Why Poetry Should Be More Playful

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.


This Is Just To Say

I have eaten
the plums
that were in
the icebox

and which
you were probably
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:


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.

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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 the forthcoming book Wonder Woman: Bondage and Feminism in the Marston/Peter Comics, 1941-1948.

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