In the maiden voyage of this column, Poetry for the Nervous, Vol 1, I led with the principle that what you love, what strikes you, what moves you in poetry is what matters.  Critics do not matter.  The judgments of others do not matter.  Poetry is yours to dispose as your heart dictates.  If your teachers or friends impose upon you some poem or poet they champion, and you just don’t get it, there is no need to think yourself stupid or inadequate, nor to give up on poetry as a whole.  You will find what you love eventually, because poetry in its essence is as deep within us as our desire to communicate.

From an appeal towards what you love, I’ll work into something a bit less romantic.  I think the best poetry is also useful.  That’s a dangerous word in the world of art, wrapped up as it is in the most ancient debates about aesthetics and utility, but I’m always ready to argue that gallery art is great, but does it really beat, say, a well crafted chair that is beautiful to behold, and is also very comfortable for sitting?  Do any human efforts match the art of nature, for whom, especially if you are a cosmologist, utility is the most fundamental quantity?

Poetry can be useful, and the greatest poetry is almost always useful.  Poetry originated our need to communicate basic lessons about nature.  When do you plant what seeds, and what are the signs for harvest?  It’s not the most exciting thing to learn by rote the patterns of the stars, so these became stories, with personified heroes and gods, and this became mythology as poet after poet added layers to the basic lessons.  From the ancient Babylonian practice of parallel themes within poetic couplets, which birthed the poetry of The Bible and so many other religions that endure to this day, to the Homeric Hymns derived from centuries of elaboration by Greek poets, to the Nordic edda and skalds (and thus scops and makars), whose tales embroidered the maps and navigation that gave them mastery of the oceans, evolving into the great sagas.  Then there are the storytelling traditions throughout African and the pre-colonial New World.

Now that social utility is better developed than the needs of simple agriculture, the range of poetic usefulness is broader.  Uses range from the sacred—bringing yourself through incantation closer to the deity of your chosen religion—to the profane—throwing out some choice quotes at a dinner party to impress the guests.  But lyric poetry, light verse and the like emerged because you can’t just sit and listen to lessons hour after hour.  You need diversions, and these diversions over time, as technology has reduced the need for mimetic means of communication, have become the essence of poetry.  Music, of course, started as the accompaniment to poetry, and emerged into its own separate art form.

Poetry was life-blood in the days when we peopled ever more inhospitable corners of the earth, and pragmatic lessons passed from settlement to settlement, and generation to generation were an urgent matter.  Poetry will never again be so important now that it’s main function is enjoyment rather than survival, and that is just the nature of things, but that doesn’t mean the concept of useful poetry is dead.

I myself use poetry in place of religious prayer and incantation.  I recite memorized poetry to myself at times of stress—it has an amazing ability to calm me—or even when I’m bored and have no book handy.

Considering most of my audience here are writers, I’ll mention that I use poetry to improve my facility with language.  Poetry, almost by definition, is the repository of extraordinary language, and having extraordinary at the fingertips makes it easier to express yourself even ordinarily.  I’ve found that the more poetry I have coursing through my veins, the faster I write, the less I suffer writer’s block, and the more readily I marshal all the latent intellectual resources at my disposal.  That doesn’t just go for literary writing.  I also write a lot of technical articles in my professional career, and as a businessman I write a lot of commercial correspondence.  It is a real gift to be able to do so very efficiently, focusing less on the mechanics of writing than on the technical and business problems at hand.  I fully credit that to devoted reading and memorization of poetry.

For more general advocacy, I’ll level the biggest weapon.  Greg Olear tipped his cap this way in comments to the last piece where he said:

“In college, I memorized “To His Coy Mistress,” and used it as a pick-up line. Totally worked. A poem 400 years old!”

Poetry will never outlast its romantic uses.  Whether your Cyrano is a talented friend, a long-dead icon such as Andrew Marvell, author of “To His Coy Mistress,”¹ or you got it well covered yourself (you poetic vixen/stud), use poetry to get you some.  And I don’t know how I can offer any better advocacy than that.


I selected this next poem not because it has “useful” in its title, but because sometimes the greatest use for poetry is to stimulate sympathy to an expressed perspective.  This poem is brilliant in how effectively it makes you see a given situation that’s only too common.  I felt it really made me understand something I’m lucky never to have experienced myself.

Catherine Tufariello is an accomplished and well-anthologized poet whose work I greatly enjoy, and recommend for her combination of sublime skill in verse with a very natural voice.  She resides in Indiana with her family, where she teaches at Valparaiso University.


“Useful Advice” by Catherine Tufariello

You’re 37? Don’t you think that maybe
It’s time you settled down and had a baby?

No wine? Does this mean happy news? I knew it!

