I’m delighted to welcome back John J Hohn who brings us tonight’s topic of contemporary poetry.
Contemporary Poetry 101
At one time, in order for a composition to be considered poetry, it needed to be rhymed and presented with a consistent cadence. Robert Frost’s “Stopping by the Wood on a Snowy Evening” is a fine example.
Whose woods these are I think I know,
His house is in the village though,
He will not see me stopping here,
To watch his woods fill up with snow.
Frost’s revered poem is accessible, a quality often lacking in contemporary poets. Contrast Frost’s verse with Dylan Thomas’s wonderful reverie, “Fernhill”.
And nothing I cared, at my sky blue trades, that time allows
In all his tuneful turning so few and such morning songs
Before the children green and golden
Follow him out of grace.
Nothing I cared, in the lamb white days, that time would take me
Up to the swallow thronged loft by the shadow of my hand,
In the moon that is always rising
Paraphrasing Frost’s poem is easy.
I know the guy who owns these woods. He lives in town so he can’t see me stopping here to watch the snow falling into his woods.
Paraphrasing Thomas’s work is a bit more difficult. But attempting it might yield something like the following:
When I was a young boy playing around the farmhouse and fields near it, I didn’t realize that I was growing older and moving on toward adulthood. I didn’t know that process could not be stopped no matter how delightfully I was spending my days. The days of childhood are limited and all children eventually must bid them farewell. When that happens, life becomes less carefree. It happens in a way that is very gentle but nevertheless delivers all of the young ones to the busy, sometimes frantic world of adult life where the moon still shines as a reminder as it did in childhood.
Frost spends three lines out of the twenty talking about the man who owns the woods, and yet for all that, the man is not mentioned again. Thomas packs more meaning into each line, but in doing so, become less accessible to the average reader. Further, Thomas repeats the theme of a carefree and innocent boyhood several times in words and phrases like “my sky blue trades,” “so few and such morning songs,” “children green and golden,” and “lamb white days.”
In the opening line, Frost forces his syntax to meet the demands of his predetermined rhyme scheme and set iambic cadence. Thomas has a rhythm to his delivery also, but it is not an inflexible regimented pattern. The rhythm, or flow of his lines, reinforces the meaning of the words and phrases being used.
Finally, both poets use numerous poetic conventions such as alliteration, consonance, metaphor and personification. Both deal with the universal mysteries of the human condition; Frost with the inevitability of death and Thomas with the inevitability of the end of childhood. Yet the character of each man’s creation differs radically with that of the other.
The writer who wants to compose more in manner of Thomas needs to be guided by a more demanding and subtle criteria. The old guidelines have not been replaced with new. Instead, they have redefined. Rhythm is an example.
Contemporary poets will not subordinate the thrust of a line to an imposed cadence, except for Rappers who make it obvious that rhyming and iambic pentameter should have be outlawed ages ago. The rhythm in contemporary poetry supports the feeling or thought being conveyed. Thomas’s lines are languid and rolling—carefree as childhood itself. Congruency of rhythm to a line is like a drumbeat in the jungle or a strumming bass in a jazz combo. Meaning and feeling is intimated. Rhythm is the body language of the piece. The poet’s intention would be intimated even if the language of the line were foreign to the listener.
Contemporary writers will reject rhyme when it distracts from the thrust of the line. To illustrate this point, I quote a couple of lines from one of my own poems.
Until confusion mounts my high bed,
And invades the flesh.
Initially, the lines read:
Until confusion mounts my high bed
And invades the flesh from which vigor fled.
The rhyming of “fled” with “bed” created a couplet, which, while satisfying to the ear, was nevertheless inconsistent with the feeling and thought. There is nothing neat or complete about being on one’s deathbed, as a couplet would suggest. Instead there is a slow physical deterioration, and often a terrible wait for the family, until the end.
What sets Thomas’s work apart from the traditional is his imagery. The reader is asked to take in the meaning of “lamb white days” and “the shadow of my hand” as immediate statements with an impact that overrides cautious analysis. Thomas did not what the reader to stop and think, “Oh, yes, lambs are innocent. White is the color of purity, so he must mean that his boyhood days were pure and innocent.” He wants the impact of “lamb” to be immediate and to carry all the connotations that spring into mind. Thus wooly, dirty, braying, and warm, become associations.
Likewise, Thomas wants the reader to grasp “by the shadow of my hand” for all its richness. The impact of this wonderful line is lost if the reader resorts again to analysis. While the example of the lamb is prosaic (lambs have been symbols of innocence for centuries), the shadow of my hand is fresh with the poet. The reader who has seen the shadow of his or her own hand in the moonlight will have the memory invoked instantly and the mystery, the gentleness, and the inevitability of what is happening (for the moon makes the light not the boy), is all embedded in the phrase.
It may seem that contemporary poets are breaking all the rules. Instead, they are extending and refining them. Economy of expressing, congruent rhythm, immediacy of imagery, and word choice are as important as ever, if more subtle. The contemporary poet wants the reader to share an experience as a phenomenon, as one would react coming upon something for the first time. The initial reaction is feeling—attraction, fear, revulsion, intrigue—and it is felt before the rational process overtakes perception. The poet wants the reader to react as the poet reacted. To feel as the poet felt. Contemporary poetry induces rather than explicates. It demands more of the reader. Readers are invited to make themselves available.
Thank you (again) John, this was great!
John J. Hohn is the author of two five-star literary mysteries, Deadly Portfolio: A Killing in Hedge Funds, 2011 and a sequel, Breached, 2014. As I Was Passing By, a collection of poems, was published in 2000. His prize-winning poetry appears frequently on his web site along with articles on a variety of subjects. He plans to publish a book of selected works later in 2017.
He contributes to various web sites dedicated to writing and publishing. His own website, www.jjhohn.com, features articles on a wide range of topics including book and drama reviews, autobiographical sketches, financial planning, and civil rights.
Born and raised in Yankton, South Dakota, USA, John graduated from St. John’s University in 1961 with a degree in English.
He is the father of four sons and a daughter, a stepfather to a son, and has resided in North Carolina since 1978.
He and his wife Melinda divide their time each year between their home in Winston-Salem, NC and a cabin near West Jefferson, NC.
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