Robert (gurdonark) wrote,

in praise of sentimental aphorism

I like how in elementary school we studied poems as if they were not poems in the way I use that term now. We all knew how to define poetry--it rhymed. It wasn't at all like "modern art", which we at Gurdon Primary School knew well. Modern art we had down--it was comprised of a kind of patterned crayon paisley that kids drew, rather precisely, as if only a certain paisley would do. "Modern art", the artist would whisper, as the point must be made secretly.

We learned to recite things from Longfellow, with lines like "listen, my children, and you shall hear of the midnight ride of Paul Revere" and "under the spreading chestnut tree the village smithy stands".

We understood that poems had a musicality about them--they came in measures and lyrical rhymes, and one could beat them out and even annotate them using little apostrophes and other "feet".

You knew where you stood with poetry. Unlike long division, which sometimes required you to carry things over and strained the imagination, poetry was simply fun. Ravens quoted "nevermore", and recitation required only a tintinabulation of exuberance.

We did not worry overmuch about the distinctions between "good" rhymed verse and doggerel. We took in self-made poor rhymes, Ogden Nash and Shakespeare with equal appreciation. Poetry of this sort was part of the fabric of our lives, as were, by the way, construction paper bulletin boards, papier mache', and wearing towels pinned to our backs with safety pins so that we might simulate super heroes.

As we aged, the transition to free verse proved to be not a strain at all. Perhaps in an earlier generation, "free verse" posed some challenge or other. Yet we understood that once things rhymed; and then they rhymed but had meter, and then they did not. No need to furrow a brow about that--life is a mellotron of words and you have to be ready to re-set your pre-sets from time to time.

Yet I must confess that I still enjoy an old-fashioned "bad" poet--a sentimental poet
of the popular magazines of a by-gone era. I have been reading lately the works of the poet Edgar Guest. His poems have a strongness and a steadiness about them--they called him "the people's poet" during his lifetime. They were light on imagery, and strong on aphorism. Here's a sample:


To live as gently as I can;
To be, no matter where, a man;
To take what comes of good or ill
And cling to faith and honor still;
To do my best, and let that stand
The record of my brain and hand;
And then, should failure come to me,
Still work and hope for victory.

To have no secret place wherein
I stoop unseen to shame or sin;
To be the same when I'm alone
As when my every deed is known;
To live undaunted, unafraid
Of any step that I have made;
To be without pretense or sham
Exactly what men think I am.

To leave some simple mark behind
To keep my having lived in mind;
If enmity to aught I show,
To be an honest, generous foe,
To play my little part, nor whine
That greater honors are not mine.
This, I believe, is all I need
For my philosophy and creed".

When I was in fourth grade, this type of thing, admixed liberally with Kipling, might be what we would term poetry.

I think now that aphorism should be taught as a separate field of study than poetry.
Aphorism, after all, sells products and wins elections and helps keep the circulation of Reader's Digest robust. I find myself entertained by light verse, which I will place in a pantheon of sorts besides comic irrelevances in fiction and songs involving
home-made musical instruments.

This is un-self-consciously "bad" poetry, the only real kind. You can find it in personal websites and song lyrics and in those giant internet advertising engines disguised as poetry contests. When you send in the sketch to the correspondence school of art, after all, it turns out the sender has "real potential".

Some days I think we have too many theories, creeds and certainties about life. Too many outre experiments, too many losses of too fleeting an innocence.

I believe that the secret is to lighten up a bit. If I can find a book of rhyme, and take myself just the slightest bit less seriously, then my hope is renewed.

I find myself these days reading curious verse, and re-living a happy childhood.
Many jaded artistes bemoan lost childhood--but perhaps they have fotgotten how it merely played and rhymed.

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