Hey, are you sure you two know how to do it?

All Dennis has to do is look at me
And I’m knocked up.
Some things aren’t meant to be.
It’s sad, but try to see this as God’s will.

I’ve heard that sometimes when you take the Pill—

A friend of mine got pregnant when she stopped
Working so hard.
Why don’t you two adopt?
You’ll have one of your own then, like my niece.

At work I heard about this herb from Greece—

My sister swears by dong quai. Want to try it?

Forget the high-tech stuff. Just change your diet.

It’s true! Too much caffeine can make you sterile.

Yoga is good for that. My cousin Carol—

They have these ceremonies in Peru—

You mind my asking, is it him or you?

Have you tried acupuncture? Meditation?

It’s in your head. Relax! Take a vacation
And have some fun. You think too much. Stop trying.

Did I say something wrong? Why are you crying?

(posted with permission from the Author)


For the second poem, I’ve chosen an excerpt from the beginning of Fulke Greville’s marvelous 16th century poem, “A Treatise of Humane Learning.”  I chose it because it is one of the best didactic poems in English, and it has a real use.  In it Greville lays out the concepts of humanism, which, from adaptation of platonic ideas by Erasmus at The University of Paris, through flowering in the renaissance, is the engine of Western civilization and modern thinking.

If you want to understand the forces behind the Reformation, behind much Western Philosophy in the spirit of Descartes, behind the exploration and colonization period of European history, behind the enlightened Caliphates of Moorish Spain (yes, Saracens often cottoned on much more quickly than white Europeans), behind the English Civil War, French and American revolutions, and ultimately behind socialism and thus the Russian revolution, as well as the Adam-Smith-derived economic science that evolved in parallel, you may never find a better discussion than Greville’s poem.

This poem is also aesthetically beautiful, and brilliantly crafted, which has not always been the case with didactic poetry.  In fact, the reason you rarely see such poems in the modern age is because hacks put out stuff well worthy of ridicule in English as well as French after the Renaissance, and the influential Romantic poets (Wordsworth in particular) pretty much banished the practice.  Yes, even my excerpt is a bit long (I selected from 152 total stanzas) but again I think the pay-off in food for thought is well worth it.

I look forward to discussion of how Greville’s characterizations of the various functions of consciousness, intelligence and reason match your modern take on these concepts.

Sir Fulke Greville, Lord Brooke was a Baron, accomplished statesman, and one of the greatest Elizabethan poets.  I love Shakespeare and Sidney, but I’ve often felt that Greville is more suited to the modern ear because he is less fanciful in his style.  Greville was also a famous biographer of Sidney.

I have modernized spelling throughout the poem.


“A Treatise of Humane Learning” by Fulke Greville

The mind of man is this world’s true dimension;
And Knowledge is the measure of the mind:
And as the mind, in her vast comprehension,
Contains more worlds than all the world can find:
So knowledge does itself far more extend,
Than all the minds of men can comprehend.

A climbing height it is without a head,
Depth without bottom, way without an end;
A circle with no line environed;
Not comprehended, all it comprehends;
Worth infinite, yet satisfies no mind
Till it that infinite of the God-head find.

This knowledge is the same forbidden tree,
Which man lusts after to be his Maker;
For knowledge is of Power’s eternity,
And perfect Glory, the true image-taker;
So as what does the infinite contain,
Must be as infinite as it again.


For our defects in nature who sees not?
We enter, first things present not conceiving,
Not knowing future, what is past forgot:
All other creatures instant power receiving,
To help themselves; Man only brings sense
To feel and wail his native impotence.

Which Sense, man’s first instructor, while it shows
To free him from deceit, deceives him most;
And from this false root that mistaking grows,
Which truth in humane knowledge knowledge has lost:
So that by judging Sense herein, perfection,
Man must deny his nature’s imperfection.


Knowledge’s next organ is Imagination;
A glass, wherein the object of our Sense
Ought to respect true height or declination,
For understanding clears intelligence:                                     “clears”: illuminates
For this Power also has her variation,
Fixed in some, in some with difference;
In all, so shadowed with self-application,
As makes her pictures, still too foul or fair;
Not like the life in lineament or air.

This power besides, always cannot receive
What Sense reports, but what the affections please
To admit; ‘and as those princes that do leave
‘Their State in trust to men corrupt with ease,
‘False in their faith or but to faction friend;
‘The truth of things can scarcely comprehend.

So must the Imagination from the Sense
Be misinformed, while our affections cast
False shapes and forms, on their intelligence,
And to keep out true intromission thence,
Abstracts the imagination, or distastes,
With images preoccupately placed.                                     “preoccupately”: with obsessive care

Hence our desires, fears, hopes, love, hate, and sorrow,
In fancy make us hear, feel, see impressions,
Such as out of our Sense they do not borrow;
And are the efficient cause, the true progression
Of sleeping visions, idle phantasms waking;
Life, dreams; and knowledge, apparitions making.

