The Struggle for Poetry's Soul

Poetry has been a major art form for millennia, providing inspiration to all of mankind. More recently, postmodernism has neutered most new poetry of any power and meaning. Let us not forget, today, what is at stake.
Walter-donway

In mid-February of this year, the Atlas Society will publish a book of my poetry with the title Touched By Its Rays.

The book’s title was inspired by a section of John Galt’s speech, in Atlas Shrugged:

...and should you die without reaching full sunlight, you will die on a level touched by its rays...

These are not poems about Objectivism (the very idea is alarming), although one poem is dedicated to Ayn Rand, on the centennial of her birth in 1905, and another celebrates the 50th anniversary of the publication of Atlas Shrugged.

They are poems about how one man views the world, including his own struggle to understand, promulgate, and, ultimately, remain faithful through half a century to a philosophy of reason, achievement, and joy, having read Atlas Shrugged at age 17.

Two of the poems — a long narrative about a great railroad entrepreneur like J. J. Hill, and the Ayn Rand centennial poem — have been published previously in The New Individualist.

None of this, though, had much to do with the decision of The Atlas Society to publish this book. The importance of the book — in principle, with no grandiose expectations for its actual impact — is that it presents poems in the enduring traditions of the poet’s craft and art.

Today, all major art forms are under attack, profound philosophical attack, by post-modernists and their intellectual predecessors before the term “post-modernism” existed.

Touched By Its Rays
by Walter Donway
With fine philosophical consistency, the attack on the arts, today, always seems to strike at the essence of an art form. I would suggest, for example, that the essence of the visual arts, drawing and painting, is the representation of reality.

If we begin with Ayn Rand’s definition of art as “the selective recreation of reality according to the artist’s metaphysical value judgments,” or sense of life, then today’s non-objective art — presenting nothing recognizable, no recreation of reality — strikes at the very heart of the visual arts.

By the same token, if a novel imaginatively recreates the choices men make that determine the course of their lives, and what kind of human beings they become, then the post-modernist movement to discard plot strikes at the very essence of the novel.

I have argued at some length in “Poetry: The Supreme Art,” a lecture at the 2007 Atlas Society Summer Seminar (and available through the Atlas Society), that the essence of poetry is meter.

Like prose, poetry conveys meaning by using words to recreate reality, but what distinguishes poetry is that it establishes a meter, a consistent underlying beat, and then creates feeling, and meaning, by varying that meter in specific ways that have specific emotional effects. The possibilities are endless.

To take an example from my own book, here is the opening of a poem “Red Rover”:

O where you have gone, Red Rover?
And do you recall how we bent
To charge the ranks of old idols?
As to a trumpet’s cry we went!

We thought to topple every foe:
The labyrinth of faith, the spell
Of antique sin — all the prisons
Of humility where men dwell.

I believe that, quite apart from the meaning of the words, the underlying meter, and the rhythm imposed on it, help to convey a sense of longing, and of appeal, in these lines.

Here is another example, an excerpt from my long poem “A Ghost at Yalta”:

Eight days they gave (starting late,
continuing at banquets)
To parcel out the fate
Of half-a-billion people
Who had endured by dreaming
That after war might be life.
Nations traded, or sundered;
Ancient cities awarded;
Millions pushed across the map
As though Versailles taught nothing;
Elections hung on the pledge
Of a power-mad tyrant;
Toasts upraised to genocide;
Prisoners shipped back to die;
Slave labor for millions sanctioned:
Neither right, nor realm, nor writ
Of law was beyond the favor
Of power and privilege
A crippled man lived to savor.

The meter is a bit looser here, as is the rhythm, but the very different effect — as contrasted with “Red Rover” — is of accusation, rising insistence, and relentless contempt.

There are far better examples of the charm and ingenuity of meter and rhythm in the work of the great poets. Look at Alfred Tennyson’s masterly variations in meter and rhythm from the “The Charge of the Light Brigade” with its relentless march toward doom — “Half a league, half a league, / Half a league onward” — to the quietly unshakeable determination in the final line of “Ulysses” — “To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.”

