Poetry as Plain Language: Popular Postmodernism

Language Poetry

Language poetry possibly began in 1971 with the NY magazine This, which in turn led, seven years later, to a magazine entitled L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E. Its spiritual forefathers were Ezra Pound, Gertrude Stein {1} and Louis Zukofsky, {2} and the movement drew on the anti-capitalist, sometimes Marxist, politics of the time, especially the writings of Lacan, Barthes and Foucault. Though initially opposed to the teaching establishment, preferring to operate through the small presses, the movement gradually drew closer to academia, before fragmenting and losing its intellectual ascendancy in the usual avant garde fashion. Many of its one-time members are still well known, however, and writing strongly: Charles Bernstein, {3} Ron Silliman {4} and Bob Perelman. {5}


Aims are best grasped by what the movement opposed: {6} 1. narrative: no story or connecting tissue of viewpoint or argument: poems often incorporate random thoughts, observations and sometimes nonsense. {7} 2. personal expression: not merely detached, the poems accept Barthe's thesis that the author does not exist. {8} 3. organization: poems are based on the line, not the stanza, and often that line is discontinuous or fragmentary: the poems reject any guiding sense of purpose. {9} 4. control: poems take to extremes the open forms advocated by Williams and the Black Mountain School. 5. capitalist politics and/or bourgeoisie values. {10}

Some Examples

The above would seem to make language poetry bafflingly difficult, but generally it isn't. Who could not be charmed by Bernadette Mayer's Synesthetes at the Writers House. {11}

I'm pleased to announce
that staying at the Writers House
is like living under a multi-colored apple tree
in winter; synesthetes would tremble with pleasure
tempera paint and chalk make a formidable coat

of many colors, in summer pink and white blossoms fall on your head
to the south here, a forest
to the east, only snow and a garden
to the north a road and forest
to the west forest, a blue halloween-observing house

With its playful tone and gentle mockery of social address, the poem is exactly about its subject, synaesthesia, which it aptly demonstrates later with the sky looks blue which feels like stilettoes / Sophia's plant is green, just like an 'E'.

Chronic Meanings by Bob Perelman has a looser associative thread of meaning, but all lines are opening words of everyday sentences: {12}

The phone is for someone.
The next second it seemed.
But did that really mean.
Yet Los Angeles is full.

Naturally enough I turn to.
Some things are reversible, some.
You don't have that choice.
I'm going to Jo's for.

Now I've heard everything, he.
One time when I used.
The amount of dissatisfaction involved.
The weather isn't all it's.
You'd think people would have.
Or that they would invent.
At least if the emotional.
The presence of an illusion.

Why so pleasing? Because the lines themselves make us want to know more. And because they obliquely follow on from each other. What is Symbiosis of home and prison but staying put or confined in some way? ‘Doing time’ is serving a prison sentence, and ‘superfluous’ points out that time indeed stands still when we have nothing unusual to do: Then, having become superfluous, time. And then. And so on: the many teasing connections in the poem hardly need pointing out.

That sense of fun is apparent in Thinking I Think I Think by Charles Bernstein:

. . . Dusting the rigor mortis
for compos mentis. Rune is bursting
out all over a perfidious quarrel
sublates even the heckling at
the Ponderosa. A bevy of belts.
Burl Ives turned to burlap. Who
yelled that? Lily by the lacquer
(laparotomy). I'm strictly here on
business, literary business.
I propose the codicil-ready cables?
Like slips gassing in the night.
Chorus of automatic exclusions.
Don't give me no label as long as I

am able. Search & displace, curse
& disgrace. Suppose you suppose,
circumstances remonstrating. . . {13}

Bernstein goes further by muddling phrases: Like sl(h)ips g(p)assing in the night. By adding riddling remarks (in the full poem, the above is an excerpt): Search & displace, curse & disgrace. And thoughtful nonsense: The man the man declined to be. But it's fun, entertaining, not to be taken too seriously.

Though not deeply personal, poems have their own voices and takes on situations. Here is David Bromige sending up Rilke's Herbsttag. {14}

Fall (Rilke into Californian)

It's getting chilly, nights. If you don't have a pad by now,
Too bad. If you're not seeing someone
You're likely stuck that way, they went back to school.