Again, our Memory, register of Sense,
And mould of arts, as mother of Induction,
Corrupted with disguised intelligence,
Can yield no images for man’s instruction:
But—from stained wombs—abortive birth
Of strange opinions, to confound the Earth.

The last chief oracle of what man knows
Is Understanding; which though it contain
Some ruinous notions, which our nature shows,
Of general truths, yet have they such a stain
From our corruption, as all light they lose;
Save to convince of ignorance and sin,
Which where they reign let no perfection in.


Nor in any right line can her eyes ascend,
To view the things that immaterial are;
‘For as the sun does, while his beams descend,
‘Lighten the Earth, but shadow every star:
So Reason stooping to attend the Sense,
Darkens the spirit’s clear intelligence.


Again, we see the best complexions vain,
And in the worst, more nimble subtlety:
From whence Wit, a distemper of the brain,
The Schools conclude; and our capacity
How much more sharp, the more it apprehends,
Still to distract, and less Truth comprehends.

But all these natural defects perchance
May be supplied by Sciences and Arts;
Which we thirst after, study, admire, advance,
As if restore our fall, recure our smarts                                     “recure”: recover
They could, bring in perfection, burn our rods;
With Demades to make us like our gods.                                     “Demades”: author of a life of Alexander the Great; possibly the first to suggest literal divinity for Alexander


Please remember, dear reader, that you are the key part of this column.  Do tell what you think of these poems.  What do you like about them?  Do you have other poems you find useful in any way?  What do you think bout the idea of utility of poetry, and in art?  And I’m always looking for discussion of poetry in general?  What have been your experiences?  Do you have any poems you recommend to people who normally wouldn’t bother with poetry?  Any poets you wished more people would check out?  Any thoughts on big-name poems or poets you find overrated?


¹There have been numerous poetic responses to Andrew Marvell’s classic, from the very earnest to the very ironical, which in itself illustrates the imaginative power of the pastoral love lyric.


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UCHE OGBUJI is a founding editor of the TNB Poetry section. He is also co-creator and co-host of the Poetry Voice podcast. His short collection of poems Ndewo, Colorado (Aldrich Press, 2013) is a winner of the 2014 Colorado Book Awards. To expand a bit, Uche Ogbuji was born in Calabar, Nigeria. He lived, among other places, in Egypt and England before settling near Boulder, Colorado where he lives with his wife and four children. Uche is a computer engineer (trained in Nigeria and the USA) and entrepreneur whose abiding passion is poetry. His poems, fusing Igbo culture, European Classicism, U.S. Mountain West setting, and Hip-Hop influences, have appeared widely. Uche also snowboards, coaches and plays soccer, and trains in American Kenpo. You can catch more of the prolifically fraying strands of his life on his home page, or, heck, even on Twitter.

83 responses to “Poetry for the Nervous, Vol 2: What’s useful?”

  1. Zara Potts says:

    I love this series, Uche. Because you can explain poetry from both the heart and the brain exceptionally well.
    I find poetry to be a visceral thing. It either hits me or it doesn’t. We have already spoken about Plath and while I don’t admire everything she wrote, ‘Daddy’ really socks me in the gut.
    Having said that – I thought Hughes hit back pretty well with ‘Birthday letters’
    Speaking of punches to the gut – ‘Useful Advice’ above strikes a chord with me – having heard many of the same lines myself. And this is maybe what you are saying in your piece – Poems like this serve to connect, to share experiences, to warn off..
    Thank you for sharing this, Uche. I am grateful.

    • Uche Ogbuji says:

      Thanks, Zara. I know what you mean about “both the heart and the brain.” I get so excited at the intellectual aspects of things that I have to be conscious to now and then work in the more visceral “I just love this shit, dude! Ya feel me?” It’s a balance I hope to maintain so that feedback is quite valuable.

      And poetry should be visceral, though I think mood often has a lot to do with it. A poem might just fit in the pocket for you one day, and fall flat another.

      And yes, reading “Useful Advice” there was so much that made me thing “ooh! ouch! I bet that is exactly the sort of thing a well-meaning person might say, and that even I might say…” It really made me take stock of some of my own tendency to advise rather than to just empathize, and that is what I call useful.

      • Zara Potts says:

        This series made me go back and look up my old high school papers.. and I had to create a ‘favourite poem anthology’ when I was 14 and I was looking through it the other day. As well as my all time favourite ‘The Windhover’ I had included Roger McGough’s ‘The Jogger’

        Well, she was asking for it.
        Lyin there, cryin out,
        Dyin for it. Pissed of course.
        Of course, nice girls don’t.
        Don’t know who she was,
        Where from, didn’t care.
        Nor did she. Slut. Slut.