What, then, is the post-modernist contribution to the art of poetry? Virtually all so-called serious poetry, today, is written in free verse. In other words, it dispenses with meter — dispenses with it as a matter of principle — and so attacks the very essence of what makes poetry poetry.

And the result? Well, I belong to a poet’s workshop in my region. We meet weekly to read our poems and react to them. The members are highly intelligent, literate, sensitive people, with a real talent for language and an intelligent, considerate way of responding to every poem.

But all of them grew up, of course, in the period when the poetic traditions were being cast aside for experimental verse by such pioneers as William Carlos Williams. And the essence of this experimentation was to discard meter and write only in free verse.

I sometimes describe the workshop as “twelve free verse writers and me.” That is not quite accurate; there are occasional exceptions. But, for the most part, week after week, virtually all the offerings are in free verse: intelligent, sensitive to language, but systematically discarding meter (and also rhyme, a less essential but still enduring poetic tradition).

What could be asked, of every one of these poems, is: If you did not have line breaks, how would we know that this was verse, not prose? In most cases, the answer is that we would not know.

Having abandoned meter, the contemporary writer of free verse takes several common steps to signal that he is writing poetry. One is to use line breaks, as I mentioned; another is to use no punctuation; another is to drop many connecting words; another is to pile image on image, idea on idea, without an intelligible thread.

Not every free verse writer uses all of these “techniques,” but most use some of them. Increasingly, though, free verse writers are discarding even the appearance of poetry, producing so-called “paragraph poetry.”

Through all of its long history, poetry has been a major, if not dominant, art form. The great Greek epics, such as the Iliad and the Odyssey, are in verse, as are the Greek tragic plays such as Oedipus or Antigone. Roman epics, plays, and satires all were in verse, as were some Roman works of philosophy.

The greatest narrative of the Middle Ages, Dante’s Divine Comedy, is in verse. The history of English literature is a chronicle of, more than anything else, great poets: Chaucer, Shakespeare, Coleridge, Keats, Shelley, Pope — literary giant after literary giant, until, in the Nineteenth Century, Rudyard Kipling, Matthew Arnold, and Thomas Hardy were virtual popular celebrities, read and enjoyed by people of every class and level of education.

No so the poetry of today. Most of us read, if we read poetry at all, the great classics of the Romantic period (Keats, Shelley, Wordsworth, Byron), or the American traditionalists such as Robert Frost, Edna St. Vincent Millay, and, yes, e e Cummings, who experimented in many ultimately minor ways but was one of the great lyricists of our time.

I don’t think many people outside of specifically “intellectual” and “artistic” circles dote on contemporary poetry. After the great generation of Eliot, Pound, Yeats, Frost, and perhaps Dylan Thomas, no great poet seems to have appeared — and no poet of any wide popularity.

True, Allen Ginsberg attracted a huge audience with “Howl,” but that had the shock value of a “first.” Why would people read today’s poetry for inspiration, insight, and the enchantment of the music of words? For the most part, those values have been discarded.

So-called serious poetry, today, is notably “difficult.” The reader who finishes a poem is apt to ask, first, “What is it about?” The poet’s workshop I attend spends a great deal of time just trying to figure out what, merely on the surface level, a poem says.

The tragedy of the long decline of popular values in serious art has two aspects, related but quite different.

First, as Ayn Rand said, art expresses the sense of life of a people, giving them something of a shared feeling about the world in which they live, expressing their deepest values, and providing a barometer of the status of philosophy in a culture.

We have lost that: The great teller of stories that define us as a people, a generation, and a culture; the great satires that puncture pretension, political dishonesty, and intellectual folly; the great plays that dramatize the fate that we choose when we make the decisions that shape our character.

Second, and what is far more personal, we are deprived of an art form that gives us an experience of our sense of life with the power of music, the clarity of a conceptual art, an imagery as vivid and perhaps more varied than the visual arts, and the heroic scope of great epic narrative.

