Writing Poetry after Youth

Any poet, if he is to survive as a writer beyond his twenty-fifth year, must alter; he must seek new literary influences; he will have different emotions to express. This is disconcerting to that public which likes a poet to spin his whole work out of the feelings of his youth;–T. S. Eliot, Ezra Pound: His Metric and Poetry

T. S. Eliot wrote this insightful comment when he was 29.  He had written The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock, but had not yet written The Waste Land.  It is a remarkable comment, since Eliot, himself, hadn’t “altered.”  His own style was still developing and his arguably best work was yet to come.  From my own personal experience, I think that there is something in this observation of Eliot’s.

Some time in my early 30’s my passion for poetry had dried up.  Those strong feelings of youth were being replaced by different motivations.  As Eliot writes, after 25, the poet “will have different emotions to express.”  It is fair to say that in early adulthood/late youth, emotions ruled my life.  But as I aged, deliberation and understanding the large question of how the world works and the still larger question of how the map of living unfolds became increasingly important.  So the verbal filigree of young passion yielded to more contemplative works. 

However, just beginning to tackle different life issues, expression proved a fresh start on language.  So my output was inferior during this period.  I remember a friend who liked my earlier poetry once exclaim to me, “You’ve lost it!”  And I had.  I had mostly lost youth.

But as time progressed, I became accustomed to the challenges that life throws at adults and my writing began to mature, too. I was aware of the loss of my muse in my early 30’s.  I knew that I wasn’t writing very well.  I knew that my friend was right, for then.  In fact, I had almost quit writing altogether; I did precipitously stop writing for long spells.  But I couldn’t stop writing. A new style developed for the new person I was since youth. Of the poems I’ve published, ¾ are “post-30’s” poems;–that is, poetry I wrote after the age of 30.  That which was lost was found! 

Eliot’s style underwent quite an alteration as he aged, as well.  As a literature major once told me, “The jury’s still out on Four Quartets” (1936-1942—when Eliot was aged 48-52).  But the jury returned a verdict on The Cocktail Party (premiered 1949); utter failure.  The difference in Eliot’s later work, compared with that of his earlier work, though, is not only a matter of Eliot’s age.  He had also undergone a religious conversion and meant to express it in his work.  This is a major “alteration!” And even if Eliot’s artistry matched his new spirituality, the critical reception would have been skewed by the counter-religious zeitgeist of the modern age. 

Writing poetry is a dance between grasping language, grasping life, and grasping art.  All this is likely to undergo revision and rewrites with the stages of living one will experience here, and perhaps, hereafter.

Poetics: Proving Your Rhyme

The submission guidelines for a journal I looked at read, “No rhyming poetry.”  I feel that rhyme is nevertheless justified in poetry, but that rhyme must justify itself.  In writing rhyming poetry, it must be clear why the poem is rhyming.  I’m not referring to hip-hop conventions.

I recently read Shelley’s EPIPSYCHIDION.  Shelley assumed by means of poetic convention that his epic must rhyme.  In fact, while I’m no Shelley scholar, I think that most of his poetry, maybe all of his poetry, did rhyme and employ metrics.  Wordsworth considered Shelley a master of style, perhaps the greatest stylist of the English Romantic period.  But in reading EPIPSYCHIDION, I found the language tortured in order to unite rhyme, metrics, and sense.  I’m afraid to say the same of Shakespeare’s sonnets.  But a baroque use of language is proper for a Renaissance poet.  It would not be appropriate for Frost, and Frost masterfully writes rhyme so liquidly that it reads like prose.

On the other side of this discussion is Carl Sandburg.  He privileged immediate expression and despised the reworking of an original impression in order to form rhyme and rhythm.  So we get a massive collection of insignificance.

Making a poem rhyme for no reason is a recipe for insignificance, too.  But then, there is sense that wants to rhyme and beat.  Blake’s THE TYGER has to be in rhyme and rhythm.  Otherwise the poignant line, “When the stars threw down their spears/And water’d heaven with their tears” wouldn’t be such a dramatic shift in voice.  And the energy of the tyger wouldn’t be there without the rhyme and beat that make the tyger burn.  I started to write a poem about flowers a while back, not that I’m a Blake or Shelley by any means, and realized that a poem about something pretty and delicate should be pretty and delicate, too.  A loose set of lines wouldn’t be as formally structured as a flower is.  So the flowers spoke in rhymed stanzas of meter.

Rhyming doesn’t go in poems that exhibit a deconstruction of language as do those of Wallace Stevens and others.  (I know that Stevens wrote before deconstruction was invented.)  In his poems, any word he fancies could be called into the mix of his abstract arrangements of language.  So rhyme would be meaningless.  Even if Stevens wanted to emphasize a couplet with rhyme, it would fail, since there is essentially no emphasis anywhere in his poetry.  That’s the whole point.

So I didn’t even consider submitting to the journal that prohibited rhyming poetry.  Rhyme and rhythm are as important to poetry as are free verse, deconstruction, or any other style persons prefer.  But today, rhyme isn’t a convention–perhaps the opposite.  And a poem must prove its use of rhyme.