        Now I look after myself. Fit.
        Keep myself fit. Got
        A good body. Good body. Slim.
        Go to the gym. Keep in trim.
        Girls like a man wiv a good body.
        Strong arms, tight arse. Right
        Tart she was. Slut. Pissed.

        Now I don’t drink. No fear.
        Like to keep a clear
        Head. Keep ahead. Like
        I said, like to know what I’m dooin
        Who I’m screwin (excuse language).
        Not like her. Baggage. Half-
        Dressed, couldn’t-care-less. Pissed.

        Crawlin round beggin for it.
        Lyin there, dyin for it.
        Cryin. Cryin. Nice girls don’t.
        Right one she was. A raver.
        At night, after dark,
        On her own, in the park?
        Well, do me a favour.

        And tell me this:
        If she didn’t enjoy it,
        Why didn’t she scream?

        And Dory Previn’s ‘Did Jesus Have a Baby Sister?’

        did jesus have a baby sister?
        was she bitter?
        was she sweet?
        did she wind up in a convent?
        did she end up on the street?
        on the run?
        on the stage?
        did she dance?
        did he have a sister?
        a little baby sister?
        did jesus have a sister?
        did they give her a chance?

        did he have a baby sister?
        could she speak out
        by and large?
        or was she told by mother mary
        ask your brother he’s in charge
        he’s the chief
        he’s the whipped cream
        on the cake

        did he have a sister?
        a little baby sister?
        did jesus have a sister?
        did they give her a break?

        her brother’s
        birth announcement
        was pretty big
        pretty big
        i guess
        while she got precious
        little notice
        in the local press
        her mother was the virgin
        when she carried him
        carried him
        if the little girl came later
        was she conceived in sin?
        and in sorrow?
        and in suffering?
        and in shame?
        did jesus have a sister?
        what was her name?

        did she long to be the saviour
        saving everyone
        she me?
        and in private to her mirror
        did she whisper
        save your breath!
        did he have a sister?
        a little baby sister?
        did jesus have a sister?
        was she there at his death?

        and did she cry for mary’s comfort
        as she watched him
        on the cross?
        and was mary too despairing
        ask your brother
        he’s the boss
        he’s the chief
        he’s the man
        he’s the show
        did he have a sister?
        a little baby sister?
        did jesus have a sister?
        doesn’t anyone know?
        I wonder what I was thinking??!!

        • Uche Ogbuji says:

          Wow, Zara! Two corkers here. “The Jogger” is absolutely chilling to the bone, and again useful in terms of how it exposes the attitudes of others. The second is fun as it goes, with some pretty thought-provoking twists. Thanks for sharing.

  2. I was reading this morning (pregame warm up) about Bertrand Russell and he was relating a tale about his teenage years in which he thought he might be losing his mind, due to his not widely known but genuinely bizarre familial circumstances, and that poetry, in particular Shelly’s “Alastor” helped convince him that the possibilities of humanist rationality (and Euclidian proofs) could defeat the “weakness of spirits” he saw madness. All this to your point about the best poetry being useful. So, I went ahead and read it, and I think Alastor is both beautiful and very comfortable for sitting, although not entirely convincing as a talisman against (likely inherited) mental illness.

    And I very much like the profane being summed as the vanity of trying to impress dinner guests.

    • Uche Ogbuji says:

      Didn’t know that about Russell. Very useful (ding!) to know, thanks. I must say I find “Alastor” a strange choice as described. I guess I would have thought more “Prometheus Unbound”, but Russell’s was indeed a strange mind, capable of astonishing flights juxtaposed with the most common, and even base tendencies. I’m also a pretty strong advocate that Euclid belongs in mathematics, and thus in analysis of clearly measurable quantities. I’ve never been comfortable with the extrapolations of 20th century logicians into more subjective matters, and I guess to some extent, it fits that Russell found escape from insanity in the likes of Shelley, who in some of his works (including “Alastor”) perpetrated some of the most extreme decoration of platonism and humanism.

      I do agree “Alastor” is beautiful, and though I’m no lover of the Romantics, I do find a lot to enjoy in Shelley and Keats (and the Blake of “Songs of Innocence and Experience”).

      Fascinating stuff. Thanks again.

