EP&M Online Essay

Easy Poetry


Edward Zuk

    The twentieth century was the age of the difficult poem.  When T. S. Eliot wrote in 1921 "that it appears likely that poetry in our civilization, as it exists at present, must be difficult,” he characterized much of the poetry of his own generation and of those that followed.  Many of the great poems of the twentieth-century can be described only as difficult.  The Waste Land, The Cantos, "Sailing to Byzantium," The Bridge, Notes Towards a Supreme Fiction, Paterson, The Sea and the Mirror, Ariel . . . all remain daunting decades after they were written.  Yet they and other works like them established the difficult poem as the main stream of modern poetry, a current that continues to run strong today.  Opening Geoffrey Hill's recent book Speech, Speech at random, I find:

    Get stuck in. Hurdy-gurdy the starter
    handle to make backfire. Call monthlies
    double-strength stale fleurs du mal. Too close
    for comfort  |  say it, Herr Präsident, weep
    lubricant and brimstone, wipe yo’ smile.
    wasted on pleasantries of intermission.

If this is not difficult poetry, what is?  Yet this passage is actually more accessible than much of the work of Jorie Graham or John Ashbery, two of the more celebrated poets now writing.
    One of the unfortunate byproducts of this success of the difficult poem is that it has obscured an alternate stream of poetry that also deserves our notice.  I would like to call this other stream "easy poetry," borrowing a term coined by Samuel Johnson, who first proposed it in a nearly forgotten essay written for the Idler.  Easy poetry is verse in which the choice of diction, themes, and syntax proceeds without strain or distortion.  As Johnson explained, it is poetry in which "natural thoughts are expressed without violence to the language."  Easy poetry is not characterized by "harsh or by daring figures, by transposition, by unusual acceptations of words, and by any license which would be avoided by a writer of prose."  Instead, it employs familiar language in much the same way that a literary novelist would, under the assumption that language well used is an ideal in itself.  At its best, it produces feelings of delight and surprise as the words fall, seemingly by fate or by magic, into a wholly natural word order and expression.
    Among American poets, Frost would seem to be the greatest master of easy poetry.  "Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening" provides a clear instance of it:

    Whose woods these are I think I know.
    His house is in the village, though;
    He will not see me stopping here
    To watch his woods fill up with snow.

    My little horse must think it queer
    To stop without a farmouse near
    Between the woods and frozen lake
    The darkest evening of the year.

In these stanzas, no word sounds forced, obscure, or out of place.  Instead, the lines display a naturalness and ease of expression that is astonishing in its transparency, which can be appreciated fully only after repeated readings.  The power of another of Frost's lyrics, "Provide, Provide," also depends on its success as easy poetry, at least after the initial description of a once-famous actress ("the picture pride of Hollywood," in Frost's awkward phrase):

    Too many fall from great and good
    For you to doubt the likelihood.

    Die early and avoid the fate.
    Or if predestined to die late,
    Make up your mind to die in state.

    Make the whole stock exchange your own!
    If need be occupy a throne,
    Where nobody can call you crone.

Again, the words fall into the rhymed tercets with remarkable ease. 
After Frost, the burden of carrying on the tradition of easy poetry passed on to Auden, who in the final section of "In Memory of W. B. Yeats" could write:

    Earth, receive an honoured guest;
    William Yeats is laid to rest:
    Let the Irish vessel lie
    Emptied of its poetry.

    In the nightmare of the dark
    All the dogs of Europe bark,
    And the living nations wait,
    Each sequestered in its hate. . .

The unforced syntax and modern diction make these lines into pure easy poetry.  Auden's middle lyrics, among them "Lullaby" and "Epitaph on a Tyrant," contain other famous examples.  Much of Philip Larkin's popularity, too, rests on his ability to write easy poetry in long, sustained stretches.  In the final stanza of "This Be the Verse" the phrasing, though sublime, does not differ from that of everyday speech:

    Man hands on misery to man,
    It deepens like a coastal shelf:
    Get out as quickly as you can
    And don't have any kids yourself.

