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.”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.
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.”
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."