Wundor Author Essay

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Why I Write Formal Poems

Donald Mace Williams

 

 

A college writing teacher told a poet friend of mine to quit using meter and rhyme. ‘That went out a hundred years ago,’ he said. It must have been about that far back that Frost said of the free-verse poets, ‘They want to play tennis without a net.’ That’s the way most poets play the game these days. And they’re the ones that get published, mostly.

 

 Still, a few editors and publishers will look at poems in meter and rhyme. A few even prefer them. A very few, bless them, use nothing but.

 

 Why do I write for the few? Partly because of a certain poet and his translator. My dad used to tell about one of his early dates with my mother. ‘Do you know who my favorite poet is?’ she asked. ‘Oh-oh,’ my dad thought, ‘here comes Longfellow.’ Much better: Omar Khayyam. I wonder if my dad would still have proposed if his guess had been right.

 

 I must have been about seven when I started reading, rereading, and unintentionally memorizing those bewitching stanzas, along with many a line of Keats, Coleridge, Milton, Browning - dozens of poets I found in Mark Van Doren’s wonderful Anthology of World Literature.

 

 Before those, there were Robert Louis Stevenson, A.A. Milne, and whoever composed the little songs that had been passed along a line of Southern U.S. mothers to my Southern U.S. mother: ‘Grasshopper settin’ on a ssst-potato vine,’ ‘Heavy load and sorry team, po’ li’l Liza Jane,’ ‘A raccoon’s tail am ringed all ’round.’ How could I not write in meter?

 

 Poetry without a beat doesn’t get into the ear to stay. What will today’s young readers of free verse have kept ready to call up for the rest of their lives and savor like an imperishable cud? Here is one of Khayyam’s (really of FitzGerald-Khayyam’s) best-known stanzas:

 

 

 

 A Book of Verses underneath the Bough,

 A Jug of Wine, a Loaf of Bread - and Thou

 Beside me singing in the Wilderness -

 Oh, Wilderness were Paradise enow!

 

 That practically memorizes itself. But try this:

 A poetry book here, under the bough,

 a bottle of wine, some bread,

 and you here beside me, singing in the wilderness:

 ah, wilderness would be heaven.

 

 

 

 I suspect that if FitzGerald had translated that way, my parents would never have had that significant conversation. Maybe, then, they would never have had me. Thanks, Omar. Thanks, Edward.

 

 In other words:

 

 

 

 If I couldn’t rhyme

 Or metrify,

 In very small time

 I’d petrify.

(You say you’d like it bettrifide?)

 

 

 

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Donald Mace Williams' collection of poems, Wolfe and Other Poems,

is published by Wundor Editions.

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