Crack a book yourself. Write in Starbucks.
Go walkabout downtown. [Time passes]. Hey, lookit
the leaves, wind, etc. doing their thing. Rustle rustle.
Contrast and compare yourself. Cool!

Language poets are not always adverse to using old forms, which they pull gentle fun of while still getting something out of. An example is Douglas Barbour's breath ghazal 17: {15}

hard for a breath i tarry           harried
into the body of time no            please

yet the lack of breath
s death      even in movement the care

taking the earth & its air           making
the ruined lands fair            again

breath ghazal 17: by Douglas Barbour. The East Village Poetry Web

And common to many is an exactness in the speaking voice: they sound as a good radio script. Kit Robinson's line 56: {16}

Hey, poetry lovers!
it's good to see you
here on the page

The white spaces
are looking good
today, huh?

Hey, I gotta admit
I'm not too clear on
what all the different

Things are that I'm actually
doing with you guys
I think maybe we have Bill

Speaking at your
show in England or
something like that


For all their playful, throw-away appearance, considerable knowledge and literary skill is needed for these poems. The fragments have to be entertaining, and they have to 'sit right' in the lines. The playful, the ludic, the ‘just suppose’ is an important element in art, and we'd be dull creatures not to respond. Naturally, being members of the avant garde, its exponents could lead critics a merry dance into the thickets of radical theory, {17} in which they may or may not have believed. L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poetry is a clever art, sophisticated and fitfully entertaining. Perhaps it's not poetry as was, and undoubtedly it shirks larger responsibilities, but it anticipated our consumerist world of news snippets, ad men and political sound bites, becoming less radical when reality caught up with art.

Prose-Based Poetry


When free verse lacks rhythmic patterning, appearing as a lineated prose stripped of unnecessary ornament and rhetoric, it becomes the staple of much contemporary work. The focus is on what the words are being used to say, and their authenticity. The language is not heightened, and the poem differs from prose only by being more self-aware, innovative and/or cogent in its exposition. Nonetheless, what looks normal at first becomes challenging on closer reading — thwarting expectations, and turning back on itself to make us think more deeply about the seemingly innocuous words used. And from there we are compelled to look at the world with sharper eyes, unprotected by commonplace phrases or easy assumptions. Often an awkward and fighting poetry, therefore, not indulging in ceremony or outmoded traditions.

What is Prose?

If we say that contemporary free verse is often built from what was once regarded as mere prose, we shall have to distinguish prose from poetry, which is not so easy. Prose was once the lesser vehicle, the medium of everyday thought and conversation, what we used to express facts, opinions, humour, arguments, feelings and the like. And while the better writers developed individual styles, and styles varied according to their purpose and social occasion, prose of some sort could be written by anyone. Beauty was not a requirement, and prose articles could be rephrased without great loss in meaning or effectiveness. Poetry, though, had grander aims. William Lyon Phelps on Thomas Hardy's work: {17} ‘The greatest poetry always transports us, and although I read and reread the Wessex poet with never-lagging attention — I find even the drawings in "Wessex Poems" so fascinating that I wish he had illustrated all his books — I am always conscious of the time and the place. I never get the unmistakable spinal chill. He has too thorough a command of his thoughts; they never possess him, and they never soar away with him. Prose may be controlled, but poetry is a possession. Mr. Hardy is too keenly aware of what he is about. In spite of the fact that he has written verse all his life, he seldom writes unwrinkled song. He is, in the last analysis, a master of prose who has learned the technique of verse, and who now chooses to express his thoughts and his observations in rime and rhythm.’


‘If the work fails to survive, it will be because of its low elevation on the purely literary side. In spite of occasional powerful phrases, as:

What corpse is curious on the longitude
And situation of his cemetery!

the verse as a whole wants beauty of tone and felicity of diction. It is more like a map than a painting.’


‘Yet as a whole, and in spite of Mr. Hardy's love of the dance and of dance music, his poetry lacks grace and movement. His war poem, "Men Who March Away", is singularly halting and awkward. His complete poetical works are interesting because they proceed from an interesting mind.’

