Poet's Choice

By Robert Pinsky
Sunday, June 11, 2006

The nostalgia sometimes expressed for a vague "old days" when "poetry was popular" neglects the fact that much extremely popular poetry of the 19th and 20th centuries now seems unreadably awful. One-time poetry stars such as Felicia Hemans, Edgar Guest and Joyce Kilmer maintain small, devoted followings, but are best known for "bad poetry."

What is bad poetry? As has been said about jazz and pornography, you tend to recognize it even if you can't define it. In every art form, some works and artists enjoy great popularity for a while, then are scorned or rejected by later generations. Felicia Hemans (1793-1835) was very popular for a century. Many American grammar school students memorized and recited her "Casabianca," a poem best remembered nowadays for its first line -- "The boy stood on the burning deck" -- and for Elizabeth Bishop's poem of the same title, playing off that line.

More recently, Edgar Guest (1881-1959) wrote a poem-a-day newspaper column, and he had his own radio show. His collection A Heap O' Livin' sold more than a million copies. Here is the first stanza of the title poem:

It takes a heap o' livin' in a house t' make it home,

A heap o' sun an' shadder, an' ye sometimes have t' roam

Afore ye really 'preciate the things ye lef' behind,

An' hunger fer 'em somehow, with 'em allus on yer mind.

It don't make any differunce how rich ye get t' be,

How much yer chairs an' tables cost, how great yer luxury;

It ain't home t' ye, though it be the palace of a king,

Until somehow yer soul is sort o' wrapped round everything.

The ideas are banal, but the writing is skillful. The feeling is glibly oversimplified, but in an effective way that makes phrases easier to remember, like a simple tune. The very triteness of "ye sometimes have t'roam/ Afore ye really 'preciate the things ye lef' behind," the very flatness of "It don't make any differunce how rich ye get t' be" makes those phrases more reassuring, more comfortable than any lines I can think of by Guest's contemporaries Wallace Stevens and Marianne Moore.

CONTINUED     1        >

© 2006 The Washington Post Company