Poet's Choice

By Robert Pinsky
Sunday, June 26, 2005

Readers can sense poetry's roots in such ordinary, popular forms as the ballad, the lullaby and the hymn. On the other hand, the art also seems to have roots in the customs of social elites such as the royal courts of Southern Europe and the sensitive scholar-diplomats of old China.

Poetry is in some ways lordly or aristocratic: It gets bored more easily than prose, it likes to skip steps, and it is very interested in pleasure. The rectangular blocks of print embodying its young, middle-class nephew, the novel, seem too confining for poetry, which prefers speed and glamour.

Yet at the same time it feels at home in the street, the kitchen, the playground and the tavern. It likes a good time, and it sometimes mocks or parodies solemnity. These two historic elements of the art persist -- and frequently combine. Here is a good example by Wallace Stevens:

The Pleasures of Merely Circulating

The garden flew round with the angel,

The angel flew round with the clouds,

And the clouds flew round and the clouds flew round

And the clouds flew round with the clouds.

Is there any secret in skulls,

The cattle skulls in the woods?

Do the drummers in black hoods

Rumble anything out of their drums?

Mrs. Anderson's Swedish baby

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