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  • Writer's pictureWilliam Walter

Poetry Bee Blog #24: Old and New

In this week’s blog we will be going over both the new and the old. Let’s first give age its honor and talk about the epic first. Perhaps the oldest surviving poem in the world is the Epic of Gilgamesh. The oldest surviving English poem is the epic Beowulf. Both of these poems were only recently (considering their age) discovered in the mid 1800’s. (Beowulf was known, but relatively ignored until scholars realized its importance, while the Epic of Gilgamesh was completely unknown and discovered in 1853 on clay tablets.)

     What is an epic? Epics are long, usually unrhymed, poems that deal with a hero’s adventure. The noble-sounding blank verse of the epic suits the serious topic that the poet wants to talk about.  Consisting of twelve books (originally ten), the most famous epic in the English language Paradise Lost has a very serious theme; it not only tells the story of Satan’s fall from heaven, his temptation of Eve, and Adam’s fall, but also includes colorful depictions of the glorious garden of Eden, the dismal regions of hell and the delightful heights of heaven. The purpose of John Milton’s poem was to “justify the ways of God to men,” and through the drama and dialog of the poem the poet discusses difficult subjects, such as the origin of sin, the reason for God allowing evil in the world, and the seeming contradiction between God’s sovereignty, or supreme will, and man’s free will. Did you ever wonder why God allows the good sometimes to suffer in the hands of bad men? Or wonder how God can have complete control of the universe and yet allowed Adam to sin? Or why God allows people who have a purpose to serve Him to end up being tortured? Milton answers all those questions and more.

    Milton’s poem was written in blank verse. Many students, I suppose, confuse heroic verse and blank verse because they are very similar—they are both written in iambic pentameter and are often used for poems of greater length. The difference is that heroic verse has rhymed couplets, and blank verse has no regular end rhyme. Shakespeare’s plays for the most part were written in blank verse, as well as John Milton’s very famous epic Paradise Lost.

    Does a poem have to rhyme in order to be considered a proper poem? Well, many people in Milton’s day thought that it did, and when Milton wrote his epic poem, he prepared his readers for disappointment by dispelling this misconception. He wrote that his poem was “English heroic verse without rime, as that of Homer in Greek, and of Virgil in Latin.” He says that rhyme was an “invention of a barbarous age, to set off wretched matter and lame meter.” Many poets of his own age had used rhyme gracefully, he said, but some, though they could have expressed their intent much better had they not used rhyme, got “carried away by custom” and wrote rhyme “much to their vexation, hindrance, and constraint.”

    Let me now talk about the poet John Milton. Born in London in 1608, John Milton began his education at home under a private tutor. (He was homeschooled—imagine that. By the way, many of the greatest literary men and women of the past were schooled at home at least in part, including John Greenleaf Whittier and Christina Rossetti—just to name a couple. William Cowper was sent to school at the tender age of five or six and because of his bad experiences there he wrote vehemently in favor of homeschooling.) Receiving an M.A. in 1632 at Christ’s College, Cambridge, he came home to his parent's house at Horton (1632-38), where he pored over the Christian and Roman classic authors, sometimes taking journeys to nearby London to learn music and mathematics. His sense of music, great general learning and skill in the classic languages gained during these years appears quite clearly in his later works.

    At the conclusion of the Civil War in 1649, Oliver Cromwell appointed Milton Latin secretary. Composing letters in Latin, Milton wrote very ably and elegantly as an official foreign correspondent. In 1652, Milton became totally blind, a condition that has been attributed to his intense midnight study.  However, with the help of various secretaries, the most famous of which was the poet Andrew Marvell, Milton continued his work.

    Milton had defended the Commonwealth, had justified the execution of Charles I, and criticized the official English church government, and when the Commonwealth dissolved and the exiled King Charles II returned to England, Milton was forced to go into hiding. Many of Milton's works were burned. He received an official pardon, however, and returned to writing poetry, including Samson Agonistes, a poetic drama about the blind Bible hero with whom Milton evidently empathized because of his lost sight and terrible sense of regret. His brilliant masterpiece Paradise Lost was completed during this period, but had been conceived much earlier.

