Poetry: Poetry, the macho art

Culture | If you hate poetry, you can blame the spirit of the age, but also yourself

Issue: "Focus on a family feud," Feb. 27, 1998

In a recent issue of the Reformed journal Credenda/Agenda, writer Douglas Jones issues something of a challenge to men who hate poetry: Get over it. In the past, "poetry was overwhelmingly a male passion," he writes. "Your manhood would have been in question if you did not share in the longing for a metrical weave of words." Think of Homer's epics, Beowulf, and David's psalms, he says. We should be man enough to admit the fault is in us, not in the poetry. And then we should "hunt for beauty," he says. "Track it down." Konk it on the head, drag it home, and savor it. The Good, the True, and the Beautiful are still worth a little effort. The hardest part is getting beyond modernity. Mr. Jones points out in his essay that it's not entirely our fault if we hate poetry. "Certainly part of the blame falls to that romantic sentimentalism still prevalent in much poetry," he says, along with "the ghoulish introspectionism." But mostly, he concludes, the problem is modernity itself. "Modernity and beauty simply don't mix." So it's no wonder that one of the few real jewels to find its way into print in recent months is Robert Fagles's excellent new verse translation of The Odyssey. Mr. Fagles, a Princeton University professor, published a similar translation of The Iliad in 1990. His Odyssey rises far above most of the available translations. Here's how the Butcher and Lang version presents the opening of the epic: "Tell me, Muse, of that man, so ready at need, who wandered far and wide, after he had sacked the sacred citadel of Troy, and many were the men whose town he saw and whose mind he learnt, yea, and many the woes he suffered in his heart upon the deep, striving to win his own life and the return of his company." Now here's Mr. Fagles's version: "Sing to me of the man, Muse, the man of twists and turns / driven time and again off course, once he had plundered / the hallowed heights of Troy. / Many cities of men he saw and learned their minds, / many pains he suffered, heartsick on the open sea, / fighting to save his life and bring his comrades home."Mr. Fagles's translation is lyrical and ready to read aloud. Another recent standout is The Collected Poems of Amy Clampitt. Iowa-born Ms. Clampitt was a novelty in the New York-centric poetry world: She didn't publish her first book of poems until the age of 63. She died at the age of 74 in 1994. For all of her virtues, Ms. Clampitt, a former reference librarian for the Audubon Society, was a naive liberal with a muddled spirituality. In 1988 she edited a book of poems by John Donne for the "Essential" series from Ecco Press. Donne's verse is a chronicle of his spiritual progress from libertine, through conversion, to his stature as one of the greatest Christian poets (and preachers). Ms. Clampitt, however, does not quite understand the 17th-century divine. She warned in her introduction that Donne uses the word soul so often "as to be troubling for a 20th-century reader.... For him there was no doubt that the soul existed, as genuinely as the corporeal frame itself." Still, she added cheerfully, she knew, "as one who has frequently been thrilled by work she did not fully understand," that Donne's poems can still be enjoyed. And so can Ms. Clampitt's. She's at her best when she writes of her travels. Her word pictures outclass the snapshots most of us take home. She writes of seeing at Exmoor "tenderly barbarous antique / thatch in tandem with flower- / beds, relentlessly pictur- / esque, along every sidewalk." Some of her longer poems, such as "The Sacred Hearth Fire," are deeply satisfying visits, and I have never read a better description of kudzu: "Ropes, pulleys, shawls, / caparisons, tent curtains / the hue of mildew, strung / above the raw, red-gullied / wintering hide of Dixie." "A charming strangler / setting the usual example." Not manly enough? Then for a buck ($1), pick up the Dover Thrift Edition of The Shooting of Dan McGrew and Other Poems by Robert Service: "A bunch of the boys were whooping it up in the Malamute Saloon, / The kid that handles the music box was hitting a jag-time tune; / Back of the bar, in a solo game, sat Dangerous Dan McGrew, / And watching his luck was his light-o'-love, the lady that's known as Lou" (from "The Shooting of Dan McGrew"). Mr. Service (1874-1958) was a Canadian poet and journalist who served as an ambulance driver in World War I. He also ably recorded the life of gold prospectors in the Klondike. Many of us remember "The Cremation of Sam McGee," the tale of the southerner in the arctic who just wanted to get warm. But in addition to the unforgettable Claw-Fingered Kitty and Windy Ike and Blasphemous Bill, Mr. Service composed characters who were capable of following Christ. "The Odyssey of 'Erbert 'Iggins" is about the selfless stretcher bearers of the Great War, and "My Friends" recasts the story of the thief on the cross in the Canadian wilderness.

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