Elizabeth Drew's little book Poetry: A Modern Guide to Its Understanding and Enjoyment (1959) is yet another of the many cheap paperbacks that I fell for at the local library's used-book sale. I've been carrying it around with me for a while and have only gotten a third of the way into it --- but already I've harvested enough enjoyment and insight to more than justify the time spent plowing through the occasional slow, academic parts. A few brief excerpts ...
From Chapter 1, "Poetry and the Poet":
Poetry is the earliest and remains the most concentrated and intense form of communication among the arts of language. Its uses of words are finer, richer and more powerful than those of prose, and it has played a larger part in the whole literary tradition. Today the pessimists are very gloomy about the state of poetry. They point out that, like the behavior of the younger generation and of the weather, it isn't what it used to be.
In Chapter 3, "Sound Patterns":
In the first quarter of this century it was the fashion to hold that poetry could dispense with any regular metrical pattern, either of rhyme or beat. ... Pound's cult of "Imagism" demanded no rhythmical stress at all, only a clear visual image in lines alleged to be in the pattern of the musical phrase. When read aloud, these patterns couldn't possibly be distinguished from prose. The result was a flood of poems such as William Carlos Williams's "Red Wheelbarrow," which proves perhaps only that words can't take the place of paint.
. . . (text of the poem here) . . .
Whether this kind of thing pleases must be a matter of personal taste, but it should not be called "verse," since that word means that the rhythm "turns" and repeats itself; just as "prose" means that it runs straight on. Eliot made a good point when he called the term "free verse" a misnomer in another sense: "no verse is free for the man who wants to do a good job."
Drew's Chapter 4, "Imagery", particularly tickled me because it analyzes and compares, among other fine poems, two of my all-time faves: John Donne's "Batter My Heart, Three-personed God" and William Butler Yeats's "Leda and the Swan". (see FaceToFaceWithGod (13 Nov 2001) and ByHeart (28 Nov 2001)) And, putting the bottom line first, Drew in concluding her Introduction quotes Samuel Johnson's "simple and bedrock wisdom":
"The only end of writing is to enable the reader better to enjoy life, or better to endure it."