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  • Writer's pictureWilliam Walter

Poetry Bee Blog #20 Carpe Diem and Other Subjects

Updated: Mar 22

How many of us let life go by! We waste our days, frittering away our time, efforts and resources on useless things. Then, when we finally wake up and realize what we have been doing, it is too late: we are too old and gray. Many of the poets expressed this need to wake up while we are still young, or “seize the day,” in their poetry. The theme was so popular among the 17th and 18- century poets we have a name for this kind of poem. It is often referred to by the Latin words for “seize the day”: carpe diem. The 17th-century poet Robert Herrick wrote a famous carpe diem poem in which the “seize the day” warning is worded this way: Gather ye rosebuds while ye may! In our modern day, we would say, take time to stop and smell the roses—take time off in your busy schedule for what is really important.

Another subject that I want to touch on is American poets of the 19th century. The mid- nineteenth century saw a lot of extremely popular poets in America who wrote traditional forms of poetry. Today we Americans have video games, DVDs and crazy fantasy novels, but in the 19th century the popular entertainment of the day was poetry. Can you imagine today’s Mr. Everyman rushing out to the nearest book shop to buy a copy of the latest contemporary poetry? I don’t think so. No, sadly reading contemporary poetry has become a thing of the past. Perhaps the fault, however, lies not so much in the reading public as in the poets writing. It seems that today’s poets do not write for the common person as much as they do for other poets.

It is said that every literate household could boast a copy of the 19th-century American poet Longfellow’s Evangeline. Many nights by the fireside were spent reading such poems—a fact that earned many of the 19th-century American poets the name “Fireside Poet.” Who were the fireside poets? Let me name them for you:

John Greenleaf Whittier

James Russell Lowell

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

William Cullen Bryant

Oliver Wendell Holmes

In the English History and Literature class we talked about the first English poet (that we have a name for), a cowherd named “Caedmon.” He was an early Medieval poet. The Father of English poetry, you will remember, is Geoffrey Chaucer. Today many of you would find it difficult to read Chaucer’s works, but would find it nearly impossible to read Caedmon’s poetry. I spent a lot of time studying Anglo-Saxon poetry, including Caedmon, but unfortunately I cannot share my interest with you, as the poetry is understandably for a more mature audience.

In Mr. Walter’s literature class, you will notice that certain poets are neglected. Why do I emphasize poets like Tennyson, Wordsworth, Longfellow, Shakespeare, and Keats, and not others? Why not Gertrude Stein, Sylvia Plath, and Shel Silverstein? The question is complicated, but in general, the latter 20th-century writers are either not appropriate for younger people to study, or just as importantly, their poetry has not yet attained the status of “classic.” Some might argue with me regarding the first two mentioned—Gertrude Stein and Sylvia Plath. I think no one would argue with me, however, that Shel Silverstein’s work is verse and not poetry—which leads me to another subject. What is the difference between verse and poetry, and between poetry and prose?

Prose is “regular writing,” which includes essays, newspaper articles and fiction. Poetry is “special writing” that is more attentive to the rhythm and sounds of words and their suggestive meaning. Verse is writing that might have the obvious trappings of a poem, including rhyme and rhythm, but not the depth of a poem, like Keats’ odes or a Shakespearean sonnet. What I just said might be oversimplifying things, but I will excuse myself, as poets have been trying to define poetry for centuries now and haven’t come to any definite conclusions. But I think all critics would agree with John Keats’ statement that “the poetry of earth is never dead.” That is about as general a statement as you can make about poetry. Keats seems to be suggesting by it that poetry is a certain intangible, living, and eternal beauty. It’s a statement to think about!

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