Milton was freethinking enough to write with qualms an English epic without rhyme. Would he have written a poem, however, without rhythm. I doubt it. Like Robert Frost, who famously said that writing poetry without meter is like playing tennis without a net, Milton understood rhythm to be a hallmark quality of English poetry. Today, however, many or most poems are written in what is called free verse, which has no stanza pattern, rhyme or regular metrical form. Although free verse, and all writing for that matter, has rhythm, that rhythm is not regular and cannot be identified as being a fixed pattern of iambs, trochees, or some other kind of stress.

     Now that we are onto the subject of modern poets, let us talk about three of the most popular American 20th-century poets, Carl Sandburg, Robert Frost, and E. E. Cummings. Let me first talk about Frost. Although he is associated with the Northeast, Robert Frost was born in San Francisco, California.  I think I have already told you that—it’s one of those things that I frequently mention because I find it fascinating—one of my college advisors and head of the English Department had been taught by Robert Frost. And if I remember his reminiscence correctly, he told me that the class often consisted of the poet sitting on a rock outside and reading from his own works. What a treat that must have been. 

     Born on March 26, 1874, Robert Frost lived long enough to speak at John F. Kennedy’s inauguration on January, 1961. Frost is one of America’s most highly regarded poets and perhaps its best known. His depictions of American rural life of his poetry have a natural, homey appeal, and yet have enough in them to draw readers to consider more profound truths of life. As I said, he was born in sunny San Francisco, California, but after his father had died in 1885, his family moved to Lawrence, Massachusetts and it is the New England landscape that Frost memorialized in his poetry.

    After graduating Lawrence High School in 1892, Frost went to Dartmouth University, but left after only two months to help his mother teach her class of undisciplined students. He also worked odd jobs, delivering newspapers and working as a lightbulb filament changer. Frost wrote poetry during this time, and in 1894 sold his first poem, “My Butterfly: an Elegy” for $15.00, which in today’s money would be about $370.00. Later, after his marriage to Elinor Miriam White, he attended Harvard for two years but never graduated, as he had to support a growing family. Frost then began working on a farm, which his grandfather had purchased for him in Derry, New Hampshire. (Today the farm is a New Hampshire state park and the house is used as a historic house museum.)  Frost worked the farm for nine years while writing poems in the early mornings. It was during his life on the farm that Frost produced some of his most famous poems.

    Frost’s farming ultimately was unsuccessful, and he left it to become an English teacher at New Hampshire’s Pinkerton Academy, from 1906-1911 in Plymouth, New Hampshire. His first book of poetry was published a year later in 1912. From 1921 till his death 1963, continued to write poetry and taught at Middlebury College in Vermont. Frost later received honorary degrees from Harvard and Dartmouth.

Now let us go onto a famous free verse poet, Carl Sandburg. I am not a huge fan of Sandburg, as I am not a huge fan of free verse; there are, however, notable exceptions. Sandburg was born in Illinois and lived and worked primarily in the Midwest. Sandburg typifies the spirit and ethos of the period in which he was writing, and I often associate him with the composer Aaron Copeland, as his works typify the ideas and feeling of early twentieth-century America.

     E. E. Cummings was born in Massachusetts and went to the Ivy League of the state, Harvard. He graduated there with a BA and later an MA in English and Classical Studies. At his graduation he gave his commencement address to his class. 

    What is most immediately notable about E. E. Cummings’ poetry is that it does not follow standard rules of grammar and punctuation. Because one of my jobs as an English teacher is to correct students’ mistakes in grammar and punctuation, Cummings’ poetry can become quite distracting for me (although I have a deep appreciation of some of his works). Often the words of his poems are jumbled, and proper nouns and words that begin sentences are not capitalized. They really take work to read and understand. But this unusual practice of his, of course, was deliberate. The lack of proper punctuation and strange order of words often force the reader to concentrate more intently on what is being written. Other times, E.E. Cummings  used his unusual presentation to “paint a picture” with words. Some of his poems resemble “shape poetry,” also called “concrete poetry.” You will remember that shape poetry is poetry shaped like an object that is mentioned or suggested in the poem. One poem that the English History and Literature students have read is “The Altar.” You may have noticed that the poem itself was shaped like an altar. The following is a stanza showing E. E. Cummings’ unusual punctuation and word order. 

i thank You God for most this amazing

day:for the leaping greenly spirits of trees

and a blue true dream of sky; and for everything

which is natural which is infinite which is yes

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