Lasciate ogni poesia

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According to Dave Itzkoff, "Abandon All Poetry, but Enter Hell With Attitude", NYT 1/29/2010:

There’s a new edition of Dante’s "Inferno" that’s recently begun appearing in bookstores. Same words. Different cover. It’s got a big picture of a muscular fellow in a spiky crown and an overline that says, "The literary classic that inspired the epic video game."

It’s true. "Inferno" is now a video game, with a brawny, armor-clad Dante as its protagonist.

The guys at Electronic Arts' Visceral Games studio found it necessary to give Dante a little help:

"If you’re trying to make an action game, it’s thin," Jonathan Knight, the game’s executive producer, said of the original text. "It’s Dante, who’s kind of passive, and he’s a poet and he’s philosophical. We had to take the bold step of saying, ‘How do we make this guy an action hero?’" […]

"It’s a highbrow/lowbrow project by design," Mr. Knight said. "If you know the poem, the game has a lot to offer. If you just want to mash buttons and kill demons, that’s all it has to be for you."

But Dante's abs and greaves to the side, Mr. Knight's artists are not the first to explore the less philosophical aspects of the Inferno. There's some T-rated stuff in William Blake's 1826 Dante engravings:

And here's William Bouguereau's 1850 "Dante and Virgil in Hell":

Of course, in 1850 there wasn't a Facebook App to send your friends to hell. And the original 1867 edition of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow's translation didn't have an armored scythe-wielding Dante on its cover, as the 2010 Del Rey paperback re-issue does.

Anyhow, the NYT headline's "Abandon all poetry" meme-instance reminded me of a strange blog post that I recently read, "Let Poetry Die", by Patrick Gillespie.

His argument is this:

I love poetry.

But as far as the public is concerned, poetry died with the modernists. […]

[W]hen any human being, let alone poets, can act without consequence, the dogs of mediocrity, narcissism and hedonism will be let loose. In the past, public reception was the choke collar that largely kept mediocrity at bay, but when poets were able to create their own audience (themselves) all those checks and balances evaporated.

It’s my own opinion that [this] attitude is toxic and anathema to great art and poisonous to art in general. It’s a shame and the results are indisputable. When poets left their audience, their audience left them.

And so, he says, we should stop giving poets grants to write poems for each other, or salaries to teach poetry to college students, and instead let them engage in a Darwinian struggle for a mass audience — or at least, one that's big enough to pay the rent. "[I]t would be better if all poets were thrown to the dogs of public opinion."

I found this post strange, not because of Gillespie's conclusion, but because of what's obviously missing from his argument.  There's a group of recent poets who never left their audience, and whose audience never left them: the lyricists of popular songs. There's W.C. Handy, Irving Berlin, Ira Gershwin, Robert Johnson, Woodie Guthrie, Hank Williams, Chuck Berry, Smokey Robinson, Stephen Sondheim, Joni Mitchell, Bob Dylan, Dolly Parton, John Lennon, Paul Simon, and hundreds of others, whose audience has been bigger than Dante's ever was.

Thus one version of the proposed experiment has already been done, and the results are open for interpretation. The basic issues involved are old ones, and it's worth noting that Dante has been engaged with them since the beginning. In addition to La Divina Commedia, he wrote De Vulgari Eloquentia, after all.

And when Longfellow translated Dante in the middle of the 19th century, it was part of a self-conscious intellectual conspiracy to promote mass appreciation of classical works in "modern languages". Thus K. P. Van Anglen, "Before Longfellow: Dante and the Polarization of New England", Dante Studies 2001:

[Dante]'s local reception also reflects Boston's literary politics, especially the fears of its educated elite; and so, derivative or not, he was deployed in a distinctly American cultural context for self-conscious ideological, political, and social ends. It is to that context, and to those fears and politics and ends that we must therefore turn if we are to understand Dante's early New England reception.