Note the hallmarks of poetry then: transports us, possession, soar away, unmistakable spinal chill, beauty of tone, felicity of diction, grace and movement. Some of those excellences are also to be found in Phelps' own commentary. Prose only, of course: the piece does not lift into imaginative reveries, bring forth spiritual mysteries or explore the wellsprings of our human natures. But it makes some telling points, and the writing is flexible, urbane and sensitive. It's also rather dated. The engaging manner hides a good deal of literary artifice — suspicious to our minds: verging on oratory, attempting to win us over in advance of the facts, assuming what should be questioned more closely. But that was no doubt the literary style of the time, a quieter version of the poetry that Phelps holds up to our admiration:

O Lily of the King! low lies thy silver wing,
And long has been the hour of thine unqueening;
And thy scent of Paradise on the night-wind spills its sighs,
Nor any take the secrets of its meaning.
O Lily of the King! I speak a heavy thing,
O patience, most sorrowful of daughters!
Lo, the hour is at hand for the troubling of the land,
And red shall be the breaking of the waters.

From Lilium Regis by Francis Thompson.

Contemporary Poetry Examples

How very different is generally the poetry of today. The three examples below come from The Academy of American Poets, {18} which spreads the net wide, but does try to present the best of modern and contemporary work. Copyright restrictions allow only a few lines, but each poem can be found by Internet search.

I had sex with a famous poet last night
and when I rolled over and found myself beside him I shuddered
because I was married to someone else,

From The Star-Spangled Banner by Denise Duhamel. Southern Illinois University Press, 1999.

    ’I wonder
if there are any catfish in this pond?
It seems like a perfect place for them.’

From: The Pill Versus the Springhill Mine Disaster by Richard Brautigan, published by Houghton Mifflin.

It was taken some time ago.
At first it seems to be
a smeared
print: blurred lines and grey flecks
blended with the paper;

From: The Circle Game by Margaret Atwood.

What can we say of these styles: appropriate, unaffected, a trifle flat? Close to prose, in fact. Remove the line arrangements and the sentences would slip unnoticed into a contemporary short story. Something like: ‘”I wonder if there are any catfish in this pond? It seems like a perfect place for them,” she said, glancing up at the man who was now trying to retrieve the ball from the tangle of weeds into which it had fallen.’

Story Telling

And that may be their intention. The poems tell a story, present a situation, extract something from a world familiar to us. Modest in their aims, the poems show things as through plain glass: life without overt shapings into grand narratives or marked by portentous underlinings. That is how life is, we admit, the way we are. We can read more into the incidents, but are not compelled to do so. Sympathetic observation of character, an ear for dialogue, creation of scene through telling detail — that is what we look for: the storyteller's art. Hardy showed the way, and Margaret Atwood is also a celebrated novelist. But is this really all that poetry aims at? Wouldn't we be better off with the full story or magazine article of which these seem pared-down versions? We absorb prose at a more comfortable rate than poetry, and contemporary work is hardly popular. Why restrict the readership still further?

Because poetry today, or this type of poetry, focuses on the word itself. Just the word, without ornament or emotional shading, or any regimentation with rhetorical devices. And for these, among other reasons:

Heritage: the way Modernism poetry has developed through Thomas Hardy's occasional pieces, Ezra Pound's interest in Chinese ideograms, Wallace Stevens's Symbolist credo and William Carlos Williams's homespun philosophy.

Honesty: to avoid the corrupting influence of language in business, politics and advertising. Words are a bedrock, whose plain use guarantees sincerity.

Originality: being avant garde, the poetry must oppose the establishment, rejecting the products of a privileged or extended education.

The attitudes are not built on sand, but they do make large assumptions. But there is a further point. Even supposing these reasons were compellingly self-evident, the poetry would fail if it were simply as we have supposed: pared-down articles, filleted short stories. But it isn't. Once free of conventional usage, words can adopt new strategies.

Prose-Based Strategies

Here are a few, with sources on the click-throughs:  

Pacings that allow words or phrases their proper significance. Jackson Mac Low: Circulation. And long long /Mind every/ Interest Some how mind and every long

Switches in mid line or stanza that disrupt or reverse expectations. Elini Sikelianos: Thus, Speak the Chromograph

Abrupt changes in viewpoint or of characters speaking. Hayden Carruth: Scrambled eggs and whiskey / in the false-dawn light. Chicago,

Variety in pace or attack: there is no metre to be negotiated. Mark Strand: the coming of love, the coming of light./ You wake and the candles are lit as if by themselves,

Fresh expression: John Canaday: I dream of grass so green it speaks.