      And re: impressing dinner guests, I guess I speak with a lot of authority as one of the most frequent penitents of that particular sin 🙂

      • I think he was trying to say that through Shelly (“Mother of this unfathomble world, favor my solemn song, for I have loved thee ever and thee only”) that he was able to embrace the notion of nature as being the only truth, not mathematical dogma or philosophical conventions or the dictates of the church. I think Russell was a lover of Euclid as well, but came to realize there are not enough “clearly measurable quantities” to avoid putting all of mathematics into doubt, or destroying the notion that it exists as an independent reality, or even that his new understanding directly contradicted his life’s work, mainly that through symbolic logic a firm foundation for even the most basic of suppositions could be proved with certainty.

        But, you know, I tend to leave that stuff those capable of reading Wittgenstein in German. Or, really, reading it at all.

        Back to poetry. Overrated: Bukowski.
        Underrated: Blake.

        • Uche Ogbuji says:

          To be fair, I have quite the axe to grind with Russell, so that probably colors my reaction.

          And I personally agree with your Bukowski/Blake contrast, though I do think Blake spent a long time off the deep end where I’ve no interest in following.

  3. JB says:

    I don’t understand why most people bemoan poetry, or beat themselves up over their supposed inability to “get” poetry. It’s not above you. I fall victim to my own alarmist tendencies when it comes to assessing the importance of poetry in the 21st century, but one of the wonderful qualities about poetry is that it defies generalization.

    I suppose those very people who fear poetry or feel like they don’t get it (myself included) are the exact people who ought to writing more of the stuff.

    Helluva thinkpiece, Uche. Cheers.

    • Uche Ogbuji says:

      Thanks. You are not alone in assessing the importance of poetry in the 21st century, and the anxiety around poetry what energizes me the most to write about it. As you say, poetry is large. It’s bigger than categories or generalizations. It’s certainly bigger than the consequences of modernism, or the turn of the 21st century. My attitude, which I dearly hope to spread is: “relax!” Poetry will evolve, but it will certainly continue to live. And what’s most important is not intellectual contemplation of whether or not poetry has a place for us, but rather the simple, sensual questions of “what is it doing for us, lately.” I’m confident that when people get a chance to see the many poetic worlds out there, including hidden worlds well tailored to their needs, they will carry poetry on, healthy and ever relevant, well into the future.

  4. Greg Olear says:

    I love this, Uche. So much fodder to mull over. (And, of course, thanks for the mention).

    I’ve not heard of either of the poets you offer this time…the first poem is brilliant; it gave me chills, as all good poems do. The second reminded me a bit of Milton, who I love, and also — and I’m not sure why — this one:

    THE laws of God, the laws of man,
    He may keep that will and can;
    Not I: let God and man decree
    Laws for themselves and not for me;
    And if my ways are not as theirs
    Let them mind their own affairs.
    Their deeds I judge and much condemn,
    Yet when did I make laws for them?
    Please yourselves, say I , and they
    Need only look the other way.
    But no, they will not; they must still
    Wrest their neighbour to their will,
    And make me dance as they desire
    With jail and gallows and hell-fire.
    And how am I to face the odds
    Of man’s bedevilment and God’s?
    I, a stranger and afraid
    In a world I never made.
    They will be master, right or wrong;
    Though both are foolish, both are strong.
    And since, my soul, we cannot fly
    To Saturn nor to Mercury,
    Keep we must, if keep we can,
    These foreign laws of God and man.

    –A.E. Housman

    • Uche Ogbuji says:

      The echo is quite by design. Milton was a bit of a sneak, taking the glories of Humanism, and bending it the other way (Greville would probably have considered it a perversion), as a theodicy, and Housman, one of the last truly rustic poets, and another I recommend, was always pinching Milton’s head from a distance, like the folks in Kids in the Hall. Besides your quoted above, there is the famous “Terence, This Is Stupid Stuff”, with the oft-quoted lines:

      For malt does more than Milton can
      To justify God’s ways to man.

      Of course, one can pinch Milton’s head while admitting his immense genius. A generation of German poets tried and tried to do the theodicy trick as well, and failed. For anyone interested in a little more depth, I humbly submit the following article of mine, which touches on my own problems with Milton, compared to the attacks by, say, Eliot.


      • Greg Olear says:

        Wow, what a lot of chew on, Uche.

        I will argue, as I did when I first read “Paradise Lost” in college, that the epic poem, despite its ample Biblical allusions, is not, in fact, about religion, but about politics. Religion is window dressing, a disguise, something to throw off the (royal) dogs.

        As I read it, the poem’s rather feeble narrator acts as a sort of censor, a defense mechanism whereby JM could say, “I wasn’t saying democracy is better than absolute monarchy — that was Satan’s argument! Note how the narrator immediately refutes everything Satan says!”

        Except that Satan is easily the most compelling character in the poem, and the flaws of the monarchy are pointed out as inherently ridiculous but spun as positives (“Your voluntarie service we require”).

