The Best Poetry Is the Strictest

This is an article that didn't turn out to be anything like what I thought it would be about given the title: "Where The Pen Meets The Sword: The Role Of Poetry In The Study Of International Affairs."

A few years ago I proposed to DARPA via a Minerva grant application to put together a team that would study the poetry of various countries in the Islamic world, in order to identify weapons for psychological operations. (They were not interested.) We know that poetry is hugely important to the cultures of Iran and Iraq, for example: but the poetry is in different languages, and employs different traditional symbolism, and carries different currents of meaning arising from poets and poems of its past. We would be able to create much more effective messages if we understood that in greater detail, especially if we could find among the exile communities skilled poets who could help us craft poems of quality.

So that's what I thought the article would be about. What it turns out to be about is a Georgetown professor who composes international affairs work in the form of poems.
The reception his poems are met with today is a far cry from the silence his first poem received, with students since expressing their allegiance to and fondness of the poetry. In the evaluation Douglas distributes to his students halfway through his course, he asks students whether they think the poems should continue, or if they feel that poetry is out of place in a selective graduate program. “And they all say ‘Keep the poems!,’ so that settles that,” Douglas said. In fact, students have so embraced the poetry that they have even integrated it into their papers, sometimes citing excerpts from his poems. “If there’s something in a poem that’s applicable to the topic on which they’re writing their paper, every once in a while they quote me to myself… which I like, of course,” Douglas joked. “But the good aspect of the poetry,” he continued, “is that it helps you parse out and focus on the most important issues, and the fact that it’s in rhyme somehow brings out the emotional aspect instead of just being a flat statement of certain positions.”

To that end, all of Douglas’s poems rhyme, for he believes that rhyme and meter are quintessential to a poem’s impact. As such, Douglas was surprised to learn that he is actually in the minority of poets who still employ rhyme. Describing how he made this discovery, Douglas said, “A couple of years ago, I stumbled upon an Annapolis Poet’s Club that meets every Friday night down at Barnes & Nobles coffee shop. One night I went down there and took a couple of my poems with me. The idea was that people would read the poems they’d been working on and get feedback from the rest of the group. So I read one of my poems, and it was followed by this dumbfounded silence. Finally, the president of the club said, ‘Well, Bill, poems these days don’t rhyme.’” Douglas’s retort? “Well, it worked for Longfellow.”
Poems these days aren't usually any good, either, so "it worked for Longfellow" is a good retort. Rhyming isn't necessary, though: you can do alliterative poetry in the fashion of the Anglo-Saxons and Old Norse that is also very strict. Some of the Old Norse forms are quite difficult to master, requiring you to think very carefully about how to speak in the form that the poem permits.

It's in wrestling with the form that you come up with novel -- often beautiful -- ways of expressing meaning. What "poets" today often do is just string words on a page in a weird way, and the words thus often end up being banal as well as ugly. They take themselves to be doing something wonderfully radical, doing poetry in a non-aesthetic way, but they're really just making trash. The proof of that is that we still read Longfellow, whereas there's little chance that our descendants won't just throw their trash away.

Also, point of parliamentary procedure: to say that 'poems today don't rhyme' is to dismiss the most successful poets of the moment, whose poems do rhyme. The musical genre of hip-hop is characterized by rhyming poetry, and it's the only sort of poetry that is widely attended to by the ordinary American. To dismiss that from the field of poetry is a kind of unwarranted elitism by people no one cares about. The truth is not that "poems today don't rhyme," but that "only successful poems rhyme."


Gringo said...

I pretty much stopped reading poetry after having it overanalyzed in freshman English.

I have moderated my views of poetry over the years. Somewhat. My inexpert opinions follow. Poetry is best spoken. It needs an underlying rhythm, even a melody. It is to be enjoyed, not analyzed. Let those trying to produce tomes for tenure do the analysis.

I like Robert Frost's renditions of the New England countryside that I grew up in. He really puts me back there. Rainy November. Maybe there is a message behind the poems- I don't care.

Your point about hip hop being successful, popular rhyming poetry is well taken. Pop songs also rhyme.

English is not a very melodic language, given its gutteral Germanic origins. However, Spanish is rather melodic, and sometimes one can infer a melody merely from the way the words sound.

I once looked at a Spanish language book of a a fairly tale that had an accompanying cassette, with the words of the story set to song. Before I listened to the cassette, I guessed the melody, simply on the basis of what the words sounded like. I was spot on.

I'm not a poet, and I know it.

douglas said...

"Poems these days aren't usually any good, either, so "it worked for Longfellow" is a good retort. Rhyming isn't necessary, though: you can do alliterative poetry in the fashion of the Anglo-Saxons and Old Norse that is also very strict. Some of the Old Norse forms are quite difficult to master, requiring you to think very carefully about how to speak in the form that the poem permits. "

This. It's also a perfect analysis of why modern art stinks- lack of strict adherence to a rule, or at least adherence to a rule sufficiently to make departures from the rule meaningful (like the bridge in a song, which still adheres to other rules). I'd say it's also largely the difference between good and bad architecture most of the time, and why many still long for traditional forms.

douglas said...

Oh, and hip-hop rap rarely sticks to any rule, though there are incidences of rhyme, at least in what I hear today. Back in the 80's it was better but I still find it abhorrent for the culture it promotes.

Grim said...

It was better in the 80s and 90s. So say I, anyway: but also, so say those who practiced it then.

