Why Poetry Should Be More Playful

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As verse becomes increasingly dry, it's getting more and more irrelevant.

William Carlos Williams is one of the iconic American poets of high modernism. So it's weird to think of him as a writer of children's verse. And yet, one of his most famous poems seems like it's aimed at much at kids as at adults.

berlatsky_forgiveme_post3.jpg

This Is Just To Say

I have eaten
the plums
that were in
the icebox

and which
you were probably
saving
for breakfast

Forgive me
they were delicious
so sweet
and so cold

Really, that could be by Shel Silverstein.

As "This Is Just To Say" shows, there doesn't have to be an absolute division between serious poetry and lighter verse. And yet, in practice, the two traditions have diverged radically, as the serious, high-art poetry tradition has retreated into the halls of academia, closed the doors, and then triple-locked them. Even New York school poets like Kenneth Koch and Frank O'Hara, who put a premium on wit and humor not that far divorced from someone like Ogden Nash, do so in a way designed to alienate as large a public as possible. John Ashbery, one of the most important American poets of the last 50 years, seems dedicated to demonstrating, at almost impossible length, that if you try you can write extremely accomplished light verse that no one on earth will want to read. An example:

Glazunoviana

The man with the red hat
And the polar bear, is he here too?
The window giving on shade,
Is that here too?
And all the little helps,
My initials in the sky,
The hay of an arctic summer night?

The bear
Drops dead in sight of the window.
Lovely tribes have just moved to the north.
In the flickering evening the martins grow denser.
Rivers of wings surround us and vast tribulation.

But it wasn't always so. Not that long ago the virtues of children's verse—humor, whimsy, accessibility, surprise—were native to even the most high-brow poets. If more evidence is needed, consider Williams' highbrow peer Wallace Stevens, who often indulged in a lilting, Seussian goofiness, as in this stanza from "The Man With the Blue Guitar":

So that's life, then: things as they are?
It picks its way on the blue guitar.

A million people on one string?
And all their manner in the thing,

And all their manner, right and wrong,
And all their manner, weak and strong?

The feelings crazily, craftily call,
Like a buzzing of flies in autumn air,

And that's life, then: things as they are,
This buzzing of the blue guitar.

And that's nothing compared to what happens if you go on past modernism and—especially—across the water. Christina Rossetti's "Goblin Market" might as well be a nursery rhyme, not least because of its creepy intimations of sex and violence:

"Lie close," Laura said,
Pricking up her golden head:
We must not look at goblin men,
We must not buy their fruits:
Who knows upon what soil they fed
Their hungry thirsty roots?"

Similarly, Rudyard Kipling's odes to imperial adventure all bounce along with an irresistible doggerel jingle. "Gunga Din" could have been written by limerick pioneer Edward Lear almost, if Edward Lear were a racist jerk. And, of course, there's Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats, in which that snootiest of snooty poets, T.S. Eliot, channels Lewis Carroll.

The growing distance between serious verse and children's verse has certainly been connected—as cause, effect, or more likely both—to the increasing irrelevance of serious poetry. Why this has happened is unclear; perhaps it has to do with the increasing accessibility and popularity of visual culture; perhaps it's all the fault of the MFA program professionalization of highbrow lit; maybe it was just time for poetry to die, as genres sometimes do. Whatever the reason, though, for folks who love Rossetti, or Kipling, or Stevens, or Williams, the irrelevance is disheartening.

Which is but one reason to be excited by Gail Carson Levine's new book of children's verse called Forgive Me, I Meant to Do It—released next Tuesday—in which Levine creates not one, not two, not ten, but more than 40 different versions of "This Is Just To Say".

Levine is best known for her YA Cinderella retelling Ella Enchanted (made into a movie with Anne Hathaway). True to form, many of her poems here riff off of fairy tails or nursery rhymes. Cows apologize for chewing through beanstalks; princesses apologize for leaving the dirty, smelly dwarves; the Beast apologizes for having Beauty to an unusual breakfast; and a girl apologizes for pushing Humpty-Dumpty off the wall ("Forgive me/all the king's horses/and all the king's men/ were bored").

The poems are complemented by Matthew Codell's dexterously messy line art, which nicely captures the rudeness of Levine's poem . In one illustration a long, looping curlicue of a motion line culminates in a decidedly mottled banana peel and a splayed, broken Jack at the bottom of the mountain. In another, a scribbly, pissed-off spider sits beneath disturbingly oozy water as he prepares to devour a fly. Author Levine herself shows up with her teeth filed to points. The drawings have some of the energy, and some of the sneering adolescent swagger, of cartoonist Johnny Ryan—though, of course, without Ryan's scatological extremes.

Both Levine and Cordell unearth the violence in Williams' original poem. As Levine says in her introduction, "...don't even consider writing this kind of poem unless you can get yourself into a grouchy mood.... your poems should be mean, or what's the point? " Thus one of Levine's more bloody-minded efforts:

This Is Just To Say

I confess
I sliced off
their skinny
tails

which
they seemed awfully
fond
of waving

Forgive me
I wanted symmetry
sightless in front
tailless behind

I have to admit, the call to misanthropy struck a chord in me. Before I knew it, I found myself writing the following:

This Is Just To Say

I have tied
you
to a chair
while I whisper

contemporary
poetry
in your ear
for days

Forgive me
your screams were
deeply human
and made the familiar strange

In the end, though, Levine's book makes the case that Williams' poem wasn't just for cold-hearted bastards. It was for everyone. Reading through the book, you can't help but feel that adult literature—and, indeed, our culture as a whole—has lost something through academic poetry's segregation. One William Carlos Williams poem inspired this entire delightful book. How much great art could we have, then, if poetry were allowed to stop gazing into its navel for obscure meaningfulness and were allowed, instead, to speak to its natural audience of malevolent plum-eaters and children of all ages?

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Noah Berlatsky is a contributing writer for The Atlantic. He edits the online comics-and-culture website The Hooded Utilitarian and is the author of a forthcoming book on the original Wonder Woman comics.

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