        That’s how I read the poem. For some reason, when I read it, I had a very clear idea of what he meant when he was writing it, something that seldom happens when I read something.

        And yes, Housman too I love.

        • Uche Ogbuji says:

          Greg, well, I certainly appreciate your having gone to check the piece out. It wasn’t until after I posted the link that I realized there was a bit of unrelated stuff preceding the Milton section. Sorry.

          I think you do indeed have a good handle on Milton’s likely intentions. You’re certainly right that Milton’s main distinctions in his writing were political, not religious, but isn’t this because the basic, settled Nicaean shape of the religion was so utterly a part of the consciousness in those days? I didn’t see his ambition to theodicy as much as a way to convert the non-religious, but more as a way to assert that you could just lay all the high ideas of religion in front of the people for them to sort out their own relationship with divinity. And no coincidence, that suited Roundhead politics to a tee. I figure that might be why it was the Germans, race of Luther and all that, who tried so steadily after Milton to perfect the genre of theodicy? But maybe that’s just way too pat a theory.

          And sorry, I didn’t mean I recommend Housman to *you* since you already have him in your locker 🙂 I do often suggest him to others seeking poetry.

          ‘Terence, this is stupid stuff:
          You eat your victuals fast enough;
          There can’t be much amiss, ’tis clear,
          To see the rate you drink your beer.
          But oh, good Lord, the verse you make,
          It gives a chap the belly-ache.
          The cow, the old cow, she is dead;
          It sleeps well, the horned head:
          We poor lads, ’tis our turn now
          To hear such tunes as killed the cow.
          Pretty friendship ’tis to rhyme
          Your friends to death before their time
          Moping melancholy mad:
          Come, pipe a tune to dance to, lad.’

          Why, if ’tis dancing you would be,
          There’s brisker pipes than poetry.
          Say, for what were hop-yards meant,
          Or why was Burton built on Trent?
          Oh many a peer of England brews
          Livelier liquor than the Muse,
          And malt does more than Milton can
          To justify God’s ways to man.
          Ale, man, ale’s the stuff to drink
          For fellows whom it hurts to think:
          Look into the pewter pot
          To see the world as the world’s not.

  5. sheree says:

    This poem is the only poem to ever stick in my head. I read it during a grade school trip to the library during the vietnam war. Thanks for all your wonderful and insightful posts on poetry. I enjoy them very much.


    I walk down the garden paths,
    And all the daffodils
    Are blowing, and the bright blue squills.
    I walk down the patterned garden-paths
    In my stiff, brocaded gown.
    With my powdered hair and jewelled fan,
    I too am a rare
    Pattern. As I wander down
    The garden paths.

    My dress is richly figured,
    And the train
    Makes a pink and silver stain
    On the gravel, and the thrift
    Of the borders.
    Just a plate of current fashion,
    Tripping by in high-heeled, ribboned shoes.
    Not a softness anywhere about me,
    Only whalebone and brocade.
    And I sink on a seat in the shade
    Of a lime tree. For my passion
    Wars against the stiff brocade.
    The daffodils and squills
    Flutter in the breeze
    As they please.
    And I weep;
    For the lime-tree is in blossom
    And one small flower has dropped upon my bosom.

    And the plashing of waterdrops
    In the marble fountain
    Comes down the garden-paths.
    The dripping never stops.
    Underneath my stiffened gown
    Is the softness of a woman bathing in a marble basin,
    A basin in the midst of hedges grown
    So thick, she cannot see her lover hiding,
    But she guesses he is near,
    And the sliding of the water
    Seems the stroking of a dear
    Hand upon her.
    What is Summer in a fine brocaded gown!
    I should like to see it lying in a heap upon the ground.
    All the pink and silver crumpled up on the ground.

    I would be the pink and silver as I ran along the paths,
    And he would stumble after,
    Bewildered by my laughter.
    I should see the sun flashing from his sword-hilt and the buckles on his shoes.
    I would choose
    To lead him in a maze along the patterned paths,
    A bright and laughing maze for my heavy-booted lover,
    Till he caught me in the shade,
    And the buttons of his waistcoat bruised my body as he clasped me,
    Aching, melting, unafraid.
    With the shadows of the leaves and the sundrops,
    And the plopping of the waterdrops,
    All about us in the open afternoon —
    I am very like to swoon
    With the weight of this brocade,
    For the sun sifts through the shade.