When Longfellow was a boy, Boston was still dominated, as it had been since its foundation, by "a socially and culturally distinct class" as high-minded as it was tenacious in asserting its influence. Known (from their main religious affiliation) as the 'Boston Unitarians,' these "prosperous merchants and their professional allies exercised leadership in Boston," using their influence to make the city "the most important literary center in the United States," and "eastern Massachusetts . . . the most intellectually exciting part of the country." In doing so, they wanted Boston to be a "republic of letters, . . . not a democracy," an enclave in which they would function as "a New England clerisy" maintaining cultural domination. This goal was all the more pressing since they believed in the "irreconcilable antagonism between belles lettres on the one side and democracy and the marketplace on the other"; and so they "conceived of the critic's office as essentially political and social: like the vigilant Federalist statesman, the critic was to police the commonwealth of letters to keep out the unworthy."

On balance, then, I suspect that both Dante and Longfellow would have been pleased with the new edition of the Inferno.


  1. Dan T. said,

    January 31, 2010 @ 10:00 am

    But Dolly Parton's works tend to be a big bust!

    I see that the video game people are sometimes putting a "TM" mark next to the title "Dante's Inferno"… can they really get away with trademarking an old, public-domain title like that?

  2. Xerxes said,

    January 31, 2010 @ 10:54 am

    Perhaps all the poets who could make a buck off the public are now called lyricists?

  3. Ahruman said,

    January 31, 2010 @ 11:23 am

    Dan T: yes. They aren’t claiming an exclusive right to the title or phrase “Dante’s Inferno”; they’re claiming an exclusive right to market a video game under that name.

    Trademark law serves a variety of purposes, but the one that’s easiest to motivate is consumer protection. If I went to my local video game emporium and said “Ho there, good merchant, I would like a copy of this ‘Dante’s Inferno’ thing, if you please”, I’d be expecting the one my hypothetical kids have been badgering me for rather than something someone knocked together in Flash over the weekend.

  4. Patrick Gillespie said,

    January 31, 2010 @ 12:05 pm

    Actually, the Wall Street Journal, of all people, asked me to write a proper essay for them. I don't know whether they're going to use it. In the essay, I mentioned lyricists although, in truth, the poetry I was referring to is the stuff that sits on the page. I suspect that Lennon and Dylan would be considered merely competent but unremarkable "poets" if not for the music. Music can make a masterpiece out of miserable poetry, and it can also wreck the best poem. I think lyrics and "poems" do different things. The best lyrics aren't always the best poems and vice versa.

    [(myl) It's not surprising that the WSJ should be interested in this issue, especially when you take an explicitly market-oriented perspective. For a recent WSJ book review focusing on analogous issues in music, see James F. Penrose, "Making Sense of Sound", 1/29/2010 (a review of Ruth Katz's recent book A Language of its Own.]

  5. Vance Maverick said,

    January 31, 2010 @ 1:17 pm

    While Gillespie's post deserves mockery in its own right (how is it that the artists he dislikes can be a mere coterie and yet drag down the art as a whole?), I read "Abandon All Poetry" as meaning that the game has excised the poetry from the Inferno, not as having spoiled, devalued, or excluded poetry in some broader sense.

  6. Vance Maverick said,

    January 31, 2010 @ 2:32 pm

    Hmm, I should have done more than glance at that post before commenting. Gillespie doesn't dislike modern poetry, or at least he's not arguing that it's bad; instead he's arguing that the poets of the heroic Modernist generation(s), by deciding to pursue experiment, destroyed the popular taste for poetry. I'm familiar with arguments of this form from the classical-music world (especially from old USENET days on There's something plausible in them, but I don't think the proposed causality makes sense. If it had been possible for poets of, say, 1940, to reach a popular audience the way, say, Whittier did, I can't see what would have restrained them. The prestige of Pound and Eliot might, I suppose, have seduced a few talented popular poets into betraying their gift and writing obscurely; but the inducement of fame — if indeed it was achievable — would surely have lured still more writers down the path of accessibility.

