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I Hate Poetry
“Poetry isn’t hard, it’s impossible.” So says Ben Lerner in his provocative essay, The Hatred of Poetry. By distinguishing between Poetry and poems, Lerner pits artist against craft and craft against its creation. Poetry isn’t simply form but Form; the virtual ideal which poems can never actually live up to. “The fatal problem with poetry,” he writes, “is poems.” Regardless of its aim, every poem is a tragedy because every poet is a tragic figure never grasping the fistful of stars for which he reached.
This is the Poetry I hate; Poetry which insists on being capitalized and idolized. This Poetry exists only as the invisible ideal behind everything and everyone which poems are meant to depict or describe, which is to say that it doesn’t actually exist at all. Yet, here we are—plagued by its nagging presence.
True poetry isn’t nearly as demanding. It is more interested in making declarations than demands. It’s goal is not to bring the concrete into conformity with the abstract, but to bring the seer into contact with that which is to be seen. Or the hearer into contact with that which is to be heard. The joy comes from learning wither to look or listen. Often the objective of the poem isn’t obvious at all; it seems like a world freshly made—without form, and void. Does that make it any less real?
Big P Poetry hates poets because they seek to immanentize the transcendent. But true poetry loves poets precisely for that reason. “To see the world in a grain of sand,” is not just a clever paradox, it’s the very point of poetry. But Lerner’s “Virtual” Poetry must of necessity be disinterested in the progressive sequences of time, the unfolding nature of history, or the flesh and bone quality of this world of transient tangibles. Peter Leithart notes that these kinds of high-flying abstractions could only successfully be written by disembodied nobodies for other disembodied nobodies, “which suggests that Poetry isn’t all that different from silence.”
I think that the limerick is one great form of protest against that kind of Poetry. Limericks are too silly to be ideologues. Limericks are the mischievous relatives of sonnets. They often speak of the same subjects as do their courtly cousins, but they usually do so in much less refined ways. Poetry would surely chafe against such obvious contempt for solemnity.
This cheeky member of familia poeticus was made popular in the nineteenth-century by a fellow named Edward Lear. Certain aficionados of the five-line rhymes have dedicated a great deal of time and effort to finding them in the works of Aristophanes, Shakespeare, and notable figures in the history of the Church.
Here are a couple (clean) examples of the anti-Poetry poems displaying something of their humble glory.
There once was a pious young priest.
Who lived almost wholly on yeast ;
" For," he said, " it is plain
We must all rise again.
And I want to get started, at least.”
I jotted this one down this afternoon in an attempt to write a didactic limerick. These poetic pedagogues can easily be conscripted into double duty.
There once was a fellow named Paul,
Who once was a fellow named Saul.
One name was Roman,
Suited for roamin,'
To carry the gospel to all.
One interesting discovery is that of Monsignor Ronald Knox, a Roman Catholic Priest who discovered this Latin limerick in the works of St. Thomas Aquinas. Apparently this was a prayer used for the end of a particular mass.
Sit vitiorum meorum evacuatio
Concupiscentae et libidinis exterminatio,
Caritatis et patientiae,
Humilitatis et obedientiae,
Omniumque virtutum augmentatio
Even though one finds the words concupiscentiae and libidinis, the Angelic Doctor's halo is not tarnished. One might translate it as:
Let it be for the elimination of my sins,
For the expulsion of desire and lust,
And for the increase of charity and patience,
Humility and obedience,
As well as all the virtues.
The following translation makes the English true to limerackian form:
Extinguish concupiscent fires,
Eliminate lustful desires;
Give patience and love,
A plenitude of
What humble obeying requires.
Whether or not St. Thomas meant to compose a limerick or not is not the issue. Fact is, he did so. Thomas, ever the defender of the faith, was poking against Platonism through poetic prayers.
True poetry is fit for prayers. It doesn't despise the Elysian fields, or our desire to lay hold of them. True poetry never stifles the desire to reach toward the heavens for that coveted fistful of stars. It is convinced that you catch a few in every handful of lighting bugs; the world in a grain of sand, the heavens sparkling in a mason jar. If you too hate Poetry then go write a few bad limericks. If you really hate Poetry then write a few good ones.