Make large leaps in sense: Lucille Clifton: water waving forever/ and may you in your innocence/ sail through this to that

Phrasing based on units of sound rather than syntax: Cole Swenson: (the night has houses)/ and the shadow of the fabulous/ broken into handfuls

Repetition of words or phrases that reiterate but make no comment: E.M. Schorb : There are more women than / men in the nursing home and / more men than old doctors.

Antithesis as structure, not argument: Shel Silverstein: Everything's wrong,/ Days are too long,/ Sunshine's too hot,/ Wind is too strong.

Extended personification: Charles Simic: How much death works,/ No one knows what a long/ Day he puts in.

Inconsequential remarks linked by common tone: James Wright: We prayed for the road home./ We ate the fish./There must be something very beautiful in my body,/ I am so happy..


It is these strategies, and many others, that account for the modest successes of this style. Could these be phrased in more traditional forms? Yes, but they wouldn't be the same poem: their rightness depends on the way they reflect the awkwardness and general untidiness of life.

Shortcomings 1: Emotional Charge

Now for the debit side: what could be the shortcomings of so plain a style? A first point to stress is the variety in the work, the very different themes, aims and levels of accomplishment in contemporary poetry. We cannot reasonably corral such abundance under one heading, and then stamp it with marks of approval or disapproval. Nonetheless, there remain two elements that readers may find largely absent:  emotional depth and a compelling truth. Here, to introduce the first, is an anthology piece of a century back:

‘Let us consider, too, how differently young and old are affected by the words of some classic author, such as Homer or Horace. Passages, which to a boy are but rhetorical commonplaces, neither better nor worse than a hundred others which any clever writer might supply, which he gets by heart and thinks very fine, and imitates, as he thinks, successfully, in his own flowing versification, at length come home to him, when long years have passed, and he has had experience of life, and pierce him, as if he had never before known them, with their sad earnestness and vivid exactness. Then he comes to understand how it is that lines, the birth of some chance morning or evening at an Ionian festival, or among the Sabine hills, have lasted generation after generation, for thousands of years, with a power over the mind, and a charm, which the current literature of his own day, with all its obvious advantages, is utterly unable to rival. Perhaps this is the reason of the medieval opinion about Virgil, as if a prophet or magician; his single words and phrases, his pathetic half-lines, giving utterance, as the voice of Nature herself, to that pain and weariness, yet hope of better things, which is the experience of her children in every time.’ {19} Is this prose? In one sense, yes, but possibly poetry too. What it says is a commonplace, but readers may sense in it an emotional power that is largely missing from contemporary poetry. With its playfulness, its variety of subject matter and width of social register, poetry today has accomplished many things. But with the populist tone has also come an unwillingness to take risks, or construct a heightened awareness of ourselves and surroundings.

Shortcomings 2: Larger Truth

Now what we might call a compelling truth. The sombre splendour of the Newman passage does not lie wholly in the rhetoric, but what the passage says. We have to accept its meaning to admit the power. Literary wizardry can certainly set content off to its best advantage, but it cannot wholly create that content — not unless we accept that old jibe about poetry: ‘Poetry is something which appeals to the emotions and feelings. The Quran, on the other hand is designed to inspire by arousing consciousness, conscience and will. When did poetry create a world movement, a civilization and empires? Orientalists who read the Quran as if it were poetry are worse than those who pick up a text book on science and read it as if it were a novel.’ {20}

Many novels are entertainments, creations where we can explore the possibilities of human behaviour without crippling responsibility, but they are not serious. Nor is much contemporary poetry. Original and entertaining in small doses, the poems can tire us in the end with their formulaic cleverness and connections too easily made — as in these examples from The Academy of American Poets:

Palea by Tory Dent (ic, v)
Homage to Sharon Stone by Lynn Emanuel (v, t)
Hymn to the Neck by Amy Gerstler (ic, v)
Monologue for an Onion by Suji Kwock Kim (ic, v)
The Blue Cup by Minnie Bruce Pratt (v)
Last Night I Dreamed of Chickens by Jack Prelutsky (n)
The Cities Inside Us by Alberto Ríos (v, ic)
Nearing Autobiography by Pattiann Rogers (v, ic)

 Formulaic cleverness? These are the shortcomings, I’d suggest, of the poems tagged:

t. trite: a bald observation is tacked on rather than developed through the poem, making the ending trite and unconvincing.

ic. intellectual conceit: the intellectual framework is arbitrary and extended beyond what is illuminating.

v. vacuous: the poem ends up saying nothing of importance.

t. trivial: the subject or theme is not novel, or developed in any interesting way.

c. clichéd: a language not merely undistinguished but too clichéd for even a local newspaper.