How many people realize exactly what we have lost? Ayn Rand once commented that for those who did not experience the optimism, the confidence, and sense of man’s grandeur that characterized the Nineteenth Century, nothing can quite capture and convey the sense of a fundamentally benevolent culture and society.

Another great figure that spanned the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries, the Irish poet William Butler Yeats (perhaps my favorite), wrote at the close of World War I:

Many ingenious lovely things are gone
That were sheer miracle to the multitude...

One such ingenious, lovely thing — almost lost, today — is the ancient and timeless craft of poetry: a voice from the homeland of the soul.

Walter Donway is a founding trustee of The Atlas Society and author of the book Touched By Its Rays. Until its publication in mid-February, the book may be purchased in advance at a substantial discount at ObjectivismStore.com.

8 comments from readers  

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Thank you for sharing your insights about the significance of poetry, historically and spiritually. I hope your book attracts a fitting reception among Rand-inspired readers!
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As a "sensory consumer" I find that at the end of the day, when it comes to the arts, definitional questions are far less interesting that the question of how resonant and evocative I find a given artist's output.

I've heard efforts in perfect iambic pentameter that made me blush with empathetic embarrassment, and read both free verse and "poetic prose" written with such extraordinary rhythmic sensibility that there was little question the author had chosen words no less carefully than the most skilled lyricist or traditional poet.

I could say the same for representational versus abstract visual art. Here I must confess that I align with Elvis Costello's sentiment in feeling that many art forms simply speak for themselves: "Writing about music is like dancing about architecture - it's a really stupid thing to want to do."

Most attempts at formally defining what is and isn't art seem to me to amount to little more than authoritative (and implicitly subjective) omphaloskepsis, brought to the page.

Your art is likely your most eloquent exposition of your artistic vision; you might consider simply electing to avoid free verse if it offends you.
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Much of what Mr Donway says I agree with profoundly. Although he is rather kind to the people in his poetry circle, I think he is avoiding a significant criticism of many modern arts -- skill (or the lack thereof).

Many people are moved by great events, or profound personal circumstances to want to express themselves through the arts but sadly lack the skill to make manifest what they wish to convey. In poetry this is covered up by free verse. In the visual and erstwhile representational arts, it is covered up by conceptual art.

The basic measure of a knife is that it should cut, of a car that it should actually propel itself, and of an aeroplane that it should fly. The word is expected to have a core meaning.

Yet unskilled would-be poets have subverted the word poetry to cover a literary form that is neither well-formed prose nor well-formed poetry, and would-be visual artists have done a similar thing in the field of representational art.

Bravo to Mr. Donway -- well said indeed.
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As a new-found poet I am discovering the "joys" of using meter and rhyme not just as aids for writing song lyrics but as an end in themselves, serving to enrapt the listener to my tale.
Thanks for the recognition of my efforts! I know I am not alone!

Of course I am also trying antique forms such as sonnets and putting on my Shakespeare hat with archaic terms and thou's and thee's as well.

It is tons of fun! and it amuses my audience...
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There's a phrase which modern art practitioners often use. They speak of "pushing the limits" of an art form. But as Mr. Donway suggests, they have pushed way past the limits, and left the art form behind! Thank you for a great article.
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Excellent perspectives, although I would dissent on the criticism of free verse. I think it is the content and quality of the verse that is at issue, not the form, as such. Robert Frost and Carl Sandburg and Robinson Jeffers wrote in free verse, and can hardly be trivialized.

I write in both rhymed and free verse, and love both, and do not think that either is greater, or lesser, than the other.

Windward of the ridges
where the gold summer
grass flows westering
to the sea, where swallows
swirl in the insect laden evening,
hear, remember, bewildered
red-chested Santa Gertrudis
steers bawling out the
timeless litany of cattle,
horse, and rider, the
contented snorting of
cutting horses sensing their
dusty work well done, the
ring of tarnished spurs
and lyric cursing of
the wind-burnt men lightly
riding their own legends
into the sunset.
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I would like to know if what we expect poetry to be is a heresy to Ayn Rand's reason. I am asking because her best poetry was probably unintended. Poetry's first element is time and reason's is information. It is oddly predictable and probably an honest thing that the articulate stumble to define poetry. The unspoken duty of language is to find truth in brevity and trouble begins when it takes more than one sentence to express one thought. The duty of poetry is to live.

