Contemporary Anglo-American readers and critics (but––nota bene––not Russian ones) have somehow been cozened into believing that any sequence of words arrayed in more or less isosyllabic stretches are to be taken as lines of poetry. Meter and rhyme are not required. All it takes to write a “poem,” therefore, is to label or declare such species of language “poetry,” and voilà! Accordingly, even the following––by an anonymous “author” (nomina sunt odiosa)––has been accepted at face value:
America, circa 2008
Two Jews, brothers, mother tongue Russian,
The older born in China, the younger in Japan,
Sit in an Italian restaurant,
In Hollywood, on Vermont,
One eating spaghetti vòngole,
The other carbonara,
Debating in English whether
Japanese has an adequate equivalent
For “Pyrrhic victory.”
This is very much the sort of doggerel––intended here as a caricature––that is blithely passed off in all seriousness as “poetry” in the English-speaking world (cf. The Writer’s Almanac, a particularly rebarbative offender). What no hip-hop “artist,” singer-songwriter, or jingle writer would put out as “lyrics” is routinely spooned up in Anglo-American poetry books and magazines as verse. And the reading public swallows it!
By contrast, here are two sonnets (no comparison intended) written four hundred years apart, the first by Shakespeare, the second by a twelfth-grader for her school’s literary magazine:
Or you survive when I in earth am rotten,
Or I shall live your epitaph to make,
From hence your memory death cannot take,
Although in me each part will be forgotten.
Your name from hence immortal life shall have,
Though I, once gone, to all the world must die:
The earth can yield me but a common grave,
When you entombed in men’s eyes shall lie.
Your monument shall be my gentle verse,
Which eyes not yet created shall o’er-read;
And tongues to be, your being shall rehearse,
When all the breathers of this world are dead;
You still shall live, such virtue hath my pen,
Where breath most breathes, even in the mouths of men.
The architect is ready to begin;
All plans are laid on tables in her mind.
A streak of crystal marks her tiny chin,
And wispy hair is blown back by the wind.
The small pink hands work quickly, stirring sand;
They shape the fragments of a day gone by
And make new forms the old can’t understand,
Although the past will never really die.
A castle of illusions quickly grows;
It towers high above the rippling sea.
But, though it is invincible for now,
Soon swirling eddies down it by degrees.
What once shone so intensely in the sun
Now with the somber shoreline becomes one.
Only where there is craft is there art.