THE WAY TO READ A POEM is with an open mind, not an open dictionary.

A good poem doesn’t need a dictionary. The poem itself provides the meanings for the words the poet puts to work. It seems too simple to be true. Yet there is no other way. You discover meaning by reading the poem, but more than once, and aloud. And if that won’t do the trick, read another poem. Art is undemocratic. Not all poems are written for all readers. Reading poetry must be a pleasure, not a social responsibility. Poetry is supposed to be beautiful, not an intellectual obligation. The first beauty lies in language, where poetry and everyone who reads it must begin. But language is only the means by which poetry fulfills its promise. A poem is like an iceberg. We see the peak and project the depth. The union between the poem and the reader as he follows the lines down below the surface into the poem’s profusion of possible meanings is the great, recurrent pleasure of reading poetry. The poet fuses all of his experience with all of our experience, and each time we read a poem we find something new about the poem, ourselves, and the rest of life. What we discover in the poem is as much read into as written into the poem. But the greatest poets—Shakespeare, Whitman, Yeats, and whomever one turns to again and again—fill their poems with possibilities for meaning and emotional response. Their poetry, as all lasting poetry, operates on several levels of experience at once. ‘Whitman’s “Cavalry Crossing a Ford” steals the ear with its rhythms: A line in long array or Scarlet and blue and snowy white/The guidon flags flutter gaily in the wind. The language is alive and spoken. No poetic sweet talk, no mythology. Simultaneously in the mind’s eye flashes the picture of the column crossing the stream and stopping to drink. Read with greater care the poem becomes like an impressionistic painting, a study in swift movement and subtle shading. From first line to last the poem moves with the cavalry troop; the action of the poem is wedded to the subject of the poem. With more thought “Cavalry Crossing a Ford” begins to seem peculiarly American in its unconscious contrast of the exhausted men and the brazen pennants of the Civil War. It is a gentle song to the bond Whitman felt with every-thing American, including contradictions. And read in the 19605 “Cavalry Crossing a Ford” is also a hymn to the last romantic war in history. Such is hindsight. But everything we know goes into our reading of the poem.

The best poem seizes your mind the first time you read it. There is an immed-iate impact. You feel the poem even though you cannot describe the feeling precisely or quickly. By the second or third reading the poem becomes part of you. You own it. You possess it in ways that only you can, for you have set the poem’s limits. This is what H. M. Tomlinson must have meant when he said that “the reader who is illuminated is in a real sense, the poem.” Poetry says what the same words (or different words) arranged in any other order cannot say. This is why analyzing or paraphrasing a poem can never substitute for the experience of personally discovering the poem. You can say what a little girl’s smile is like. Or you can describe the scatter of stars on a black night. But will you settle for words when you can have the smile? And can an astronomer’s lecture take the place of your wandering wonder when you are lost in the stars? The poem itself is the miracle of feeling and intelligence, and it is possible to make a good argument that any poem which can survive being taken apart and laid out like a gear box is no poem at all. The successful poem puts us into a new relationship with life, a relationship which never existed before. Poetry is a way of seeing things, and as a result feeling these relationships which never existed before. It is not rhythm, rhyme or figures of speech; these are only the means to poetry’s ends. Poetry is the quality of awareness: emotion capture and surrendered.


A few pages earlier I said change has had its way with poetry. I should have said change has had its way with men. For like the other arts, poetry does not grow in a laboratory dish, thriving in airy isolation. Poetry is intimately related to everything happening to people and their world. It is contemporaneous, expressing the special sensibilities of its age. The greatest poets, often unconsciously, record the psychological stresses and tensions of their era and make us participants in them. Poetry reflects the new realities of man’s condition, and as often as not it has brought these new visions out of darkness and made them public. The process of catching up— the closing of the gap between what the poet perceives and what the mass of his readers may have yet to discover—has produced both poetry’s great successes.and great losses.