Even the startling image of the coastal shelf is readily understandable on a first reading.  Similarly, his great lyrics "Church Going" and "Aubade" provide long passages of easy poetry:

    I work all day, and get half-drunk at night.
    Waking at four to soundless dark, I stare.
    In time the curtain-edges will grow light.
    Till then I see what's really always there:
    Unresting death, a whole day nearer now,
    Making all thought impossible but how
    And where and when I shall myself die.
    Arid interrogation:  yet the dread
    Of dying, and being dead,
    Flashes afresh to hold and horrify.

Here only the use of "till" for "until," and possibly the florid phrases "arid interrogation" and “flashes afresh,” depart from its demands.
    Because this type of verse is defined by its ease of expression, it is harder to write about than difficult poetry, which cries out for footnotes and explications.  Still, it is possible to identify some of its basic qualities.  Easy poetry can be used for didactic, descriptive, narrative, meditative, and abstract writing, as shown by the examples above.  No poetic genre lies outside of its reach.  The diction may be colloquial or formal, so long as it does not abandon common usage.  There is no one type of subject matter that easy poetry prefers, although the polish of its writing makes it a natural vehicle for light verse.  The hold that W. S. Gilbert's lyrics continue to have on audiences is a result of the flashes of easy poetry that they contain.  At the end of the first act of The Mikado, for example, this exchange occurs:

    Chorus:  To find out what you mean to do we punctually appear.
    Poo-bah:  Congratulate me, gentlemen, I've found a volunteer!
    Chorus:  The Japanese equivalent of hear, hear, hear!

The first line inverts the word order by shifting the prepositional phrase to the beginning of the sentence ("We appear punctually to find out what you mean to do" is the more natural phrasing), but the second and third lines are pure easy poetry.  And even a relatively minor song from Iolanthe can suddenly burst into a stanza like the following:

    When Wellington thrashed Bonaparte,
       As every child can tell,
    The House of Peers, throughout the war,
    Did nothing in particular,
       And did it very well:
    Yet Britain set the world ablaze
    In good King George's glorious days!

Only the clichéd final lines, which now sound artificial, depart from the rigors of easy poetry. 
     Light verse, in fact, is a major reservoir of easy poetry.  Epigrams tend to lose their sparkle if they depart from its demands in the slightest, and even an anonymous limerick can provide a pure example of it:

    There was an old party from Lyme
    Who married three wives at one time.
        When asked:  "Why the third?"
        He replied:  "One's absurd,
    And bigamy, sir, is a crime.

Paradoxically, nonsense verse also depends on a sense of easy poetry.  Even though the words spring from the author's imagination, they occur in the places where the reader would expect to find precisely that word.  The mimicry of easy poetry is a key element of the writing:

    And, as in uffish thought he stood,
       The Jabberwock, with eyes of flame,
    Came whiffling through the tulgey wood,
       And burbled as it came!

In nonsense verse that does not use imaginary words, the writing presents a polish and naturalness of expression that is in tension with the lack of sense.  Easy poetry ensures that the appearance of good sense is present, even when the sense itself is not.
    Like its subject matter, the form of an easy poem can vary, but the presence of either meter or rhyme is essential.  The delight produced by an easy poem comes from the feeling that a natural word order and expression has been achieved in spite of the difficulties of doing so, of an obstacle having been overcome.  As Johnson writes, this type of poetry requires "so much care and skill that I doubt whether any of our authors has yet been able, for twenty lines together, nicely to observe the true definition of easy poetry."  For this reason free verse never rises to easy poetry, since there is no apparent reason why the author should write anything else.  Free verse that is indistinguishable from common speech sounds bland and unpoetic, but formal verse that sounds natural achieves a unique type of pleasure.
    Most easy poetry occurs in rhymed stanzas, but it is possible for blank verse to attain its ideal.  At their best, iambics can be so polished and natural that they become a delight to read in and of themselves, as in these lines from Frost's "The Death of the Hired Man":

    Mary sat musing on the lamp-flame at the table,
    Waiting for Warren.  When she heard his step,   
    She ran on tiptoe down the darkened passage
    To meet him in the doorway with the news
    And put him on his guard.  "Silas is back."
    She pushed him outward with her through the door
    And shut it after her.  "Be kind," she said.