    Underneath the fallen blossom
    In my bosom,
    Is a letter I have hid.
    It was brought to me this morning by a rider from the Duke.
    “Madam, we regret to inform you that Lord Hartwell
    Died in action Thursday se’nnight.”
    As I read it in the white, morning sunlight,
    The letters squirmed like snakes.
    “Any answer, Madam,” said my footman.
    “No,” I told him.
    “See that the messenger takes some refreshment.
    No, no answer.”
    And I walked into the garden,
    Up and down the patterned paths,
    In my stiff, correct brocade.
    The blue and yellow flowers stood up proudly in the sun,
    Each one.
    I stood upright too,
    Held rigid to the pattern
    By the stiffness of my gown.
    Up and down I walked,
    Up and down.

    In a month he would have been my husband.
    In a month, here, underneath this lime,
    We would have broke the pattern;
    He for me, and I for him,
    He as Colonel, I as Lady,
    On this shady seat.
    He had a whim
    That sunlight carried blessing.
    And I answered, “It shall be as you have said.”
    Now he is dead.

    In Summer and in Winter I shall walk
    Up and down
    The patterned garden-paths
    In my stiff, brocaded gown.
    The squills and daffodils
    Will give place to pillared roses, and to asters, and to snow.
    I shall go
    Up and down,
    In my gown.
    Gorgeously arrayed,
    Boned and stayed.
    And the softness of my body will be guarded from embrace
    By each button, hook, and lace.
    For the man who should loose me is dead,
    Fighting with the Duke in Flanders,
    In a pattern called a war.
    Christ! What are patterns for?

    From Men, Women and Ghosts By Amy Lowell

    • Uche Ogbuji says:

      Oh, a fine contribution, Sheree. I don’t remember having read this, though I am familiar with some of Amy Lowell’s work. Very powerful opening, and the stanza/passage starting “I would be the pink and silver as I ran along the paths,” is especially evocative.

      • sheree says:

        I’ve been meaning to mention to you that I was a barefoot ridge runner in my youth. Cheers to running shoeless!

        • Uche Ogbuji says:

          I love hearing about others’ barefoot running pursuits. What’s the “ridge” bit, though? It makes me think of a mountainous nature trail.

        • sheree says:

          List of areas where I’ve ran some ridges between the ages of 7 and 20.
          Gobernador canyon Los Padres National forest. Arbuckle Mountains Davis Oklahoma. Smokey Mountains Folley Hill Clinton TN and Shaker Mountain Lebanon NH. There’s still one runner left in my mothers lines. She chose cross country running and wears shoes.

        • Uche Ogbuji says:

          That sounds like a breathtaking circuit. I take it all are reasonably safe from the usual serious barefoot running hazards: broken glass and rusty nails? And as much as I hail barefoot runners, I have much respect for cross-country runners, shod or unshod. The spirit of the Rarámuri lives on 🙂

        • sheree says:

          Game trails are pretty safe. Only suffered a few stone bruises and a bad case of shin splints once. And my cousin is a champion cross country runner. She kicks ass! Cheers!

  6. Uche:

    I agree with Zara. You have a wonderful ability to discuss poetry from both the heart and brain. As for me, all I know is that poetry is my true form of survival. Mind you, I don’t say that lightly. Poetry has helped to save my life in some pretty dark times; either by reading it, or doing my best to write it.

    Through the years, these are some of the inspirational poets that I’ve kept returning to: Neruda, Rumi, Rilke, Brautigan, Langston Hughes, Jean Toomer, Rimbaud, Plath, Philip Levine, Mayakovsky, and Patti Smith.

    I’m sure there are many more. But those are the ones that continue to coarse through my veins.

    • Uche Ogbuji says:

      Thanks dear Rich. I hear you so loudly about using poetry for survival. Great list, including a new on on me I’ll have to check out (Jean Toomer).

      Enjoy your performance tonight. I’ll be in your virtual audience.

  7. Interesting turn towards the usefulness of poetry. I think with all literature there can be that element. Literature helps, guides, explains… It’s philosophy and art and experience and innocence and perspective all rolled together. It can give us strength or show us the other side of a situation that we might otherwise ignore. It can show us we’re not alone. Sometimes.

    Example: If I’m nervous or scared I like to read something ballsy and tough.


    Anyway, there’s a lot to think about here and my sleep-deprived brain isn’t capable of offering much more than the above sentences. The World Cup ended at 6am this morning, and I started work at 9am…

    I’ll probably comment more later…

    • Uche Ogbuji says:

      Ow, re: that schedule. I guess you were hoping it would not go into over time, eh?

      And just what you say about literature. It feeds our own strength to survive, to endure. As far as ballsy and tough poetry, Rich mentioned Rimbaud and Philip Levine, so those immediately spring to mind. You’re already even more versed in Beat than I am, so there’s that. Housman has that as well, and many others, but in all the eras of poetry, I think it will be hard to beat Villon for those characteristics. The tricky bit is finding good Villon translations.

