REASON ON FIRE by Mark Conte

         REASON ON FIRE:   Reading Modern Poetry 

by Mark R. Conte

Fifty years ago, John Ciardi began the introduction to his book,  How Does A Poem Mean? by saying "A  poem is a formal  structure in which many ele­ments operate at the same time." Any English teacher in grade school could have shown you the meters and rhyming schemes of the many forms of poetry. They could point out alliteration and assonance, and they could do it all in the rhythms of each particular poem, even though the language was often beautiful as in Dylan Thomas' poetry.
                                “…time held me green and   dying

                               .though I sang in my chains like the sea...

Or wise as in Richard Eberhart’s poetry.

                                  “…as man made stupid to see his

                                     own stupidity? Is God by definition

                                 · indifferent. beyond us all?.. 

There was usually more emphasis put on the structure of the poem rather than the language. English teachers could dissect a poem and discuss intelligently the many parts of the many forms of

poetry.  With the forms gone, poets concentrated more on the language of the poem and the language at times evolved to its highest form.  At the same time, civilizations were minimizing the

language to the shortest method of communication because everything depended on time.  We were racing in opposite directions.  It’s like comparing stone age man’s different sounds of

communication to William Shakespeare “To be or not to be….”  In these modern times, it is not as easy to explain what is poetry and what is not.   

   Sometimes there is a thin line between prose and poetry. Consider these lines of prose from Going After Cacciato by Tim O'Brien.

                   “Bats fluttered in the dark.  Rodents, snakes, cobwebs stretching like curtains.  The stench of death.  Strange creatures underfoot, the blindness of graves…”

          O'Brien tight-walks back and forth from prose to poetry. Most English teachers are so intimated by modern poetry that they fall back on teaching the classics or other dead poets, as in "The Dead Poets Society."

Even poets are  reluctant  to say which is good poetry and which is not.  Critiques are now  limited  to the hawking of a fellow poet's work, which look like dust jacket quotes for the book ads appearing in literary magazines.  This reluctance of expertise has created

openings for other types of poetry .that would have otherwise  not  been  recognized so readily. These are

the  category poets.  Poets that write specialized poetry that fit in one category or another, but would not exactly be put in an anthology with James Dickey, Carolyn Forche and W. S. Merwin.  Also, now everyone who has taken an English course is suddenly writing poetry, in high school, in community colleges and universities; though most of these are only being published in small local magazines, they help bridge the gap from the public to poetry that is sorely needed. This may be a good place to start reading poetry.  However, in its best example, modern poetry depends upon the elegance of the language.  It has to be so rich that you can say in twenty or thirty lines what most writers take over four hundred pages of prose or rhetoric to say, and often not as well.  

Sometimes modern poetry is a little harder.  Conversational language is like driving across a desert in a black and white movie.  In poetry, you are riding down a seaside road in Northern California and everything is in color.  There is the Pacific Ocean on one side with the swells of the waves and the ships on one side and on the other side there are purple mountains  and cliffs on the other side and in between, all the colors of the rainbow and birds, deer, bears and white, perfect sand.  How can you hope to digest it all in one go round? 

The same is true of a good modern poem.  You’ve spent the whole day saying, “Cool, Out of sight, hello!”  Now you are reading;

               …So I would hear out those lungs,

                    The air split into nine levels

                      Some gifts of tongues of the whistler…”

You can’t rush through this James Dickey poem and hope to digest it in one reading.  Often you have to read and reread a poem until you have understood all the edges of the poem.  

First, you need to know that poets look at things differently.   


       “Lately, I’ve become accustomed

                                      To the way

                The ground opens up and

                                    Envelopes me

                  Each time I go out to walk

                                            The dog.

                   Or the broad edged silly

                                  Music the wind

               Makes when I run for a bus…”

                                       -Amiri Baraka

They say things to lovers you wish you had said.

              “…Cool and naked together,

            Under this tree for a moment,

             We have escaped the bitterness

              Of love, and love lost and love

               Betrayed.  And what might

                                          have been,

                     And what might be, fall


              Away with what is, and leave

                           Only these ideograms

                        Printed on the immortal

           Hydrocarbons of flesh and stone.”

                                   -Kenneth Rexroth

Or the frenzy of Mark Strand’s poetry.

               …”It is autumn.  People are

                        Jumping from jetliners

                  Their relatives jump into the

                                       Air to join them

                    That is what the shrieking is

                              About.  Nobody wants

                           To leave,  Nobody wants

                                                 Stay behind.

                    Or the ravages of war.


                              “…All raid was dust.

                      Its granules were our tears.

                     Throats burst as universal

                                                Winter rose

                      To kill the whole green sky.

                               The last tree bare

                     Beneath its canopy of

                                Poisoned air.

                                       -Carolyn Kiser

Poets reach into the depths of our souls and show us who we are or who we could be.  It is not always easy, but it’s well worth the time.

Guest Blogger Bio

I have had fiction, poetry, articles and guest columns in 67 publications including Yankee, Poetry International, Sothern Poetry Review, Potomac Review, Philadelphia Daily News, Miami Jerald, New York Times and Washington Post.  I was director of the Florida State University Poet Series, appointed Master Poet by the Florida Arts Council and assistant director of the FSU CPE.  My previous books are Walking on Water (Poetry, 1986), Sex in the 90s (1993), In the Arms of Strangers (2003), Five Days to Eternity (2004), The Judas Scroll (2005), Of Flesh and Stone ((Poetry, 2009), The Ghost (2013) and The Death of Sherlock Holmes & Other Stories (2014). I am a member of the Authors Guild and the Academy of American Poets.

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