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The Requirements of Verse

by The Editor Company   


What are the needs of our versifiers? What are the requirements which shall enable—yes, compel—them to produce their best work?

First, as has been often hinted, a higher standard on the part of the magazines, which have now become, in this country at least, almost the sole patrons of the poetic art. Let the editors of our leading monthlies announce to their readers that they have determined not to publish, henceforth, any poem which does not contain, first, a thought; secondly, a form adapted to that thought; thirdly, a culminating motive; fourthly, some freshness of expression. This would exclude nine-tenths of the magazine verse which has appeared during the last fifteen years. It would shut off at once that meretricious stream which has flooded our periodicals with weak sentimentality and fantastic verse-forms. The public would no longer be called upon to strain at a camel for the sake of swallowing a gnat. Those absurd involutions of thought and expression, which are excusable in Browning and Swinburne, become positively offensive when one can see the emptiness through the coils—that is, when minor poets affect them for the mere sake of what they consider intricacy of art. Let such poets be apprised that the first law of art is simplicity, and they will give us better and less pretentious work. A higher magazine standard of verse would induce a study of the best models, a striving and keen competition to produce really excellent work, and a contempt for all writers' who seek thoughts to fit words rather than words to fit thoughts.

The second requirement of contemporaneous American verse is more intensity. Most of our verse-writers are simply "playing poet." There is no seriousness in their work, no depth, no purpose—nothing that is sung "high and aloof." They are all busied with making toys. Prettiness, lightness, neatness, littleness, and color are the qualities of their "dainty" work. Not one sings out of his soul. There are no burning thoughts that flash out straight and clear as a flame, and vanish in the kindred soul of the hearer. Every singer takes his net and chases a butterfly ; there are none climbing up to the eagle's eyrie.

Is lofty verse to be a thing of the past, in our literature?— the organ silent, the lutes all tinkling? Let us hope not, while master-hands are still laid at long intervals upon the keys, and the babbling of the strings becomes foolishness.

Our versifiers need themes. They are content now with fragments, suggestions, and reminiscences. It is easy to see that many of them begin to write before their thought is determined, and let rhyme and meter lead it whither they will. This is not even honest apprentice work, and yet it is a merchantable commodity with the magazines. The theme of the average magazine poem is apt to be either some fantastically elaborated abstraction, or some tattered sentiment sentimentalized, or a far-fetched fancy eked out with exclamation points, or a feeble imitation of something that is classical but obscure. There are no direct, simple voices in the choir; the trill is predominant. There are womanly voices; the falsetto is admired.

The truth is that the poet who would sing "lofty and aloof" must work. He must quit play. He must bend all the energies of his soul to the discovery of truth, and then he must proclaim it with an intensity that consumes his very being. His words shall become flames when he himself has become the sacrifice. Poetry is the divinest of arts, but men can drag even poetry out of the sky, and make Pegasus eat grass.