However, the pleasure that this verse gives is less intense than its rhymed counterparts, where greater difficulties must be overcome.  Similarly, some poems without a regular meter achieve a naturalness and delightfulness in their expression with the sudden appearance of rhyme:

    He was found by the Bureau of Statistics to be
    One against whom there was no official complaint,
    And all the reports on his conduct agree
    That, in the modern sense of an old-fashioned word, he was a saint. . .

This passage from Auden's "The Unknown Citizen" would appear to be easy poetry in spite of its lack of regular meter.  Ogden Nash was a master of this effect.
    In spite of this freedom of form and subject matter, the difficulty of writing easy poetry makes it a rare phenomenon.  For this reason a small number of easy poems tend to fill poetry anthologies.  "The Lake Isle of Innisfree" and "An Irish Airman Foresees His Death" by Yeats, for example, or Frost's "Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening" and "The Road Not Taken" are beloved by anthologists because they present relatively pure examples of the ideal.  More often, easy poetry appears in a single stanza or isolated passage within a longer poem, only to be swallowed up by inversions of the natural word order or by obscure syntax or diction.  However, when easy poetry does appear, a delight in the expression is immediate and untainted by whatever surrounds it.  One of the best-remembered sections of "The Waste Land" is the seduction scene of part III, which includes the lines:

    She turns and looks a moment in the glass,
    Hardly aware of her departed lover;
    Her brain allows one half-formed thought to pass:
    "Well now that's done: and I'm glad it's over."
    When lovely woman stoops to folly and
    Paces about her room again, alone,
    She smoothes her hair with automatic hand
    And puts a record on the grammophone.

The literary allusion "when lovely woman stoops to folly" and the awkward line break do interrupt the flow of easy poetry, as do the outmoded diction of "glass" and "grammo-phone," but the rest of the passage has a refreshing naturalness about it.  Mixing passages of easy verse with his otherwise complex poetry was one of Eliot's favourite techniques.  The inclusion of the easy poetry relieves the difficulty of the poem as a whole and gives the reader flashes of immediate pleasure to help offset the confusion produced by other parts of the work.
    This passage by Eliot, which long ago began to sound dated, is an important one for showing that easy poetry does not live forever.  Because it depends on a subjective criterion, the naturalness and ease of expression, easy poetry changes from age to age.  In his essay for the Idler, Samuel Johnson cites several examples of easy poetry that now sound forced and artificial:

    Th'adorning thee with so much art
    Is but a barbarous skill,
    'Tis like the poisoning of a dart
    Too apt before to kill.

Would anyone today call these lines from Abraham Cowley's "The Waiting Maid" natural and easy?  The archaic diction, the elision of the vowels, and the bewildering final line all break the rules of easy poetry by drawing the verse away from our standard use of language, though they sounded natural to the great critic.  Similarly, the elaborate rhetoric used in these lines from Addison's "Cato" is too elevated to be considered easy poetry to us, though Johnson found them "easy and sublime":

    'Tis the Divinity that stirs within us;
    'Tis heaven itself that points out an hereafter,
    And intimates eternity to man . . .

What these examples point to is a large shift in poetic taste, in which the sense of what is natural and unnatural in our language changed between Johnson's age and ours.  There is a fundamental difference between what we and the eighteenth century believe to be "natural" expression.  For this reason, only the odd isolated line by Dryden still sounds unforced to modern ears, and couplets by Pope often seem affected or artificial. 
    It is not until the early nineteenth-century, in fact, that we find the earliest poetry that sounds natural to us.  Literary scholars have long noted the influence of Romantic poetry on contemporary poets, and they have traced this influence to shared themes, a similar conception of the role of the artist, and so on.  But it is possible that Romantic poetry influences us because it shares the same standards of what is natural language and what is not.  Its language, in other words, is our own.  One of Wordsworth's ever-popular "Lucy" poems contains the stanza:

    A violet from a mossy stone
       Half-hidden from the eye;
    Fair as a star, when only one
       Is shining in the sky!

