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What Makes A Poem?
by [?]

Pope said that a middling poet was no poet at all. Middling things in art or in any field of human endeavor do not arouse our enthusiasm, and it is enthusiasm that fans the fires of life. There are all degrees of excellence, but in poetry one is always looking for the best. Pope himself holds a place in English literature which he could not hold had he been only a middling poet. He is not a poet of the highest order certainly, but a poet of the third or fourth order–the poet of the reason, the understanding, but not of the creative imagination. It is wit and not soul that keeps Pope alive.

Nearly every age and land has plenty of middling poets. Probably there were never more of them in the land than there are to-day. Scores of volumes of middling verse are issued from the press every week. The magazines all have middling verse; only at rare intervals do they have something more. The May “Atlantic,” for instance, had a poem by a (to me) comparatively new writer, Olive Tilford Dargan, that one would hardly stigmatize as middling poetry. Let the reader judge for himself. It is called “Spring in the Study.” I quote only the second part:

“What is this sudden gayety that shakes the grayest boughs?
A voice is calling fieldward–‘T is time to start the ploughs!
To set the furrows rolling, while all the old crows nod;
And deep as life, the kernel, to cut the golden sod.
The pen–let nations have it;–we’ll plough a while for God.

“When half the things that must be done are greater than our art,
And half the things that must be done are smaller than our heart,
And poorest gifts are dear to burn on altars unrevealed,
Like music comes the summons, the challenge from the weald!
‘They tread immortal measures who make a mellow field!’

“The planet’s rather pleasant, alluring in its way;
But let the ploughs be idle and none of us can stay.
Here’s where there is no doubting, no ghosts uncertain stalk,
A-traveling with the plough beam, beneath the sailing hawk,
Cutting the furrow deep and true where Destiny will walk.”

Lafcadio Hearn spoke with deep truth when he said that “the measure of a poet is the largeness of thought which he can bring to any subject, however trifling.” Certainly Mrs. Dargan brings this largeness of thought to her subject. Has the significance of the plough ever before been so brought out? She makes one feel that there should be a plough among the constellations. What are the chairs and harps and dippers in comparison?

The poetry of mere talent is always middling poetry–“poems distilled from other poems,” as Whitman says. The work of a genius is of a different order. Most current verse is merely sweetened prose put up in verse form. It serves its purpose; the mass of readers like it. Nearly all educated persons can turn it off with little effort. I have done my share of it myself–rhymed natural history, but not poetry. “Waiting” is my nearest approach to a true poem.

Wordsworth quotes Aristotle as saying that poetry is the most philosophical of all writing, and Wordsworth agrees with him. There certainly can be no great poetry without a great philosopher behind it–a man who has thought and felt profoundly upon nature and upon life, as Wordsworth himself surely had. The true poet, like the philosopher, is a searcher after truth, and a searcher at the very heart of things–not cold, objective truth, but truth which is its own testimony, and which is carried alive into the heart by passion. He seeks more than beauty, he seeks the perennial source of beauty. The poet leads man to nature as a mother leads her child there–to instill a love of it into his heart. If a poet adds neither to my knowledge nor to my love, of what use is he? For instance, Poe does not make me know more or love more, but he delights me by his consummate art. Bryant’s long poem “The Ages” has little value, mainly because it is charged with no philosophy, and no imaginative emotion. His “Lines to a Waterfowl” will last because of the simple, profound human emotion they awaken. The poem is marred, however, by the stanza that he tacks on the end, which strikes a note entirely foreign to the true spirit of the poem. You cannot by tacking a moral to a poem give it the philosophical breadth to which I have referred. “Thanatopsis” has a solemn and majestic music, but not the unique excellence of the waterfowl poem. Yet it may be generally said of Bryant that he has a broad human outlook on life and is free from the subtleties and ingenious refinements of many of our younger poets.