How to Write Modern Poetry
Your subject: death. Or at least decay.
Disease, depression, and insanity are
Good (if you like to call them that) ideas too.
To change an old phrase, “While we live,
Let us die.” The old memento mori, taken to an
But to what purpose?
In past religious ages, men looked at skulls
To remind themselves that they were not yet dead.
But you, liberated from all such superstition,
Know that death is the only reality, just as purity
Is over-rated. Let your poems be preoccupied with death and sex,
Let that be their first care;
In this world without gods you have no need to think on anything
That might be still good or cling to some shred of honour.
Take a paragraph of prose, and chop it into uneven lines —
Or leave it and call it a prose poem — The old artificial
Boundaries of rhyme and rhythm no longer apply,
Yesterday’s creeds outworn. The world was not created orderly,
So why bother trying to impose order on the things of our own making?
Insert plenty of navel-gazing. Interject “I” whenever possible.
You will have the satisfaction of knowing,
When classes pore over your work in dusty rooms,
And conclude with small triumph that they have found
What your poem means
(If indeed in a post-truth world they dare say they can know what anything means),
They have missed it.
Death, or decay, is but a frame.
All your poems are about you. This is what it means
To live in a self-centered world.
This semester I have two writing workshops, and one of them started out with poetry. I don’t write poetry myself, except when I have to for classes, so starting the semester with it is like dumping a small child into the six-foot-deep part of the pool. That wasn’t the worst of it, though. When the teacher tells you things like “Poetry is not about beauty” and “the object of poetry is not to make sense” and tells you that humans try to find or make meaning out of everything, including chaos, as if that’s a bad thing, and the examples of poetry you have to read are not in any way distinguishable from prose when read aloud — well, it gets frustrating. When somebody’s presuppositions are all wrong, it shows clearly in their art (if you can call this kind of poetry art). Being assigned two poems in any form — or formlessness — for the next class, I wrote a paragraph against modern poetry, and turned it into what you see above.
G. K. Chesterton lived during a time much like ours, when (among other similarities) so-called “free verse” was popular and rhyme was old-fashioned. He was pretty good at writing free-verse attacks on, or parodies of, free verse. “To a Modern Poet”, “The Jazz” (also poking fun at modern music and dance), and “A Curse in Verse” are good ones. In his prose also he frequently repeated the same sentiments.
What are you still here for? Go read Chesterton.
The title comes from one of these discursions, in The Flying Inn, which of course I recommend.