The modern reader does not make to any allowances whatsoever for an older diction or syntax.  Wordsworth's sense of the language here is identical to our own.  John Clare's work also contains long stretches of poetry that sound unforced today:

    When out an old mouse bolted in the wheats
    With all her young ones hanging at her teats;
    She looked so odd and so grotesque to me,
    I ran and wondered what the thing could be. . .

Once again, we can sense a feeling for diction and syntax that is identical to ours, a connection that no longer links us with the poetry of Addison and Cowley. 
    Of course, not all nineteenth-century verse continues to sound natural.  In much Romantic poetry, we sense a struggle between an emerging, modern sense of language and the continued hold of an older poetic syntax and diction.  As a result, archaic words and poeticisms continually interrupt the flow of easy poetry, even when the bulk of the writing conforms to contemporary standards:

    I wandered lonely as a cloud
    That floats on high o'er vales and hills,
    When all at once I saw a crowd,
    A host of golden daffodils;
    Beside the lake, beneath the trees,
    Fluttering and dancing in the breeze.

Only the poetic "o'er" and "vale" interrupt the ease of these lines for the modern reader, but the remainder of the stanza reads like easy poetry.  In the Victorian era, most of the easy poetry occurs in light verse, but Tennyson and Browning could write it when the occasion demanded, though they never quite shook off the hold of an older sense of language:

       Which done, she rose, and from her form
    Withdrew the dripping cloak and shawl,
       And laid her soiled gloves by, untied
    Her hat and let the damp hair fall,
       And, last, she sat down by my side
       And called me . . .

In these lines from "Porphyria's Lover" the unusual use of "form" for "body" and several other quirks of diction interrupt the ease of the expression.  It was not until the advent of Modernism, with its explicit revolt against the remaining poeticisms, that a wholly modern sense of language entered into poetry.  As a result, the twentieth century abounds with poems that sound natural to us, and for the foreseeable future at least, the language of Frost and Auden will continue to be ours as well.
    I have been describing the history and characteristics of easy poetry at length for a simple reason:  the ideal of easy poetry is a vital one for the Expansive Movement.  In fact, the broad aims of Expansive poets coincide with the qualities of easy poetry, which is always metrical or rhymed; comprehensible on a first reading; contemporary in its handling of language; and popular, as shown by the large number of easy poems that fill any general anthology.  In addition, easy poetry highlights a literary history that corrects the view that the tortured, symbolic poetry of the early twentieth century led inevitably to the tortured confessional free-verse lyric or obscure postmodern word games.  It gives dignity to light verse, didactic poetry, and epigrams, all of which have fallen into relative disuse, and it recognizes that even the difficult long poems by the Modernist masters contain sections that reach towards a broad audience and may inspire Expansive poets today.
    In "The Dilemma of the Long Poem," Dana Gioia imagines what would happen if a reader of poetry from the 18th century were to survey the contemporary American poetry scene.  “What would this imaginary traveller find?” Gioia asks before answering his own question:

    His overall reaction, I suspect, would be a deep disappointment over the
    predictable sameness, the conspicuous lack of diversity in what he read.
    Where are the narrative poems, he would ask, the verse romances, ballads,
    hymns, verse dramas, didactic tracts, burlesques, satires, the songs actually
    meant to be sung, and even the pastoral eclogues?  Are stories no longer
    told in poetry?  Important ideas no longer discussed at length?  The panoply
    of available genres would seem reduced to a few hardy perennials that
    poets worked over and over again with dreary regularity. . .

One of the major projects facing the poet today is how to revive these neglected genres, or how to find a way to dress tradition in modern clothes.  In this task easy poetry, an ideal that produces delight and immediacy through its handling of language, can and should play a vital role.

                                                             Edward Zuk

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