You Call THAT a Poem?
by Rod Miller
Those of us who practice the craft of cowboy poetry make a lot of chin music about what, exactly, it is. The Bar-D Ranch web site fosters the conversation by inviting commentary in the “What is Cowboy Poetry?” section.
It’s an interesting question, with no shortage of answers. Most of the discussion seems to revolve around the authenticity—or lack thereof—of a poet’s cowboy credentials or depth of understanding of cowboy ways.
But, if you ask me (which no one did), there’s a more important question. Before we ask of a poem, “is it cowboy?” we ought to ask, “is it poetry?”
I have long been of a mind that much of what parades around dressed up as cowboy poetry isn’t poetry at all.
But what qualifies one string of sounds as poetry, yet prevents another, seemingly similar, set of words from claiming the name? It’s a question I’ve considered from time to time. And while I can stumble and stammer at some length on my opinions on the matter, my opinions don’t much matter.
Then again, maybe they do.
And so do yours, and everyone else’s, if we all bother to become informed on the subject.
That’s because poetry, being an art, is infused with a lot of subjectivity. Aside from things like metrical forms, there are few hard-and-fast rules in poetry, merely an ethereal set of principles. So, lacking many objective measures, subjectivity—informed opinion—is what we’re left to rely on.
The question of what poetry “is” came to mind again recently when I happened upon a dusty old pamphlet on my bookshelf. A Poetry Primer, by Gerald Sanders, Professor of English at Michigan State Normal College in Ypsilanti, was first published in 1935. My tattered paperbound copy of the 92-page booklet comes from the 1938 Fourth Printing.
As you might expect of a college poetry text, even an introductory one, the examples the author uses include the usual suspects: Shakespeare, Shelley, Yeats, Wordsworth, Milton, Tennyson, Whittier, and the like. But before you get the idea that this little book is too highfalutin to be relevant to any discussion of cowboy poetry, know that on page 35, Badger Clark’s “Glory Trail” is given as an example of the literary ballad.
For starters, Professor Sanders lists qualities common among poets. There’s a sensitive mind, “alive to nuances that escape the average person”; a good memory, allowing the poet to recall experiences and reproduce emotions; wide and varied life experiences; and the imagination to create new ideas by integrating experience and information.
Then, of course, there is the talent to express ideas and emotions—one of the “rarest attributes.” Add to all that “a fine sense for melody and form,” and a “delight in grouping words” so that “form and idea become inseparable” and you have a poet.
Simple enough. Describes all of us, don’t you think?
But, while all that speaks to our subject in some sense, we’re here to talk about what makes a poem rather than what makes a poet. The Professor first differentiates poetry from prose, which needn’t occupy our time. He then draws distinctions “between poetry and mere verse,” or “real poetry and mere writing in rhyme.”
Poetry, he says, displays several “marks.” Abbreviated descriptions follow. For reasons of readability, we’ll dispense with quotation marks. But know that the ideas and words that follow are the Professor’s and not mine, and are quoted verbatim or closely paraphrased. These “marks” of poetry are:
- An imaginative element; interpreting old matter in new ways, giving us new delight in familiar things.
- Combining unlike images and feelings to form new ones.
- Transcending the apparent, or obvious, to approach a new truth or ideal.
- An emotional element, a depth of feeling that’s richer than actual life.
- Emphasis on beauty—to resolve the uncouth, the unfinished, the unseemly, the inartistic, into harmony.
- Universality—though based specifics, there’s an underlying appeal to the common interests of all.
- Sincerity and honest conviction, demonstrated through freshness, vitality, and depth.
- The restraint to avoid false emotion and overly ornate language, and instead rely on the power of understatement and subtlety to induce a sense of power.
All helpful, I think, if you think about it.
The booklet continues with a description of the characteristics of “The Language of Poetry.” In brief:
- Concreteness, or writing that appeals to our senses and evokes vivid images. (We often hear this nowadays as advice to show not tell.)
- Use of Figurative Language as a shortcut to ideas and images: metaphor and simile, synecdoche and metonymy, personification and apostrophe.
- Allusions to literature and history.
- Tone Quality—grouping words to produce pleasing sounds; using alliteration, assonance, consonance, onomatopoeia and such.
- Effective use of rhyme (in formal poetry) as a melodic element, for emphasis of ideas, and as an organizing element.
Well, the Professor provides plenty to ponder as we practice poesy. We’ll all benefit when we write if we compare what we’ve just written to the above lists to see how well we’re doing when it comes to reaching beyond “mere verse” to attain the heights where “real poetry” resides.
“You call THAT a poem?” is an impertinent question—one I would never ask another writer. But it is one I ought to ask myself, and answer honestly, every time I put pen to paper.
And so should you.
© 2006, Rod Miller, All rights reserved
This article may not be reprinted or reposted without the author's written permission.
See our separate feature about Rod Miller here, which includes some of his poetry.
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