Boris Pasternak once called poetry “the expression of the birth pangs of the new in the world.” Through history these pangs have been accompanied by cries of misunderstanding. In the early i6oos when John Donne and the “new metaphysical poets following Shakespeare began writing, Ben Jonson complained that “now nothing is good that is natural . . . (the) writhed and tortured is considered the more exquisite . . . Nothing is fashionable til it be deform’d.” Another critic said the metaphysical imagery and sophisticated language of Donne, James Cowley, and Thomas Carew were “ingenious nothings . . . mere embroideries upon cobwebs.” Two hundred years later a major critical journal of the day said Wordsworth’s “Ode on the Intimations of Immortality” was “illegible and unintelligible” and could give “no analysis or explanation of it.” When it first appeared, Coleridge’s “Christabel” was called a “rhapsody of delirium.” Shelley’s “Prome-theus Un- bound” was a tissue of insufferable buffoonery” and his “Adonais” was a “mere collection of bloated words heaped on each other without order, harmony, or meaning.” But we know now that Donne was the first poet to give voice to the new vision of the universe as seen by Kepler and Galileo. We know now that Wordsworth’s contemporaries were hearing backwards, were deaf to poetry whose majesty lay in simplified diction. Now we know that Shelley had found a new lyrical relationship between man and his world. Like life, poetry continually renews and reorganizes itself. It is forever discovering, as Shelley said, the previously “unapprehended relations of things and perpetuates their apprehension.” Greek and Roman poetry trembled with such adjustments. Medieval lyrics rearranged Christian ideals and earthly urges to such an extent that a man could carry on his love affairs in church. Writers of the modern, rigorous Chinese odes so successfully invested their poetry with the peculiar symbolism of their times that we still cannot say what the peach trees are for in their poems about wedding ceremonies.

In our own time the readjustment of poetry has been nothing less than a literary upheaval, with all the manifestoes, rivalries, labels, slogans and war cries of a revolution. It has been as misunderstood as any poetry in history and its conceptions have been so far in advance (or behind, depending on your vantage point) of public sensibilities that our poetry has almost, but not quite, lost its audience.


The poetry we call “modern” is already old; it began in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, born of radical changes in the way men lived and thought of themselves. It came as a reaction against growing materialism in Europe and America; it came as an expression of the poet’s estrangement from public life; it came as a symptom of the great social and ideological complexities of industrialization. Under the new conditions of life in the early twentieth century, the tradit-ional rhetoric of poetry seemed dead and false, the traditional emotions seemed phony. The poetry of the past did not conform to the experience of the present. Science was replacing the arts as the chief interpreter of human behavior, and to place himself in the new era the poet was compelled to find new ways of knowing about man. Aesthetic values were being displaced by commercial values, and the poet’s reaction was to create art for its own sake. Against the disorderliness of the age, as Arthur Rimbaud said, the poet went about an intentional “disordering of the senses.” In the other arts—painting, music and to a lesser degree, sculpture —much of the same was happening. Old forms were fractured.

Surprisingly, the first outlines of what is modern in poetry were drawn in the United States, where Edgar Allan Poe was practicing what he called “a suggestive indefiniteness.” In Poe a group of young literary insurgents in France found their mode], and French Symbolism became the first full-scale modernist movement in poetry. Led by Charles Baudelaire the Symbolists created a new kind of poetry in which one poetic symbol or image implied a second, and in which one sensual impression was used to suggest still another. They dealt almost exclusively in these symbols, and the meaning (but not the music) of their poetry required lengthy symbolic analysis. The example of the Symbolists spread almost immediately through the rest of the civilized world. From Symbolism came Russian and Italian Futurism and lines designed to bring the modern style of speed and dynamism to poetry. From French Symbolism came English and American Imagism and free-verse filled with cadence, foreign language and the imagined excitements of the poet. And from the Symbolists came T. S. Eliot and scholarship-as-poetry, erudition-as-craftsmanship, and the ideal of a poetry so transparent that we cannot see the poetry in it: “Poetry with nothing poetic about it, poetry standing naked in its bare bones . . . We should not see the poetry, but . . . what the poem points at.” A hard and stark age begot a hard and stark poetry.

The social antagonism of the earliest modern poetry has run its course by now. But all poetry of the twentieth century has fallen heir to the stylistic legacy of the Symbolist revolution. Contemporary poetry is irregular in rhyme and rhythm. It operates without reference to a recognizable body of poetic technique. It follows no Baedeker’s guide of approved mythology or poetic allusion. The stilted expressions, the great heroes, the passionate loves, the gingerbread rhetoric of the old poetry are gone. Modern poetry’s language is common even though its metaphors are not. The modern poet lays down no linguistic underbrush for the mind to cut through. Lines like T. S. Eliot’s

