EP&M Online Essay
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,
lubricant and brimstone, wipe yo’ smile.
COMPETITIVE DEVALUATION—a great find
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
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
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
Poo-bah: Congratulate me, gentlemen, I've found
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
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
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
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
predictable sameness, the conspicuous lack of diversity
in what he read.
Where are the narrative poems, he would ask, the verse
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
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.
We hope essayist Edward Zuk will visit again!