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Poem Sampler

Are You Kidding Me?

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

Editors Note: 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. The Poetry Foundation 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.

  • Poet, critic, and editor D.H. Tracy earned an MFA at Boston University. In his formally engaged poems, often infused with sly humor, he explores themes of intimacy, perception, and loss. His debut poetry collection, Janet’s Cottage (2012), won a New Criterion Poetry Prize, and his work is featured in The...

Poem Sampler

Are You Kidding Me?

Serious or unserious: six poems are put to the test.
  • Poet, critic, and editor D.H. Tracy earned an MFA at Boston University. In his formally engaged poems, often infused with sly humor, he explores themes of intimacy, perception, and loss. His debut poetry collection, Janet’s Cottage (2012), won a New Criterion Poetry Prize, and his work is featured in The...

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