    Instead, I think there must be another mechanism at work, some large change in culture that caused both the flowering of experiment and the loss of popular interest. (For comparison, the rise of sound recording changed the propagation and reception of music utterly.) I'm no historian, but I believe many scholars have tried to address this. In this light, one thing that distinguishes the Modernist generation is that they expanded the range of the art greatly at a time when the popular appetite for poetry was still strong.

  7. Vance Maverick said,

    January 31, 2010 @ 2:39 pm

    (Digressing: for an example of a popular poet of the Modernist generation, consider Woodbine Willie, perhaps better known to readers or members of this blog as the father of Michael Studdert-Kennedy.)

  8. Dan T. said,

    January 31, 2010 @ 3:00 pm

    I guess I'd better not release a video game named "Dan T.'s Inferno", or else I'll probably get sued for trademark infringement.

    [(myl) Right, but with a brand of BBQ sauce, you're probably good.]

  9. Tom V said,

    January 31, 2010 @ 5:03 pm

    From today's Non Sequitur:
    The arts suffer most in a bad economy.

  10. Amy Stoller said,

    January 31, 2010 @ 7:14 pm

    @ Tom V: The arts may well suffer most in a bad economy. Most artists surely suffer very badly indeed.

    Re Non Sequitur: Pauly's eye-dialect strikes me as inconsistent with the facts as we know them …

    @Mark: Whether or not lyricists are, or even should be, considered poets, is in my view a vexed question. Lyric writing, at least of the kind that involves what I consider "well-constructed" lyrics, is an art-form of a very special kind, one that may, maybe should, be considered separately from poetry.

    On the other hand, see this:

    Personally, I find it fairly easy to consider Bob Dylan's lyrics as a type of free verse. But while I bow to no one in my admiration, near idolatry, of the lyrics of Lorenz Hart, they lie pretty flat on the printed page. They need the music they were written to go with in order to come alive. Is this the same difference? I don't know.

    BBQ sauce made me smile.

    [(myl) Whether "lyrics" are "poetry" may be a vexed question, but it's certainly still a question — especially given the various interesting periods of history when they have overlapped to one extent or another.]

  11. Leo Petr said,

    January 31, 2010 @ 7:40 pm

    Similarly, orchestral and instrumental music in the vein of classical hasn't gone away — it has refocused on producing movie and video game soundtracks.

    The question becomes — is the Super Mario Overture the greatest piece of orchestral music composed in the 20th Century?

  12. Chris Farlee said,

    January 31, 2010 @ 8:26 pm

    To my understanding part of the debate is if modern musicians/lyricists should be considered poets. I think that they should be considered poets based on the fact that Homer's poetry was (to my understanding) meant to be sung and probably accompanied by music.

  13. Vance Maverick said,

    January 31, 2010 @ 8:58 pm

    Thomas Campion is a clear example in English. For many of his works, maybe all, we have the music, and we also read the texts as poems.

  14. Patrick Gillespie said,

    January 31, 2010 @ 9:05 pm

    //I think that they should be considered poets based on the fact that Homer's poetry was (to my understanding) meant to be sung and probably accompanied by music.//

    Traditionally, such "poets" were called bards. Calling Shakespeare "the bard" has blurred the distinction (though, in the sense that it's used, it's more of an honorary title).

    A "poet" who writes "poetry for music", has traditionally been called a lyricist or librettist. It's a very different art form. A lyricist or librettist has to keep in mind the time signature and note values of the music he's writing. You can be sure that the music was driving Lennon and Dylan's word choice (as much as the other way around).

    A poet doesn't have to think about any of that.

    At some point, calling a person a "poet" has to mean something – or else we need to figure out a new name for somebody who makes lineated word things on pieces of paper that aren't put to music and aren't rap and *are* meant to be read under a cherry tree in full blossom – if you know what I mean…

  15. Brian Johnson said,

    January 31, 2010 @ 9:29 pm

    It may be worth pointing to one published collection that takes lyrics as being of a piece with poetry:

  16. Patrick Gillespie said,

    January 31, 2010 @ 10:04 pm

    Yeah, I've seen that book and others.