MikeD said...

Two things, and I will proceed them with the following caveat:
I concur greatly with Gringo. I generally dislike "free form poetry", and had all sense of the "art" of it bored out of me by very well meaning English teachers in high school. I consider poetry as something with at least rhythm if not also rhyme, and anything that purports to be "poetry" that lacks both to be nothing more than overly pretentious prose. Imagery is all well and good, but that is frankly no different than any other form of prose. A good spy novel is chock full of imagery, but no one would think to call it "poetry". And I find the whole process of analysis of poetry to generally be a heightened form of navel gazing. I think Gringo nailed it on the head in this department. Those who analyze poetry tend to be those for whom it is a profession.

That said, and you (dear reader) being fully informed as to my lack of culture, here are my two points:
One, I think it is a defect of "the modern" to scorn the traditional and ancient as "primitive". And this "poetry today doesn't rhyme" strikes me as this precise form of pretension. "Oh, look how sophisticated I am! I reject poetry that rhymes, because it simply is not done these days." If your "art" requires you to reject all that has come before to be considered serious, then I submit that you are cutting off the past because you simply are not able to compete with it. Those who feel that "proper" modern poetry should have neither rhythm nor rhyme I implicitly suspect of being unable to write poetry which has it.

Two, Grim, you wrote this:
A few years ago I proposed to DARPA via a Minerva grant application to put together a team that would study the poetry of various countries in the Islamic world, in order to identify weapons for psychological operations.

And while I find the idea intriguing, it also falls into something else I consider a trap that I've seen elsewhere... the consideration of art (to include poetry) as somehow giving strategic insight into a "culture". And this one is going to take more explanation (which I will place below, so that I don't run out of room) so please bear with me.

MikeD said...

So I've seen this as a conceit in novels, and heard it discussed by academics, that the art of a given "culture" gives insights into the people who are from that culture which can then be used to glean such things as battlefield tactics and general psychology. The problem, I feel, is that "culture" is not something static. Take the culture that most of the Hall is intimately familiar with. American culture. This is pretty easy, we live with it day to day, and at it's most "ancient" it's not even yet three hundred years old. And yet... how much of modern American culture would even be recognizable to the Founders? What would they make of modern music? Television (ignoring the shock of the technological differences)? Dress? Concepts of time*? And yet, we are to believe that based on the art and literature created by the people of the Revolutionary era, we could form concrete positions on Americans today?

Oh, to be sure, there are cultural touchstones to be found, and certain principles that demonstrate the culture of the time in which they're created, but off the top of your head can you name me three songs written in the Colonial Era? Ok, maybe those at the Hall could, but what about the average man on the street? Is the music and art of that era even recognizable today? How many American citizens have read Nathanial Hawthorne? Considered one of the greatest and most influential writers of that era. I've read exactly ONE book of his, and I doubt 90% of my fellow citizens have read that much of him.

And again, that example is the very simplest I can come up with. There's not hundreds or thousands of years of gap in the culture of then and today, there's not centuries of invasions bringing new insights, religions, and even genetic influences into the mix (though we're pretty good at absorbing cultures from around the world). But the real point is, take Iraq (please). The "Iraqis" of the Six Century AD have next to nothing at all in common with modern Iraqis. Likely not even genetically (save for some matrilinial lines that likely stretch back to the dawn of humanity. They were conquered by the Arabs (who brought Islam), they were conquered by the Persians, they were conquered by the Mongols (who themselves carried a hodgepodge of cultures not their own with them). They were conquered by the British. They have gone through various Kings, Governors, Presidents and Potentates. They have had music, poetry, literature, and art that 95% of Iraqi citizens today have never experienced. And yet, we're to believe that one can study that poetry, art, literature, music and such and use that to develop insights into the modern Iraqi (beyond broad brush strokes)? I find it hard to swallow.

And as I started with, the worst offender I ever saw was a highly regarded piece of science fiction in which the antagonist was able to divine battle plans for an alien species based upon their art. An entire race, so defined by their art that it became possible to determine how they'd react to a particular tactic. And then, to have these same mystical insights work upon every other alien race this antagonist encounters as well (thus proving it's not some weird fluke of an alien culture that shares a hive mind and has their entire society focused around their art).

* I live 30 minutes away from my friend who lives across town. In the Colonial era, if I even was to know the man, given the distances, for me to visit his house would be a fairly major undertaking either requiring me to spend the night at his house, or leaving VERY early in the morning, and not staying for even as long as it took me to get there. Dropping off a book at his house would be a day's task, not a minor errand. And my parents live in Virginia. What is a few hours trip for me to visit them would be a fairly major undertaking in the 16th Century (not to mention, pretty dangerous).

Grim said...

Well, DARPA didn't waste any money chasing my idea, so if you're right you're in good company. :) But I had much less grand ambitions: I just thought we could generate more powerful psychological operations if we knew the right metaphors and references.

MikeD said...

Well, it certainly was a problem for the Iraqis in the first Desert Storm. "Bart Simpson is sleeping with your wife" was hardly a worrying concept for most soldiers then. But by the same token, if they'd studied Hawthorne, they'd have been talking about how stealthy they were "for men without a cross in their blood", and not a single soldier would have understood what the hell they were referring to (I was 3/4 of my way through Last of the Mohicans before I figured out he meant "for a man without some Native ancestry"... because apparently Hawthorne though stealth was genetic?).