                    When the evening is spread out against the sky

                    Like a patient etherized upon a table or Boris Pasternak’s

                    The Caucasus lay spread before our gaze,

                    An unmade bed, it seemed, with tousled sheets

seize the imagination because they assault us directly. Here is life vivid and filled with surprise. In their later years, W. H. Auden, Eliot, Pasternak, and others turned to theology for comfort, but these are the endings of these poets, not their beginnings; and religion in contemporary poetry is primarily an English-language phenomenon. One finds little of it in modern Italian, German or French poetry. The poet of our time most often finds his inspiration in conscience, the common man, the social interplay, the new cosmos of the new scientific era. When he deals with nature, the contemporary poet writes from nature, not about nature. Suggestiveness, the association of one idea with another, is inherent in art. But the contemporary poet magnifies the power of suggestion by leaping at random from one impression to the next. The relationships in contemporary poetry are arbitrary. They are decreed by the poet, not by the laws of logic or the reasonableness of cause and effect.


Most twentieth-century poetry does demand greater attention than much of the poetry preceding it, particularly the highly formalized lyrics of the romantic periods of English literature. But the age we live in requires all of our wits. And effort is relative anyway. You must expend it whether you lift a brick or move a mountain. The question is always one of purpose.

Poetry has never been easy reading. It has always demanded the best the mind can muster. Shakespeare’s sonnets are not simple-minded jingles waiting to be set to soap. They are exceedingly complex poems rich in the glories of language. Read his “Sonnet XV” with the same degree of attention you give a subscription renewal letter and see what happens:

          When I consider every thing that grows

          Holds in perfection but a little moment,

          That this huge stage presenteth naught but shows

          Whereon the stars in secret influence comment:

          When I perceive that men as plants increase,

          Cheered and checked even by the self-same sky,

          Vaunt in their youthful sap, at height decrease,

          And wear their brave state out of memory;

          Then the conceit of this inconstant stay

          Sets you most rich in youth, before my sight,

          W/here wasteful Time debateth with Decay,

          To change your day of youth to sullied night;

          And, all in war with Time for love of you,

          As he takes from you, I engraft you new.

It’s beautiful to the ear. But it must be read two or three times to find the intelligence it transmits. Then you discover that Shakespeare was saying to a mistress or a patron: as time wears you down I build you up; you may be getting older, as all we must, but I renew your beauty by writing to you.

One can go on and on doing this. Follow Browning, if you can, quickly around the rose bush in “Women and Roses”:

                    I will make an Eve by the artist that began her,

                    Shaped her to his mind!—Alas! in like manner

                    They circle their rose on my rose tree

Or try to paraphrase what goes on in John Donne’s magnificent first stanza of “Song,” written some 250 years ago:

                              Goe and catehe a falling starre,

                              Get with child a mandrake roote,

                              Tell me where all past yeares are,

                              Or who cleft the Divel’s foot;

Lines like Pope’s Swift on his sooty pinions flits the Gnome,/And in a vapor reached the dismal dome may have had significance centuries ago, but one can’t be sure what they mean now. Vapors are no longer a physical malady, but what you get from Vick’s to cure one. If Pound’s wanderings through Oriental history and Eliot’s troubling fascination with culture seem unfriendly, one only needs turn to John Milton and consider Vexed Scylla, bathing in the sea that parts,/Calabria from the hoarse Trinacrian shore or accept a visitation of Shelley’s relentless “azure heavens,” “unpavilioned vistas,” and “fast influencings holding an unremitting interchange with the clear universe.”

The charged quality is as peculiar and necessary to poetry as walking on two legs is to man. No poet who has made easiness his attribute has ever contributed to the permanent body of words and ideas we call literature. “I never meant my poetry,” said Robert Browning, “to be a substitute for an after-dinner cigar.” When the sidewalk critics of modem poetry cite the good, old (and often embarrassingly mawkish) poetry of a few centuries ago as models of clarity and communication, one can only conclude that they have either faulty memories, or less charitably, that they have never read poetry at all. One is entitled to ask whether the detractors of modem poetry are rushing home of an evening to take in the glories of Byron’s “Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage” or Tennyson’s “Idylls of the King,” or whether, instead, the time isn’t being spent with the idol of electronics.