    And if these authors want to call a Beatles lyric a poem… then great.

    People love it and it sells books. But…

    But give me some other word to use so that when I (or you or anyone) say "poet", we know we're talking about someone who doesn't have music in mind. I don't care – just give me some new words to work with.

  17. Vance Maverick said,

    January 31, 2010 @ 11:38 pm

    I don't get why there has to be a clear word for the category you have in mind. "Poet", "poem", "poetry" all seem to me to be ambiguous in this and other ways. To narrow the meanings, we can use the usual tools — further qualification, implication, context.

    For what it's worth, I agree that Dylan, hip-hop, etc. are weaker on the page than in sound. I just don't think the definition of the word "poet" is relevant in this context.

  18. Jerry Friedman said,

    January 31, 2010 @ 11:41 pm

    @Vance Maverick: Here is a page selling sheet music for Campion's songs.

    Many song lyrics are now printed as poetry—for instance, troubadour songs. I'm sure there are all kinds of interesting controversies about how Sappho performed her poems. An intermediate case is poems written to be set to music—the author isn't trying to fit a tune but is trying to make a tune possible. I imagine that's how Shakespeare wrote the songs in his plays, which are now printed as poetry, but probably volumes have been written debating the subject.

    How does Clive James fit into this? And Jacques Prévert? Did someone mention Rod McKuen?

    I can't help quoting Pound: "In the case of the madrigal writers the words were not published apart from the music in their own day, and one supposes that only a long-eared, furry-eared epoch would have thought of printing them apart from their tunes as has been done in our time." The ABC of Reading, p. 143.

    (Now I'm hoping Preview is wrong when it tells me this post won't work.)

  19. uberVU - social comments said,

    January 31, 2010 @ 11:44 pm

    Social comments and analytics for this post…

    This post was mentioned on Twitter by PhilosophyFeeds: Language Log: Lasciate ogni poesia

  20. Patrick Gillespie said,

    January 31, 2010 @ 11:53 pm

    //I don't get why there has to be a clear word for the category you have in mind.//

    Why not just call hip-hop, rap, blues, pop, rock, jazz, fusion – *music*? Or how about – *not-classical*.

    I don't know how to answer your question. It seems self-evident. It's what language does. We categorize things by giving them distinct names so we don't *have* to qualify everything – like, you know, that not-classical music where they use dominant sevenths and the hexatonic scale on metallic stringed instruments?

    But that's just me…

    The horse is probably out of the barn…

  21. Ralph Hickok said,

    February 1, 2010 @ 10:30 am

    The librettist is the person who writes the book of a show, not its lyrics. In many cases, the lyricist is also the librettist. But, to cite just one example, the lyricist for West Side Story was Stephen Sondheim while the librettist was Arthur Laurents.

  22. Vance Maverick said,

    February 1, 2010 @ 12:53 pm

    Patrick, you wrote,

    But give me some other word to use so that when I (or you or anyone) say "poet", we know we're talking about someone who doesn't have music in mind.

    And I asked why. AFAIK, words in general don't have rigid semantic boundaries (outside specific jargon contexts, e.g. military terminology). You argue from the assumption that there must be a word for your concept; but I think this assumption is unreasonable.

    Why not just call hip-hop, rap, blues, pop, rock, jazz, fusion – *music*? Or how about – *not-classical*.

    Not sure what you're driving at. They are music, and also "not-classical". (They're also good examples of terms with overlapping boundaries; I for one could not classify a given example confidently as hip-hop or rap.)

    To keep to the topic: you want to rule that texts written for performance, or for recording with music, are not poetry. I ask, are you absolutely sure you want to deny the title of poetry to "Rose-cheeked Laura"?

  23. TB said,

    February 1, 2010 @ 2:02 pm

    Perhaps it is my old-fashioned illiberal education speaking, but I don't believe any poem is meant to "sit on the page". I've always thought of a written poem as something of a score for voice–meant to be read aloud if not sung.

