to be written during the next decade or so, it will, I think, move against poppycock. It will be harder and saner … it will be “nearer to the bone” … I want it so austere, direct, free from emotional slither.

EZRA POUND, From “Retrospect”

I wonder if he was institutionalized at St. Elizabeth’s Hospital when he wrote this.  He was in a land of dreamy dreams to judge what has ensued in the late 20th and early 21st centuries as regards poetry.

I do like the term”emotional slither,” though!

The contents of this little book are the creme de la creme, poet-critics whose exhortations about poesy are still read and taught, poets with insight about the art and craft, the real biggies down through the ages:

SIR PHILLIP SIDNEY, An Apology for Poetry

BEN JONSON, Timber, or Discovery

JOHN DRYDEN, The Author’s Apology for Heroic Poetry and Poetic License

SAMUEL JOHNSON, A Preface to Shakespeare

WILLIAM WORDSWORTH, Preface to the Lyrical Ballads





EDGAR ALLEN POE, The Poetic Principle

MATTHEW ARNOLD, The Study of Poetry

T.S. ELIOT, The Music of Poetry

ALLEN TATE, Tension in Poetry

WALLACE STEVENS, Two or Three Ideas

E.E. CUMMINGS, Three Statements

‘The history of poetry and how we view it is succinctly and passionately declaimed by these major writers in such memorable, timeless phrasing, with such wit and insight, that I fear this is the sort of overview our poetic dabblers, wannabes and stuttering-blurt versifiers could never plumb. So sad.

More on this soon:) Bottle rockets going off in my imagination ….


Posted in Literature, poetry, writing | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , | 6 Comments

Apropos of Byron (previous post) and his Romancing …

byron3What woman could withstand the following blandishments and adulation?

[ Byron did, after all, write an epic poem about Don Juan (considered his masterpiece)--and no one challenged his qualifications to speak with authority on Don Juan, either ;)]

But back to the point: Honestly? Even I’d fall for a guy with such a “line” as follows–



She walks in beauty, like the night

Of cloudless climes and starry skies;

And all that’s best of dark and bright

Meet in her aspect and her eyes:

Thus mellowed to that tender light

Which heaven to gaudy eyes denies.


One shade the more, one ray the less,

Had half impaired the nameless grace

Which waves in every raven tress,

Or softly lightens o’er her face;

Where thoughts serenely sweet express

How pure, how dear their dwelling place.


And on that cheek and o’er that brow,

So soft, so calm, yet eloquent.

The smiles that win, the tints that glow,

But tell of days in goodness spent,

A mind at peace with all below,

A heart whose love is innocent!

George Gordon, Lord Byron, June 12, 1814


What beautiful B.S.!  The lady swooned no doubt, and  Byron, whose love was typically far from “innocent,” knocked the idealized sugar pie off her pedestal (permanently), whilst whispering immortal verses in her ear. She never knew what hit her (or maybe she did). Successful seduction is never wholly one-sided. In Byron’s age among the aristocracy it was highly ritualistic with norms and formalities to be observed, and both parties knew their roles and the conventions.

If the walls of those country estates could talk!

I can barely remember how I got off on this tangent, but recollect it all dates to my determination to slim down my over-stuffed library and my re-discovery of A Country House Companion and the chapter on Byron’s house party at a grand country estate in 1809… and here I am deep in the throes of a re-appreciation of Byron’s poetry and lock-jawed all over again in awe at his talent, his accomplishment and his ultra-eventful, daring life.

He died at the tender age of 36 (!) at Missolonghi having gone to Greece to fight in the war for the Greeks’ independence from the Turks and to this day is revered in Greece as a national hero.

Charismatic, endlessly pursued by women, a huge poetic talent and a man of action as well. Jeese! See? I’d forgotten all this. If I hadn’t been forced to re-visit my “old” and rare books, none of this would have happened!

So…my next stop is the best Byron bio I can find …. and the books are still piling up and I’m making pitiful progress at deciding which I can part with.

O, woe.





Posted in Humor, Literature, poetry | Tagged , , , , | 11 Comments

Byron’s House Party – from A COUNTRY HOUSE COMPANION

lord byron

The most flamboyant and notorious of the major Romantics, George Gordon, Lord Byron, was likewise the most fashionable poet of the day.“–THE POETRY FOUNDATION


I lost a whole day rediscovering with delight a wonderful, funny and revealing book on the British aristocracy.  Downton Abbey pales next to this amazing expose’ of the high times at the grand country estates in England, a tradition for over five hundred years.