Perhaps their authors have written better, when the fault lies with the selections — those in Modern American Poets {21} seem better — but the shortcomings are common to this style of writing, which the very directness cannot hide. The subject matter is not the problem. When we turn to Academy poems that deal with truly harrowing themes, we are met with the same flat reportage:

racial discrimination: Worms
racial slurs: Niggerlips
religious intolerance: Looking for Omar
bodily change: Mastectomy
revenge: Lucky

Are we being fair? We have asked for a faithful representation of life, and these, their authors and editors might claim, provide exactly that. They tell it straight. The poems don't make emotional capital out of the incidents but leave facts to speak for themselves. But they are not 'the facts', but information/opinions/feelings that have been created, selected and presented. We can reasonably ask why, and judge the effect of that presentation. Their tone may be fairly neutral, but is a tone all the same, establishing some relationship between author and reader. We take our cue from that tone. Why should we want to read them anyway? Newspapers report on real life, on people or events important to us. Novels generate interest through plot and character conflict. Neither can be claimed for these poems, and any ‘universality of theme’ is ruled out by their modest statements.

The poets concerned are serious, well read in English literature, the winners of numerous grants and prizes, and often run courses or workshops at postgraduate level. Unless the poetry world is a gigantic hoax run for and by a self-perpetuating priesthood of incompetents, is there not something we are missing?

Perhaps an older view of poetry. We have characterized a prose-based poetry as one stripped of unnecessary ornament. In fact, it may be better to think of rhetoric, that of classical poetry with its elitist and cumbersome devices, as having been replaced by another more appropriate to everyday use. Out has gone artifice, rhythmic subtlety and grand statements, and in its place is the authentic speech of real people in real situations. What is heightened about this language? Nothing: it is not heightened or literary, indeed the very opposite. What distinguishes it from what we use every day of our lives? That is its strength. It is rooted in quotidian usage and draws its strength and raison d'être from that usage. Language rooted in current social discourse, in current concerns. True, it looks back to past heroes for its styles, but these only saw more clearly what was really needed.

Pros and Cons

We might therefore say that the style has these advantages:

Versatile, accommodating most themes and approaches.

Unpretentious: speech of real people in real situations.

Contemporary, unhindered by outmoded forms or preoccupations.

Easy to write (though possibly difficult to achieve outstanding results).

And these dangers:

Elementary in literary skills, and apt to be unmemorable.

Prosaic in thought and/or themes, sometimes trivial.

More clever than genuinely moving.

Inffectual in translating older (formal) poetry.

In summary: if these styles aim at what prose at its best once achieved, they do so by very different routes. And that we have to bear in mind when we ask: Do they engage our interest and sympathies? Do they fittingly express themselves? Do they say something in the end worth saying? Have they achieved something difficult or impossible in any other form?


Theory doesn't help us here. It is by puzzling out what these poems are saying that we are led into probing a world that we have hitherto too much taken for granted. Adherents would argue that a prosaic style is a decided advantage, a heightened language would only bewitch us in the old ways of poetry. Just as Wittgenstein's philosophy tried to untangle the conundrums of language used beyond its proper remit, it’s the contemporary poet's task to look at life squarely, without the swelling orchestra of feelings. {22} Hence also the interest in deconstruction, which stresses the arbitrariness of language, and the corresponding need to look carefully at individual words and how they are used in a particular text.