  24. Vance Maverick said,

    February 1, 2010 @ 4:12 pm

    TB, that's another chestnut with a grain of truth to it. As Myles says, though,

    I was once acquainted with a man who found himself present by some ill chance at a verse speaking bout. Without a word he hurried outside and tore his face off. Just that. He inserted three fingers into his mouth, caught his left cheek in a frenzied grip and ripped the whole thing off. When it was found, flung in a corner under an old sink, it bore the simple dignified expression of the honest man who finds self-extinction the only course compatible with honour.

    So poetry is more oral than prose, yes, but it's still a mainly virtual orality. Reading poetry to ourselves, we attend more to its (virtual) sounds than we do, on the whole, with prose.

  25. Boris said,

    February 1, 2010 @ 5:19 pm

    I don't know about Lennon, but I recall McCartney's explanation of how the song "Yesterday" came to be. To make a long story short, he came up with the music having no idea what the lyrics are going to be about. Her implied this was unusual for him and that most of his compositions start with lyrics, so in case of Paul your theory would be wrong.

    I've also heard him recite the lyrics of "In My Life" as poetry (with an instrumental version of the song in the background not matching the recitation). If I had to name a single Beatles song that stands alone as poetry, it's that one. "forever not for better" strikes me as a very poetic expression.

    On the other hand, I've heard a fully instrumental rendition of "This Boy" that stands alone quite nicely without the lyrics. Both of these are among my favorite Beatles songs, but so is "Octopus's Garden" which does not stand alone either as poetry or as melody. And these are all examples from a single band. These things are never black and white.

  26. TB said,

    February 1, 2010 @ 8:08 pm

    The acting in many productions of Shakespeare makes me want to rip my face off too, but it doesn't make the plays any less intended for performance.

  27. Vance Maverick said,

    February 1, 2010 @ 8:32 pm

    Fair enough. But how would you argue that, say, Aurora Leigh is intended for performance?

  28. TB said,

    February 1, 2010 @ 9:33 pm

    I might call it "a sort of novel-poem" like Browning did, if I was very very interested in never admitting weakness. That way I could get out of it!

    The truth is that I found your response very annoying (like much of this thread, which is why I should never have commented in the first place) and did not respond altogether fairly. It is always trying to have someone assert a "we" where none exists. I actually do usually read aloud (alone, of course!) when I read poetry, which is not very often, although I do indeed make an exception for epics and novel-length poems.

    I hope this doesn't come across as angry or anything. I agree with you: you are right. Friends?

  29. Patrick Gillespie said,

    February 1, 2010 @ 10:55 pm

    //The librettist is the person who writes the book of a show, not its lyrics.//

    Yes and no. Historically, the librettist was the one who wrote the words which composers like Bach & Mozart put to music.

    //words in general don't have rigid semantic boundaries (outside specific jargon contexts, e.g. military terminology). You argue from the assumption that there must be a word for your concept; but I think this assumption is unreasonable.//

    You're right that words don't have rigid semantic boundaries, but you're wrong in saying that it's "my concept". Not at all. Up until the last 100 years(?), if someone used the word "poet", the meaning was generally understood.

    But take a look at the post:

    //I found this post strange, not because of Gillespie's conclusion, but because of what's obviously missing from his argument. There's a group of recent poets who never left their audience, and whose audience never left them: the lyricists of popular songs.//

    Well, no. In fact, I *did* think about lyricists. It just didn't occur to me (fool that I am) that so many readers would be confused as to what I was and wasn't talking about. When I used the word poet, I foolishly thought I was referring to something specific – the genre of Keats and Frost.

    But, apparently, poet and poetry doesn't mean that anymore. Mea Culpa. So I find your assertion of unreasonableness odd and curious, if not a little Orwellian.

    “A man may take to drink because he feels himself to be a failure, and then fail all the more completely because he drinks. It is rather the same thing that is happening to the English language. It becomes ugly and inaccurate because our thoughts are foolish, but the slovenliness of our language makes it easier for us to have foolish thoughts.” – Orwell

    The words Poet and Poetry are becoming one of those "Meaningless Words" he describes in his famous essay on language & politics. (I feel a post coming on…) I guess I come down on Orwell's side.