Why?  I am in the throes of trying to slim down my “library,”I have books coming out my ears, falling out my windows and sometimes find one of my dogs running off with one in his mouth he’s discovered under my bed, in the creases of the sofa or behind the dryer in the laundry room (my dogs are not readers, but they love pictures and my scent soaked through the pages and bindings, and they will sometimes bury them under an oak tree after regaling in the photos and my fingerprints and aroma. They do this with my paddock boots and socks too and God knows what else.  For some reason they always take the the book I’m reading at the time, and the boot for the right foot).

The book that stopped me in my tracks from making difficult choices?  This one.



I digress, but in doing so I realize I am caving into a very British thing about a way of life. Dogs, horses, land, the outdoors…

These books will go eventually when I come to my senses for I have always been a rare book dealer on the side (esp. signed modern first editions), and I know the ropes and how to get my beloved little darlings good loving homes.

But I am also a laggard and backslider whenever I try to do this because I find treasures I’d forgotten about and fall into them head and heart yet again, effectively aborting the whole deal.

This book is an insider’s gossippy account of the infamous house parties of the landed gentry at their magnificent estates.  Woot, woot! I’m green with envy!

In this magnificent tome all the accounts are in the first person by invited guests, and taken from their letters and diaries, and they are oh so rare.

What a high old time they had on these beautiful grand old estates, indulging their every whim, sparing no expense, cavorting, boozing, romancing and just plain acting silly.

So, anyway, Byron had a house party at a country estate in 1809, and if Byron was involved you can bet it was over the top and historic.BYRON 1At the time he was chasing Lady Caroline Lamb, but soon after tired of her. Years later, still sick at heart,  her psyche permanently shattered, she staged a histrionic (fake) lambAuto-Da-Fe at yet another drop dead country estate in the presence of many guests at which she burned all of his letters and a miniature portrait of him on a funeral pyre while several women costumed in white garments danced around the bonfire, singing a song she had written for the occasion. Hysterical!

Sorry I missed it! Oh to be a fly on the wall for that one!

byronNow that’s entertainment!

So it’s very slow going, this  weeding through all these wonderful books, deciding which to sell, which to keep, and I hate every minute of it!  But they are rare, wonderful and valuable, many are signed modern first editions. I’ve been a collector for a long time (and a dealer), so they pile up and up. They deserve a wider audience and appreciation; it’s wrong to horde and hide them, you know. But, drat, If I had a country estate like these blokes did, I could keep them all and create a public library for them. Oh, well, I slog forward with the chore at a snail’s pace and off they go!

Posted in Humor, Literature | Tagged , , , , , | 16 Comments

Slaying Monsters: How Our Notions of Heroes Have Changed – Beowulf


Above: Grendel

“He seized one sleeping man, ‘biting the bone-joints, drinking blood from veins, great gobbets gorging down. Quickly he took all of that lifeless thing to be his food, even feet and hands.'”

This from the first epic in the English language. A heated discussion on the heels of my previous post about the “cruel” and abhorrent atrocities committed by the heroic figures in the Odyssey set off a bottle rocket in my so called mind. I had averred that art must be understood in its cultural historic context and to dismiss or condemn any work of art because we disapprove of the mores and ideals in it is to miss the point.

The history of literature and all art is in a very real sense the vivid history of our moral and ethical evolution.  It is also, IMHO, a fossil record of our species’Cotton Vitellius A. XV, f.132 attempts to restrain our basest most powerful instincts for a higher good: altruism, something that allows people to live harmoniously in communities and for civilization to rise and develop.

From the New Yorker on Beowulf Great overview from a contemporary perspective.

My fav translation of Beowulf is Seamus Heaney’s Beowulf, I guess, though I also love Tolkien’s Beowulf.

An interesting thing relative to my previous post is that though Beowulf was brutal and in a sense monstrous, he slays three MORE brutal, hideous monsters–to save his friends.

Inch by inch we become kinder, more considerate.

Posted in Literature, poetry, Reading | Tagged , , , , | 10 Comments

Grey Eyed Athena and the Wine Dark Sea

HomerTonight I’m homing in on Homer (Robert Fitzgerald’s incomparable translation of the Odyssey). Poetry’s omphalos and progenitor.  Where have all the heroes gone?

Sing to me, Muse, and through me tell the story

of that man skilled in all ways contending,

the wanderer, harried for years on end,

after he plundered the stronghold

on the proud height of Troy.


Now they made all secure in the fast black ship,

and setting out the winebowls a-brim.

and they made libation to the gods,

                                  the undying, the ever new,

most of all to the grey-eyed daughter of Zeus.

And the prow sheared through the night into the dawn.


That last line could not be more vivid or effective. Ahhh.




Posted in Literature, poetry | Tagged , , , , | 10 Comments