Are the results poetry? Obviously so, in the sense that the installations etc. of contemporary painters and sculptors are art: they try to understand the visual world in a fuller but non-scientific sense. It may be that this poetry is not very popular, with the public {23} or even academia, {24} drawing its acclaim from small groups of enthusiasts. {25} The poetry generally lacks overt emotional appeal, and does not provide — and is not intended to provide — readers with a sense of beauty or their significance in the world. Uncompromising, playful or intellectually austere, the poetry can also need the exegesis of literary theory to fully appreciate. Is too much read into these simple structures and apparently trivial statements? Their advocates say no: these very features become the placeholders for searching questions we are provoked to ask: of social issues, human relationships, and — most of all — language itself. {26} Other articles on this site suggest that these aims are doubtful of attainment. {27}

Contemporary Translation

However we may view these styles ­— unpretentious, emotionally flat, whether used seriously (Prynne and Ashbery) or playfully (Language Poetry) — they are generally a poor medium for translating the classics of European literature. ‘For making sense of our contemporary world in terms of the everyday minutiae of existence, the discontinuous prose style of contemporary poetry serves admirably, but poets have generally had grander longings. They have wanted to impart an imperishable beauty to what is fleeting in our chaotic and problematic lives. They have wanted to explore matters that had no existence outside their intricately-constructed  expression. And they have wanted to say things that no sane person would probably ever conceive of saying — creating an essential, full and vital representation of the world where other representations are abstract and abbreviated.’ {28}

Academic translators no doubt find today's styles easier to write in, since they are basically prose, and a prose with restricted facilities for aesthetic and semantic shaping. Students with a limited knowledge of English literature will certainly find them easier to read: they can be skimmed like the other yards of text they have to get through each week. But these translations are not the genuine article: they turn what was beautiful, moving and memorable into the mundane.  Translation is not a competition, {29} of course, but I will end with some examples of current difficulties.

Euripides’ Medea. George Theodoridis (2005)

Corinthian women, you know that I have to suffer an insufferable thing, a thing that has worn my soul away. I’m no longer alive!

I refuse all of life’s charms and I seek death. Yes, death, Corinthians, because my husband, who was my whole world, had become the most evil of all men. {30}

Translation has been made afresh from the original Greek. The diction is energised, but the meaning is not close to the original and the tone is flattened into shouting.

Racine’s Phaedra. V, 6.  A.S. Kline (2003)

Panic took them, and deaf as they were then,
They recognised neither voice nor the rein.
Their master exhausted himself in useless struggle,
While in the blood-wet foam they stained their bridles.
They even say some saw, in this wild confusion,
A god who goaded their dusty flanks: a vision.
Their fear drove them headlong over the rocks,
The axle groaned and shattered, brave Hippolytus
Saw his whole chariot break into fragments.
He himself fell entangled in the harness.
Forgive my sorrow. That cruel sight to see
Will be an eternal source of tears to me. {31}

Rhymes are approximate and the lines do not scan. But the danger lies not in accepting the makeshift as today's new normal, but the assumption that effective and elevated verse is no longer relevant. Ideally, we expect the translation to 'work' in the tradition of English verse as the original does in the tradition of French verse, different conventions notwithstanding. Tony Kline generally writes a very serviceable 'free verse' but is not overly concerned with the aesthetic dimension — any more, I suspect, than are the many students who use his generously-provided translations. Yet it's through the elevated aesthetic dimension, from overall shape of the play down to minute particulars of word choice, that the original has remained alive, why we still read it. Those larger dimensions deserve to be better carried over.

Horace Odes IV 7. Rosanna Warren (2002)

All gone, the snow: grass throngs back to the fields,
the trees grow out new hair;
Earth follows her changes, and subsiding streams
jostle within her banks. {32}

Over-literal, with none of Horace’s charm, polish and lapidary dexterity. The piece is unfortunately typical of many in a recent anthology, where all contributions come from accredited and/or prize-winning poets and translators. Clearly, we're in a different, more mundane world here, however much Harold Bloom may champion its virtues.

Dante: Divine Comedy. Robin Kilpatrick (2013)

At one point midway on our path through life,
I came around and found myself now searching
through a dark wood, the right way blurred and lost.

How hard it is to say what that wood was,
a wilderness, savage, brute, harsh and wild.
Only to think of it renews my fear!

So bitter, that thought, that death is hardly more so.
But since my theme will be the good I found there
I mean to speak of other things I saw. {33}

Fairly accurate but not rhymed: Dante’s sinewy and compact verse is rendered as a lightly-running half-prose half-verse.

