Poem Sampler

Are You Kidding Me?

Serious or unserious: Six poems are put to the test.

by D. H. Tracy

The November 2006 issue of Poetry magazine features D.H. Tracy’s essay “Bad Ideas,” a consideration of serious and unserious poetry. What’s the difference? Serious poets mean what they say. Unserious poets put everything in invisible quotation marks. A serious poet might praise or rebuke a public figure, take a political stand, or consider a philosophical conundrum. An unserious poet might use any of these gestures as props for some other purpose. Whether a poet—or a poem—falls into one category or the other doesn’t mark it as good or bad, it’s just a way to understand the very different relationships poets can have with language. PoetryFoundation.org asked Tracy to select six serious or unserious poems from our archive and write a few lines about each.

1. “Shine, Perishing Republic” by Robinson Jeffers
Serious or Unserious: Serious
No question here but that the author believes the country is going to hell in a handbasket. Wisdom is a palliative, making the poet philosophical about the republic’s decline, but no dissenting voice is going to enter the poem to challenge or question the decline or the poet’s attitude toward it. (How could it? At the end God is chided for falling into a trap—the love of mankind—that the poet avoids!). I’m not sure if it’s in this poem’s favor or not that it could have been written yesterday.

2. “Holy Sonnets: Death, be not proud” by John Donne
Serious or Unserious: Unserious
Metaphysical poetry is characterized by figures that are outrageous in their logic or complexity, so that the play of the writer’s mind is the point rather than the literal meaning. By noting the ignoble circumstances Death operates in (“poison, war, and sickness”) and Death’s feebleness before the prospect of eternal life, Donne is able to spin Death as the one thing we know it isn’t: the underdog. The poet keeps despair at bay, not through stoicism but through wit.

3. “New” by Gertrude Stein
Serious or Unserious: Serious
But wait: how can anyone mean a sentence like “If as little as that, if it is as little as that that is if it is very nearly all of it, her dear her dear does not mention a ball at all.” Stein doesn’t mean it—it’s the program behind the utterance that she is serious about. Stein is looking at language not as a way of making sense, but as a material to be crushed up and smeared around in patterns that flaunt conventional grammar and have an aural shape of their own. Her seriousness lies in this methodical execution of the experiment.

4. Poem [“At night Chinamen jump”] by Frank O’Hara
Serious or Unserious: Unserious
O’Hara is so playful that it’s not surprising many of his poems show unseriousness (although “Why I Am Not a Painter” is seriously making a statement about aesthetics). In this poem the unseriousness comes particularly from making the intimate (a couple’s lovemaking) and the absurd (some imagined goings-on in China) march in a lockstep that appears to give them equal value. O’Hara doesn’t really believe that Chinese paratrooper exercises are as interesting as his lover: that’s the joke. One implication is that other people’s joys might as well be taking place on the other side of the globe, for all we usually know about them. There is also a figure here, I think, for the crude, irreconcilable way that private emotions must coexist with public realities.

5. “A Tale” by Louise Bogan
Serious or Unserious: Serious
A great many of Bogan’s poems are driven by her ambivalence about time: often a figure is lured by some glimpse of the eternal—beauty, love, spiritual enlightenment—only to find himself perfected or sated, in a state where nothing further can happen to him. Incapable of change but aware of his state, he arrives at a living hell. I used to find this allegory about a restless youth pretty dry, but it gradually began to show itself as born of Bogan’s thinking about time, and as an illustration of how she equated survival with the presence of choice and possibility of personal change.

6. “As” by Paul Muldoon
Serious or Unserious: Unserious
I’m often unsure about whether Muldoon is being serious or not in his poems, but this is one of the clearer cases: when he compares himself to Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer and his wife to Miramax, or himself to Hoboken and his wife to Hackensack, he’s not expecting you to look very closely at the analogies. As the comparisons pile up, the poem begins to look like a comically failing attempt to pull its foot out of its mouth. If you gave this poem to your sweetheart for Valentine’s Day, you’d probably get a cocked eyebrow. But as a kind of skit about the catch-as-catch-can accommodations of married life, the poem is a riot.

Originally Published: November 14, 2006

COMMENTS (2)

On November 15, 2006 at 6:28pm Luke Hankins wrote:
Dear Editors and Mr. Tracy,

I enjoy the task D. H. Tracy has taken up here ["Are You Kidding Me?"], but I must take him to task in one instance. John Donne's "Holy Sonnet X" (Death be not proud...) is as serious as any of Donne's poems, and his Holy Sonnets are among his most vitally serious. These poems record Donne's intense spiritual struggle -- a poetic wrestling with God perhaps unparalleled in its honesty and power (with the notable exception of Gerard Manley Hopkins' "Terrible Sonnets" -- Dante and Milton certainly admit less doubt). In this poem, Donne is employing wit, yes, as always -- but it is the theological paradox of death leading to eternal life, of death itself being put to death (through the death and resurrection of Christ) that fascinates Donne here, rather than a mere darkly comical assay against the reality of mortality. If Donne's poem is "unserious," then Donne must have thought Jesus was "unserious" as well when he said, "Truly, truly, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. He who loves his life loses it, and he who hates his life in this world will keep it to life eternal" -- and that Paul was "unserious" when he said "Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?"

[I'd appreciate it if this note could be forwarded to Mr. Tracy, as I think this is a serious issue (certainly not an "unserious" one).]

Luke Hankins

On December 12, 2006 at 7:26am Todd wrote:
Well done for the juxtaposition here of the six poems. Some times I have tried to think of a new word for those works by otherwise readable poets which would be best read and understood with a draught of opium or some almost saccharine nepenthe lingering on the back of our tongues. What to call these "poems" like New by Stein? Even the swashbuckling Donne "Death Be Not Proud" you remind us of here, is this patently pretext/preamble by the randy rogue or what? What can we call a poem intended to get someone into the sack? Sackware? Good to pose this tongue in cheek, "Are You Kidding Me?" question in the same topology, the poems fit in this space together like peas in a pod. Perhaps however some feathers might be ruffled had the poets discovered the poets' eye at work, dissecting. I promise I won't tell. In fact I won't even go tell the teacher.

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Biography

D.H. Tracy's poetry and criticism appear widely. He lives in Illinois.

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Originally appeared in Poetry magazine.

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