April 22, 2024
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I must confess: modern poetry baffles me.

This should not be surprising. I am an English major but of an old, fossilized, and vanishing variety. I prefer a degree plan heavy on Shakespeare and very, very light indeed on Gender & Sexuality Studies.

And here, friends, is the most damning confession of all: I really prefer poetry that rhymes.

No surprise, I am not much of a fan of “modern” art, either. I like colors, but I’m not terribly impressed with water balloon art. I’m fond of some of the work of the “impressionists,” usually their more realistic work. But, in general, if you want to paint an unrecognizable duck—you know, the way the duck makes you feel—paint me an actual “ducky” first that looks like a water foul that might actually quack, and we’ll hang them together.

So I’m not very modern. Or post-modern. And, nope, I don’t care much for modernist architecture either. Or contemporary. Cold, sterile, and ugly most of it is. A fossil I am.

But maybe I’m somewhat consistent. Or boring and predictable. Consistently fossilized.

So this fits the picture: most modern poetry baffles me.

I admit to the occasional exception, but, in general, I like poetry that rhymes. Honestly, I have a hard time figuring out how poetry that does not rhyme is much closer to poetry than it is to prose. Some of it seems to me to be called poetry simply because the lines are stacked, short, and/or indented. Most of it generally strikes me as a rather strange hybrid that looks weird, is filled with angst, rarely ever smiles, and always takes itself incredibly seriously.

In the animal kingdom, it would be a mule, I think, though mules are much less pretentious. In no way do I mean to disparage mules. Indeed, I have more reasons than most folks to hold the lowly mule in high esteem and consider him, yea, verily, a regal beast.

But a mule, you see, is the offspring of a male donkey and a female horse. (If you hail from a large city where provincialism often abounds, you may need to get a rural person to explain this to you. While you’re at it, you might ask the rural person to explain where the chicken in your grocery aisle comes from.)

Now, to extend my metaphor, let’s say that, in the creation of a mule, Daddy the Donkey is prose and Mother the Horse is poetry. I’ve read beautiful prose that is almost poetry, and I’ve read soul-lifting poetry, some of which tends a tad toward prose.

But much of the presently popular stuff seems to me to be a much more serious attempt at amalgamation. And yet . . .

The offspring of a

    male donkey and a

    female horse is

    neither

    donkey nor

    horse.

And that, friends, says the questionable poet who wrote it, is not poetry, however stacked or indented it may be. It is something weirdly neither. I would say that, like a mule, it is almost always sterile. And not even close to being as useful as a trusty mule.

I’m likely just being mulish about such.

But, in general, words matter. How we use them matters. The words we revere matter.

It matters deeply that when the Apostle John begins his Gospel proclaiming “the Grand Miracle” (as C. S. Lewis calls the Incarnation), he writes, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.”

Indent those words as poetry if you wish. I readily admit that they don’t need to rhyme (in English or biblical Greek) to give me goose bumps. They point to meaning and mystery that the most magnificent word pictures of the most wonder-filled poetry or most sublime prose could never adequately paint.

But those words move me and fill me with a deep need to bow, to worship, and, when my breath returns, to praise.

Curtis K. Shelburne

For The Journal

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