Ovid: Tristia VI 6. David Slavitt (1999)

Some translations are more inventions. In Christopher Martin's useful paperback Ovid in English, {34} presenting 123 excerpts from 77 translators, we find the following introduction to the lines below: 'David R. Slavitt's beautiful translations bring Ovid's exile poems finally into their own for the contemporary English audience, capturing the poignancy of these often difficult laments in sturdy couplets of six or five stresses.'

Let us imagine a ruin — say of some small Greek temple
   in an out of the way place, where the god happened
to speak or spare or warn or simply to show herself,
   nearly levelled, say by an earthquake, but one
single column left, holding up its corner
   by which we can imagine the rest of the structure.
Which is the more affecting, the ruined part of the building,
   or that surviving piece of it, forlorn,
bereaved of the rest? My life is the ruin; yours, dear wife,
   is that still-standing beautiful pillar, vessel
for the spirit that yet abides. How else to declare
   my love for you, who deserve a less wretched
though not better or more deserving husband? My powers
   are not what they were. Clumsy sincerity
must speak with its thick tongue, stammering out thanks
   and affection, unadorned but still heartfelt.

But where the Latin talks about a spar remaining from a shipwreck, David Slavitt has introduced a long passage of his own invention on Greek ruins and their cause. Why? Even in quatrains, limiting and only doubtfully suitable, the piece can be fairly closely rendered as: {35}

Whatever little now remains I rest
in you. I know that always you will care
for us, and keep your wits about you, lest
men strip the panels from the shipwreck there.

They raven for our blood, as will the fold
goad on the wolf unwatched with hungry thoughts
to snatch at us before our case is cold,
or vultures drop on an abandoned corpse.

We have our brave supporters, but it's you
who largely drove them off, for which goodwill
my wretchedness is witness, here as true
as griefs with which I feel the burdens still.

The classics have become a world of diminished expectations, where prosaic lines serve for prosaic ends. Translation of poetry into poetry is extraordinarily difficult, of course, but there seems less warrant in insisting that all poetry today adopt flat-footed and graceless styles. Even the Movement poets generally wrote better. {36}

Poet laureates have many thankless tasks, but is this really adequate to the occasion?

It should be private, the long walk
on bereavement’s hard stones;
and when people wave, their hands
should not be mobile phones,
nor their faces lenses;
so your heart dressed in its uniform. {37}

And is this padding out of the obvious worthy of first prize in the 2017 UK Poetry Society's competition?

Six boys, a calf’s tongue each, one task —
to gulp each slick muscle down in turn,
 to swallow each vein whole and not give
 back a word, a sign, our mothers’ names.
 The scab stripped off, the ritual learned —
five boys step out across an empty field. {38}

Poetry was once a good deal more than this, and may have to be again if deserving of intelligent appreciation.


1. Gertrude Stein.


2. Louis Zukofsky. http://writing.upenn.edu/epc/authors/zukofsky/

3. Schultz S.M. (2001) Of Time and Charles Bernstein’s Lines: A Poetics of Fashion Statements. http://jacketmagazine.com/14/schultz-bernstein.html. Extended Jacket (issue 14) article.

4. Ron Silliman. http://writing.upenn.edu/epc/authors/silliman/ Author homepage at EPC.

5. Bob Perelman. http://www.poets.org/. Listings on The Academy of American Poets.

6. L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E P=O=E=T=R=Y 1999. http://www.poetrypreviews.com/poets/language.html. Short Poetry Previews article with links to books in print.

7. McGann, J, (1988) ‘Contemporary Poetry, Alternate Routes’ an introduction to language poetry. http://www.writing.upenn.edu/%7Eafilreis/88v/mcgann.html. Extract from McGann, Jerome J., Social values and poetic acts : a historical judgment of literary work (Harvard Univ. Press, 1988).

8. Perloff, M (1998) Language Poetry and the Lyric Subject: Ron Silliman's Albany, Susan Howe's Buffalo. http://marjorieperloff.com/essays/silliman-howe/ Language poetry in context: essay with good bibliography.

9. Perloff, M. (1998) After Free Verse: The New Non-Linear Poetries. https://www.writing.upenn.edu/epc/authors/perloff/free.html

10. Hartley, G. (2004) Textual Politics and the Language Poets (excerpts). George Hartley . Emphasizes the political aspects of the movement.