Let’s admit that the most influential poets of the past fifty years have cared little about speaking into the Public Ear. But let’s also admit that we cared not to listen. Our system of values, our media of communications, our lack of traditions in the arts, the emphasis our society places on the practical as opposed to the impractical —all have worked against the contemplative attractions of poetry. We have never read much poetry and therefore we can’t understand that poetry is not designed to replace the newspaper, but is intended to enhance our awareness of life. Poetry is unessential for Man’s survival; you cannot eat it. But poetry is essential for civilization’s survival, for it represents all that is humanizing in mankind. Because everything, except thinking, is easy in the twentieth century, we expect poetry to be as simple as opening baked beans with an electric can opener. We operate on the misassumption that poetry doesn’t require our highest intelligence and our best attention. But it does. Poetry is a way of feeling, thinking, and then knowing. And modern poetry has absorbed more ideas from more sources—Freud, Marx, Lincoln, Einstein, Whitehead—than any poetry in history. It was bound to; we have learned more about ourselves in the past one hundred years than in civilization’s previous several thousand years.

Reading poetry has not been our style; we’ve been too busy with the gross practical matters which poetry escapes. But in Japan poetry is part of the way of life. Business men are almost as likely as poets to write Haiku. In France statesmen and politicians write poetry as professionals, but in the United States the businessman who reads poetry can generally stop conversation simply by saying so. The press marvels at the fact that William Carlos Williams has been a successful physician as well as a distinguished poet. And our journalists still haven’t recovered from the discovery that the late Wallace Stevens, while writing some of the most refined poetry of his era, was also a vice president of a Hartford insurance company and an expert in claims on surety bonds.

Karl Shapiro insists with vigor and appealing candor that one of the things wrong with modern poetry is that it is so scholarly it has to be taught in college. But would modern poetry have to be taught if it had been as blessed as the other arts by the advances of modern technology? FM radio and the long-playing record have brought great music, free or at small cost, to all of us. High-speed, high-precision lithography and silk-screen printing have made inexpensive reproductions of great paintings the symbol of popular culture. But how many of the multi-million-circulation weekly magazines or Stxnday supplements regularly publish poetry in their pages? Perhaps if our poetry were clear enough it would find the big audiences. On the other hand, our most straightforward poets—Robert Frost, Carl Sandburg, Winfield Townley Scott, Mark Van Doren, Engle, Shapiro—can count on their fingers the times their poetry has appeared in the popular magazines. How can we acquire an understanding of modern poetry if we never see it where we do most of our reading?

Obscurity cannot be the sole reason for the public’s estrangement from poetry. Dylan Thomas was never an easy poet, yet his public readings were great successes. During the 1950S Robert Frost’s lectures and recitations drew audiences of thousands of persons even though his poems demanded all the reverence he himself brought to them. In April 1956, some 13,700 persons came to hear T. S. Eliot speak in Minneapolis.


Is it only wishfulness to think better days may be ahead? Long-playing records by poets reading from their works may establish a public tradition for poetry, spoken, as it must be. Prose writings by poets like John Ciardi and Paul Engle are turning up everwhere—in all sorts of magazines and books. Poet-critics like Ciardi and Shapiro are making poetry interesting to read about, and the poet, not without risk, is becoming a public figure again. He must, in order to be heard amidst the shouts of the age. The paperback phenomenon is working to poetry’s benefit; publishers at last are bringing out collections of new modern verse at prices which put poetry within almost everyone’s economic reach. More and more poets are lecturing, worrying about their isolation, and writing with a clarity absent in the poetry which began the modern-poetry revolution. Our poets want to be read. I know of no poet who believes with Stanley Kunitz that American poetry is in its Silver Age because poetry is going unread and the poet can write to please himself. If the Silver Age is poetry without readers, then the Golden Age would have to be poetry without poets.

Poetry needs readers the way the stars need the sky. For we give poetry its meaning. This above all is what the little girl on the May morning was saying. Poetry will be whatever we make of it: the music of our moods, the emotions we cannot locate in other language, the special sensibilities of our age. Because poetry comes from our depths it is the way we say yes to life at the height of our humanity

This collection of poems is for readers rather than poets. It is for pleasure rather than scholarship. It covers as much of 2000 years of poetry as possible within some 500 pages and without forgetting that in the nature of things we are most strongly drawn to English-language poetry and the poetry of our own times.

Many of these poems are old. You will remember reading them often, perhaps with pleasure, and probably with chalk on your hands. But there is also plenty here to grow on. A good many of these poems have never appeared in an anthology before, and most of them never together before. Of course, not every poem in this collection is for every reader; such is impossible. But everyone who picks this book up should be able to find in it somewhere (and more than once) a voice that speaks to him as if it were his own and as if it had never been heard in the world before.


Kansas City, Missouri

May—June, 1960



The HALLMARK Book of Poetry

Copyright@1960, Hallmark Cards, Inc.

                    (Pgs. 28-37)

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