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.

Guest wrote for the readers of his daily column (syndicated in 250 newspapers), and he never missed a deadline in 30 years. That was his project, and he did a good job at it. Before we scorn the rustic dialect of his lines, before we condemn them as merely naive or faux-naif or just false in an outdated fashion, we should remember the popularity of country music and also the affected, exaggerated "incorrectness" of the rap idiom. Most American popular song since the birth of rock has been in dialect: A spectacularly successful example is the vaguely Appalachian character created for himself by Bob Dylan. (Edgar Guest, by the way, was born in England; his family moved to Michigan when he was 10.) Experts of dialect and sentiment such as Guest, writing poetry to evoke an era's fantasy of countrified wisdom, a daydream of universal feeling expressed in primal or elemental voices, filled a need now satisfied by the recorded music industry.

Stevens and Moore, born about the same time as Edgar Guest (1879 and 1887, respectively), had a different project, reaching further back and further forward in time. That is, they wrote to the standard of artists like John Keats or Emily Dickinson, and they wrote for . . . well, for us, the readers decades after them. Here is Moore on the subject of home:


My father used to say,

"Superior people never make long visits,

have to be shown Longfellow's grave

or the glass flowers at Harvard.

Self-reliant like the cat--

that takes its prey to privacy,

the mouse's limp tail hanging like a shoelace from its mouth--

they sometimes enjoy solitude,

and can be robbed of speech

by speech which has delighted them.

The deepest feeling always shows itself in silence;

not in silence, but restraint."

Nor was he insincere in saying, "Make my house your inn."

Inns are not residences.

Moore's lines, with their tricky repetitions of "speech" and "silence," the shocking image of that mouse-tail, are possibly not as catchy as Edgar Guest's poem. But I nominate them as likely to stand the test of time.

(Marianne Moore's poem "Silence" can be found in "The Collected Poems of Marianne Moore." Simon & Schuster. Copyright ©1935 and renewed © 1963 by Marianne Moore and T. S. Eliot. Edgar Guest's poem "Home" is from his collection "A Heap O' Livin'," originally published by Reily & Lee in 1916.)

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