Remember Dr. Frankenstein or Colin Clive
Crying out in tears "It's alive!"
Brief little poem, wouldn't you agree?
And what mystery wrote Mary Shelly?

Most of what is in the news is what Mary Shelley was trying to get her allegory around. More specifically these days, it has to do with nattering about pollution and protecting the flavours; all 31 or more invented victim classes of social injustice and all that crap. Like Dr. Frankenstein's man made of others or earlier Nimrod's Tower of Babel, what we have created, as usual has us in jeopardy. If an interstate highway system is a greater thing than lines of pavement and something when busy more likely to draw the attention of critics - a poem is a greater thing than a gathering of its parts.

It's been a long dry season for poets, since wool sweatered beat had an audience. It is so American that frustration in search of shelf space has music stores mis-marketing Hip Hop as music and CNN is answering political suspicion with the crooning of an old fighter pilot and JFK's soul brother and what kind of name is Obama anyway? Of course, without melody Rap is stripped down to time and good or evil my friend, once again the young want poetry? It feels good and sure, it hurts kids much more than country music. Yep! and it has to do with liberal cowardice acquiescing to righteous sounding rage cheering casual rape and murder but braving elite distain for George Jones' planet polluting pickup trucks. This is what we do; it is our magic. Unlike my faithful dog sitting beside me here, the human condition make things greater than the sum of our efforts. Poetry is the creative engine of language and the force always present when the deft dance with time and metaphor. It doesn't require the sorts of meter I was taught in school but it does require time. "Paper cup" still shows up in lyrics well into the age of plastic because paper cup "badop-bop" gots rhythm.

Without time there is no poetry. Songs are hummed between the garage and front door because there is soothing release from care in the time expansion and compression medicine of rhythm.

So, are all poems found on CDs and poetry books? No, not the important stuff. As this Political Football season comes to its wit's end, we gather to witness the Manifest-Destiny-Bowl; two teams: each of which has a budget mechanic as well as a poet. This has nothing to do with Democrats and Republicans. The opposing sides determining our future are star-crossed within the parties. This election is between the Clinton/Romney team promising to take that guy's money over there and give it to this guy over here. There is the McCain/Obama team promising to launder a now contrite me generation's progeny of meism "I'm gunna get that dirt right outta your self".

The historic precedent of JFK and Reagan leaves both McCain and Obama encouraged that the only thing that can defeat their speech is unnecessary information. The budget mechanics `run on' filling the air with information; sardonically promising the now tired grievance generation of rich and poor boomers nurtured on fascist doctrines of unmerited gain using the victim language of race accusation and gender shame. Obama and McCain almost telepathically treat our amnesia; roof raising us with bolts of their lightening quick fascinating rhythms. We are the gathered words of America's future poem, calling on rhythms still beating in that noble part of ourselves; that part Ayn Rand loved, the news forgotten hopes rising again off pages of recent history.

This political season is all about voter capacity for poetry; capacity to get it. With a keen ear for time and eye for metaphor we are likely to catch on that this is not about parties. If the poets win the primaries, it doesn't matter who wins the general election. We're back because poetry has always been a struggling soul's soldier in waiting, willing to bear arms able to sort out those troubles that gave history its name.
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One way to remember the superb lessons of Walter Donway's little essay is to remember Robert Frost's pithy comment: Writing free verse is like "playing tennis without a net."
To post comments, please log in first. The Atlasphere is a social networking site for admirers of Ayn Rand's novels, most notably The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged. In addition to our online magazine, we offer a member directory and a dating service. If you share our enjoyment of Ayn Rand's novels, please sign up or log in to post comments.