Contemporary Poetry, C. S. Lewis, and Form as a Gateway to Feeling

There’s nothing like giving a public lecture to make you doubt your arguments.

Let me explain: two weeks ago I presented a lecture on Contemporary Poetry at our school’s Third Thursday Lecture series. I had what I thought was a great set up for my lecture: Poetry is popular again! I said, and then I hit them with another zinger: It’s not just popular, it’s outselling the likes of Stephen King and Dan Brown! But there’s a catch—It’s not very good poetry.

In fact, the books of poetry that show up on the best-seller shelves at Barnes and Noble and Target are at least as badly written as the books they sit beside: best-selling paperback novels about globe-trotting detectives, CIA operatives, or (shudder) vampires in love.

Having said this, and feeling justified in my righteous indignation at the popularity of rubbish and the obscurity of good literary art, I began to second guess myself: was this popular poetry really all that harmful? After all, trash fiction has been selling like hotcakes for decades, even centuries, and it has not diminished the ability of good fiction writers to write good fiction.

Moreover, should I not be happy—as some argued during the early controversies over the quality of J.K. Rowling’s novels—that people were reading poetry at all? Now that they had a taste for it, one could argue, they would read more and better poetry. Having been reared on bestselling poetry by rupi kaur and r.h. Sin (and yes, the lower case spelling is how these bestselling poets prefer to be referred to), would readers not mature into Wallace Stevens, or at least Mary Oliver?

You see my dilemma now, surely: I am caught between feeling like an elitist snob who cannot let people alone to enjoy what they like, and a traitor to writing (and writers) that I know to be excellent, life-shaping even: the sonic thrill of a Hopkins sonnet, the cresting tide of images in a lyric by Caroline Forché, the solemn gravity of a Geoffry Hill quatrain.

For all texts we dedicate our reading to are life-shaping. Read enough pulp spy novels, and you will begin to see the world through the narrative shapes and character traits you find there. Read enough limp, sentimental free verse and that is what the world will seem to you: a place of feelings freely and bluntly expressed, with no overarching order, where every rule or norm seems a prison.

Such a view of the world, and such a view of art in general and poetry in particular, is antithetical to how the most enduring poetry in history has been written. Yes, poets have felt, and felt deeply. But they have also thought, and subjected that thought and that sentiment to poetic forms that were much older than they.

C. S. Lewis explains this well in his masterpiece of literary criticism A Preface to Paradise Lost, when explaining how Milton wrote his famous poem:

The first question he asked himself was not “What do I want to say?” but “What kind of poem do I want to make?”—to which of the great pre-existing kinds, so different in the expectations they excite and fulfill, so diverse in their powers, so recognizably distinguished in the minds of all cultured readers, do I intend to contribute? … the things between which choice is to be made already exist in their own right, each with a character of its own well established in the public world and governed by its own laws. – C. S. Lewis, A Preface to Paradise Lost (1)

Lewis sums this all up most succinctly a little later on: “It is easy to forget that the man who writes a good love sonnet needs not only to be enamored of a woman, but also enamored of the Sonnet.” (2)

The problem with many contemporary poets is that they are evidently not enamored of the Sonnet, nor the villanelle, nor even the haiku. They are only enamored of their own blandly expressed thoughts, and they are purchased by a populace so unaccustomed to poetic forms and traditions that they do not think to demand an apprenticeship to craft and form from the poets they read. This ignorance begets ignorance, and the market—as ambivalent to literary tradition as it is to religious tradition—rewards such reinforcement.

Lest I sound like a complete curmudgeon, I think that often the wholesale rejection of poetic form (and the resulting wholesale ignorance of it) is due, in part, to a desire for originality and authenticity. The young contemporary poet feels full of young, contemporary thoughts, and the moldy sonnet or weary ghazal—both over 500 years old—seem as forms obviously unable to contain such thoughts.

But here is Lewis again:

The attempt to be oneself often brings out only the more conscious and superficial parts of a man’s mind; working to produce a given kind of poem which will present a given theme as justly, delightfully, and lucidly as possible, he is more likely to bring out all that was really in him, and much of which he himself had no idea. (3)

This will, Lewis argues, result in poetry that actually is original. “The matter inside the poet wants the Form: in submitting to the form it becomes really original, really the origin of great work.”(4) To sum up, Lewis has said that all that the contemporary poet actually wants—to express her true feelings, thoughts, and even her true self—can only be accomplished when she chooses a preexisting kind of poem to write—sonnet, ghazal, rubaiyat, epic, limerick, etc—instead of writing free of form.
Further, Lewis adds that submitting to form reveals to us parts of ourselves that we might have missed. Geoffrey Hill agrees. He writes that instead of following,

…that perennial piece of bad advice: write what you know, rather… choose to make a vibrant, ringing structure out of semantics and metrics and through that to find out what it is that you know. – Geoffrey Hilll, A Deep Dynastic Wound

Thus submission to form, especially when it is difficult, pushing you beyond your usual, casual patterns of utterance, is a tool for self-knowledge, not to mention self discipline.

It is important to me as a writing teacher to not lose track of the fact that my students’ desires to be honest and to write about things that truly matter to them are good desires. It is my job to lead them to see that these desires are not new: they are traditional, and dedicated apprenticeship to the formal craft of writing—both in prose and in verse—are the way to, however haltingly, achieve the self disclosure and self knowledge they, and I, desire.

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