11. Mayer, B. Synesthetes at the Writers House. http://writing.upenn.edu/wh/about/mayer.html target="_blank".

12. Perelman, B. Chronic Meanings. Bob Perelman. http://www.writing.upenn.edu/%7Eafilreis/88v/chronic-meanings.html. Poem from the book Virtual Reality.

13. Bernstein, C,. Thinking I Think I Think. Charles Bernstein. http://www.fencemag.com/v1n2/work/charlesbernstein.html. Fence Magazine.

14. Bromige, D. (1994) From Fall (Rilke into Californian) http://www.theeastvillage.com/tc/bromige/p3.htm. The East Village Poetry Web: Volume 4. NNA

15. Barbour, D. (1994) Breath Ghazal 17. http://www.theeastvillage.com/tc/barbour/p3.htm. One of ghazals in The East Village Poetry Web: Volume 4.

16. Robinson, K. (2002) Line 56.   http://www.writing.upenn.edu/epc/authors/robinson/robinson_line_56.html NNA.

17. Phelps, W. L. (1919) The Advance of English Poetry in the Twentieth Century.

18. The Academy of American Poets. http://www.poets.org. Eclectic listing of 450+ poets, with biographies, sound clips and much else. Also note Perloff's review of the accompanying book: http://writing.upenn.edu/epc/authors/perloff/articles/blockbuster.html

19. Newman, J.H. (1870)  John Henry Newman. Grammar of Assent. (1870). Chapter 4.2. http://www.newmanreader.org/works/grammar/chapter4-2.html

20. Answers to Questions & Criticisms of Islam. NNA

21. Modern American Poets. http://www.english.uiuc.edu/maps/. Scholarly and popular teaching resource for modern American poetry, with essays, information and selected work of some 150 poets.

22. Perloff, M. Wittgenstein's Ladder: Poetic Language and the Strangeness of the Ordinary. Marjorie Perloff. http://press.uchicago.edu/ucp/books/book/chicago/W/bo3621592.html

23, Perloff, M. What We Don't Talk About When We Talk About Poetry: Some Aporias of Literary Journalism. http://marjorieperloff.com/essays/aporias/

24. Perloff, M. Crisis in the Humanities. https://acawiki.org/Crisis_in_the_humanities

25. Waldrep, G.C. (2012)“Go Quotiently”: Contemporary British Poetry from Shearsman. https://www.kenyonreview.org/kr-online-issue/spring-2012-2/selections/the-ground-aslant-edited

26. Andrews, B. (2001) The Poetics of L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E. http://www.ubu.com/papers/andrews.html Talk/poem delivered at White Box in New York City.

27. Articles on aesthetics, meaning and truth in poetry.

28. Holcombe, C.J. (2015) Writing Verse: A Practical Guide. Ocaso Press. Introduction. 

29. For comparisons see: Medea, Phaedra, Horace and Dante 1 and Dante 2.

30. Theodoridis, G. (2005) https://www.poetryintranslation.com/PITBR/Greek/Medea.php

31. Kline, A. S. (2003/2005). Racine: Phaedra. https://www.poetryintranslation.com/PITBR/French/PhaedraActI.php

32. McClatchy, J.D. editor. (2002)  Horace: The Odes. New Translations by Contemporary Poets. Princeton University Press. Review.

33. Kilpatrick, R. translator (2103) The Divine Comedy: Inferno, Purgatorio, Paradiso. Penguin Classics Deluxe Edition.
34. Slavitt, D. translator (1990)  Tristia VI,6 in Martin, C. editor (1998) Ovid in English. Penguin. 373-5. Copyright restrictions prevent me giving the whole of this rendering, where 14 lines in the original expand to 25. 

35. Holcombe, C.J. (2016) Diversions. Ocaso Press. 98. See also http://www.textetc.com/workshop/wt-ovid-2.html for discussion and word-for-word rendering.

36. Holcombe, C.J. (2018) Sentence Structure in Poetry. Ocaso Press.

37. Duffy, C. A. (2018) A royal wedding poem by Carol Ann Duffy. Guardian, May 2018. 

38. Bury, D. (2017) The Open Field. UK Poetry Society.