    You don't.

    We just have a philosophical difference.

    //Why not just call hip-hop, rap, blues, pop, rock, jazz, fusion – *music*? Or how about – *not-classical*.

    Not sure what you're driving at//

    Then maybe you think there's no need for these words? I don't understand what's not to understand?

    But it's OK, I'm just a by-stander.

    I guess, as you say, I will have to start qualifying my use of the word poet…


  30. Vance Maverick said,

    February 1, 2010 @ 11:30 pm

    Comity! Sorry to have been annoying.

  31. Joe said,

    February 2, 2010 @ 10:09 am

    @Patrick Gillespie: " I guess I come down on Orwell's side"

    Them's fightin' words round these parts. Don't let GKP hear you quote from "Politics and the English Language". He'll tear you apart.

    The struggle between low-brow and high-brow is as old as class struggle itself. The Romantics rebelled against the conventions of their time and this tradition continues on as long as there is a cultural hegemony that creates a distinction between good and mediocre poetry. From a linguistic, descriptivist standpoint, this distinction is not acceptable for the myriad reasons why folks in these parts hate prescriptivism (just click on the "Prescriptivist Poppycock" tag).

    One of the reasons I don't like this distinction is that it, effectively, renders other rich areas worthy of study invisible. For example, rap and hip-hop is mentioned here in passing, but there is a wealth of poetry in that genre. If you're looking for modern versions of epic poetry, for example, rap has loads of it from the gangsta exploits of NWA, Geto Boys, and other gangsta rappers. Names of folks like Mos Def, Snoop Dogg, Tupac, Notorious BIG, MIA, Bushwick Bill fill just a fraction of this largely invisible group (when it comes to considering "good" poetry) but they definitely fulfill Wordsworth's dream of a poetry created from "incidents and situations from common life" as well as "the language really used by men".

  32. Joe said,

    February 2, 2010 @ 10:37 am

    Finally, I think it's slightly disingenuous to say that "poetry" loses its meaning when applied to other forms. I don't think there is a difficulty in understanding the claim that rap and hip-hop is poetry. But, if the intention is to state something along the lines of "'The British Empire' doesn't mean what it used to any more" then I'd agree.

  33. nbm said,

    February 3, 2010 @ 9:49 am

    In Nicholson Baker's new novel, The Anthologist, the narrator and title character claims that real poems in English must rhyme — although he writes non-rhyming poems himself. He proposes that these non-rhyming things be called "plums" instead of poems.

  34. John D said,

    February 3, 2010 @ 3:16 pm

    About 30 years ago I took a creative writing class. The instructor was a reasonably prominent contemporary poet (I occasionally see his stuff in The New Yorker).

    In discussing poetry with the class, he commented that some of the most exciting work that he was seeing in poetry was the lyrics of popular songs.

    For current songwriters whose work I think should be taken seriously as poetry, I would like to offer Benjamin Gibbard of Death Cab for Cutie and Colin Meloy of The Decemberists.

  35. Jesse Weinstein said,

    February 5, 2010 @ 4:41 pm

    Regarding a claimed distinction between poetry and lyrics, I think it is important to note the many examples of works originally written to stand alone being later set to music. The area I'm familiar with is filk (the folk music of science fiction fans), where a number of people have set to music the work of many poets (particularly Kipling). Filk also provides common examples of lyrics which are regularly enjoyed by silent reading, rather than in performance. This comes about due to the common practice of creating numerous parodies of well-known tunes (at least, tunes well-known within the subculture), and publishing them without the music (either due to copyright issues, or simply to save space).

  36. JV said,

    February 16, 2010 @ 9:18 pm

    A lyricist or librettist has to keep in mind the time signature and note values of the music he's writing. You can be sure that the music was driving Lennon and Dylan's word choice (as much as the other way around).
    I’m sure you’re aware that in at least in earlier times, a poet had to keep in mind the meter and stanza of his chosen meter!

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