NEW YORK—A growing movement is calling for the return of meter and rhyme in poetry in a bid to bring the once widely popular art form back to the mainstream. The nonprofit Society of Classical Poets (SCP) held a symposium at the Princeton Club of New York in Manhattan on June 17.
“We say that rhyme and meter are the key to bringing poetry out of the narrow halls of academia and making it a widely loved art form once again,” said Evan Mantyk, president of the society, in opening remarks at the symposium.
He says that poets using rhyme and meter have been ridiculed by their free-verse peers, who often pigeonhole rhyming poetry as poorly written.
“You cannot categorically label our poetry ‘doggerel’ and write us off,” Mantyk stated.
The ‘Deadly Enemy of Real Poetry’
Leading British poet James Sale questioned the recent announcement of the appointment of Simon Armitage as the UK Poet Laureate in May.
“Simon Armitage said that poets should be writing about climate change. What does that tell you? About the poet, about the nature of the appointment?” he asked.
Sale performs his poetry in London and the South of England, and he has a long history in the poetry field. Stretching back to the 1980s, he has run poetry and writing workshops for young students and adults. He also has organized major poetry events, including Poetry Carnival UK in 1985, which attracted an audience of 4,000 people.
“Who or what is the deadly enemy of real poetry? Like a hydra, it has many heads, many names—postmodernism, for example, communism for another, but the key one is ‘progress.’ Progress of course does not mean progress; it means regress. It’s the ‘newspeak’ of George Orwell,” Sale said.
“We at the SCP want to counter these tendencies, these beliefs in progress, and all their formless ugliness,” he continued. We want to re-establish the importance of form, the centrality of the imagination and its ability to bring real beauty into our world. To develop the Muse means an openness to reality, an ability to live with ambiguity, and what Keats called negative capability.”
The Problems With Mainstream Poetry Today
Professor Joseph S. Salemi, a legend in the formalist community, talked about the problems with mainstream poetry today.
Salemi edits the journal Trinacria, wrote for The Pennsylvania Review, and now writes at the website Expansive Poetry Online. He is a professor at New York University and Hunter College, and is a native New Yorker raised in Queens.“Here are persons presuming to write and publish literature, but who have an imperfect grasp of their own language. It’s bad enough that much contemporary poetry since Allen Ginsberg has been ‘nihilistic free verse oral diarrhea,’ as the poet William Childress describes it. But that its creators can’t even put it into coherent English? That’s really disgraceful,” Salemi stated.
He pointed out the strong liberal bias that has taken over mainstream poetry.
“Anyone with strongly expressed conservative views will be hounded out of a poetry workshop or asked to leave an online discussion group, and his work will be reflexively rejected if he submits it to a mainstream magazine. This is real, this is actual, this is happening right now, today. The world of modernist poetry has turned as politically rigid and uncompromising as the old Soviet Central Committee. As the poet Joseph Charles MacKenzie once very aptly said, ‘poetry has become the eunuch of the left,’” Salemi stated.
The Beauty and Power of Classical Poetry
Since its founding in 2012, the Society of Classical Poets has quickly grown, today having millions of online readers every year, members around the world, an annual print journal, multiple yearly contests, a new workshop, and educational materials and resources. Readers and poets themselves find something instantly recognizable and valuable in well-written and thoughtful classical poetry.
“Classical poems raise our sights, deepen our thinking, elevate our thoughts, clarify our purpose, give meaning to events and relationships,” said symposium speaker Michael Charles Maibach, managing director of the James Wilson Institute, a law and education nonprofit based in Washington.
“A poem in your hand, brief and understandable, can make more sense of this world and our lives than a library of books,” Maibach stated.
The symposium also demonstrated how classical poetry gives poets a way to speak clearly and powerfully on pressing events of the day that are meaningful to readers in their communities and throughout the world.
Young Indiana-based attorney Adam Sedia read his award-winning poetry exposing the negative effects of communism around the world. Poignantly, he called attention to atrocities taking place today under communism, including the forced harvesting of organs from innocent prisoners of conscience. His poem directed at Chinese Communist Party Chairman Xi Jinping included:
Do you not hear them, Chairman Xi?
Victims tied for the surgeon’s blade,
Their final shrieks of agony,
Their hearts carved out and iced for trade?
Hear them, hear them, Chairman Xi!
Davey Talbot of the Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation wrote to the symposium, stating: “Congratulations, Mr. Sedia, on your fine poems … Their words carry the weight that ten times their number would in prose. How staunchly in contrast these poems are to Neruda’s disgusting homages to Stalin … Bookshop owners in Hong Kong who sold books with content along the lines of Mr. Sedia’s have been, for the past decade or so, ‘disappeared’ to the mainland. It is a horrible fate to be ‘disappeared’ by the Chinese Communist Party … I applaud Mr. Sedia and The Society of Classical Poets. Well done and keep on.”
Reading in Bryant Park
Earlier on the day of the symposium, poets Theresa Rodriguez, James Sale, Mark Stone, and James B. Nicola held a reading of Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Raven” and other great American works, as well as their own poetry, for a crowd of listeners and passersby in front of the William Cullen Bryant Memorial in Midtown Manhattan’s storied Bryant Park. Nicola read Robert Frost’s “The Road Not Taken,” Rodriguez read Edna St. Vincent Millay’s “What Lips My Lips Have Kissed, and Where, and Why,” Stone read “The Arctic Lover” by William Cullen Bryant, and Sale read “Triad” by Adelaide Crapsey.
Sale, the moderator, commented on the Bryant Park event with a quote from Frost’s poem: “In doing the reading, ‘… that has made all the difference’!”
Young Poets Rising
Young and upcoming poets David E. Müller, Reid McGrath, and Daniel Devine attended the symposium.
“A positively splendid evening,” Müller said.
In prepared remarks, Müller shared some of his views on classical poetry:
One cannot speak of poetry and neglect to speak of beauty. It is beauty that elates the soul upon witnessing it, to be found, in part, in poetry with the harmonious marriage between the full majesty of a verse’s respective language and the fluidity of its execution. In this respect, we find perhaps the cardinal reason that formalist, or better, classical poetry remains as what can still strike astounding awe into even passive readers. It is awe-inspiring precisely because it is beautiful, and the skill or care to cultivate so exceptional that one can only experience an unparalleled joy in consuming it.
All the same, however, it is certainly possible to have a string of numbers and rhymes and have still no poetry. One could exhibit a poem deprived of any message or meaning and still be praised as a pure exercise of language; or likewise, a verse in broken, clashing, and disordered stanzas, but overflowing still with great intention and great pathos. Yet in both demonstrations, we shall say—we shall confess—there is something lacking. To say that either of the values of meter and rhyme—the foundations of poetry by all reason—are sufficient in and of themselves, is as much a folly as to dismiss them altogether.
This article is republished with permission from the Society of Classical Poets website.