  8. Irene Zion says:


    The first poem, “Useful Advice,” really bores into your gut.
    There are so many instances where people give such “useful” advice.
    It’s heartbreaking.

    As far as poems that stay with you forever, this soliloquy from Macbeth is etched inside my eyes:

    To-morrow, and to-morrow, and to-morrow,
    Creeps in this petty pace from day to day,
    To the last syllable of recorded time;
    And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
    The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!
    Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player,
    That struts and frets his hour upon the stage,
    And then is heard no more. It is a tale
    Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
    Signifying nothing.

    That is Tragedy.

    • Uche Ogbuji says:

      Yes, masterstroke, innit? So did you ever play in MacBeth, or any other Shakespeare?

      The first time I read “Useful Advice” (In R.S. Gwynn’s anthology) I did feel as if I’d been taken by the shoulders and shaken roughly. I spent quite a few moments examining myself afterward. It’s such a powerful poem.

  9. Judy Prince says:

    This is fun, Uche! Like getting a uni lecture and we can eat peach crumble at the same time!

    I don’t go a bundle on the ever-faithful-to-QE1 Fulke Greville’s poetry, but dear Rodent will be majorly chuffed!!

    Nice approach, pragmatics of poetry. Indeed, poetry’s useful if only as a self-confessional, self-revelatory writing and/or reading exercise.

    Lovely to read the commenters’ sent-in poems, too!

    • Uche Ogbuji says:

      Ha! I hope it isn’t *too* much of a lecture, though. I’m hoping to emphasize the tarts. Greville was just a good Tudor-era bloke who knew which side of his bread was buttered. Kinda like Eliot and the Anglo-lit establishment, so hard to really fault him. But I do like his tidy, Calvinist stylings. Then again as you know, I have a classicist taste.

      Always love the contributions of TNBer poetry favorites. Some nice discoveries and reminders already.

      • Judy Prince says:

        Uche, wait ’til dear Rodent comments on Fulke; you two will be all over each other with ecstaticisms.

        I enjoyed your history rundown!

        What a joy to hear from others about the power of the medium. Thanks for signposting the way for us to show what affects us deeply.

    • Rodent says:

      Rodent here …

      Um, Uche, where are you citing/transcribing from?

      They could, bring in perfection, burn our rods;
      With Demands to make us like our gods.

      That’s, like, you know, *Demades*, who makes us like a god. (Think the biography of Alexander.)

      [hysterical giggle]

      Sorry, couldn’t resist — must be about the only line of Humane Learning that I have carved into my skull.

      More later — I’d have (and will) post the Chorus Sacerdotum. So it’s the obvious anthology Greville poem …

      (PS — I’d date Humane Learning from early 17th rather than the 16th century — overlapping with maybe half-way into _Caelica_. Or do you know something I don’t? 🙂 )


      • Uche Ogbuji says:

        I was transcribing and modernizing at the same time, and I also pulled in a lot more than I ended up posting (I have completed about half the 152 stanzas). If “demades”->”demands” is my only error, I’ll be astonished 🙂

        Do you happen to have a computerized text, or know of where I can find one? I was surprised it hasn’t made Project Gutenberg.

        And true enough, the Chorus Sacerdotum of Mustafa is well-anthologized because it’s the obvious anthology poem 🙂

        Hmmmm. As far as dating Humane Learning, I suspect it’s a matter of preference of term. I personally date it from the many treatises criss-crossing Europe inspired by Marsilio Ficinio, hence Baldassare Castaglione, and thus eventually Thomas Elyot and all that. Perhaps there is a more scholarly established definition of the term of which I’m falling afoul. If so, my first inclination would be to blow raspberries at all that 🙂

        • Rodent says:

          Hi, Uche.

          “I was transcribing and modernizing at the same time, and I also pulled in a lot more than I ended up posting (I have completed about half the 152 stanzas). If “demades”->”demands” is my only error, I’ll be astonished.”

          Only one I noticed, and prolly the only one I could have caught. (Long story — I wasted weeks not to say months of my life chasing that bloody Demades reference lo these many years ago.)

          “Do you happen to have a computerized text, or know of where I can find one? I was surprised it hasn’t made Project Gutenberg.”

          Not FOE, but Chadwyck Healey use the Bullough text. Should have that somewhere on my hard drive — if I find it, I’ll backchannel you. Oxford are in the process of doing a re-edit, but last I heard, they’d started at the end with the Remains, and were working backward, so don’t hold your breath.

          “And true enough, the Chorus Sacerdotum of Mustafa is well-anthologized because it’s the obvious anthology poem.”

          Yup. Shame the rest of the play doesn’t match up to it. You ever finish reading the whole of _Mustafa_? I never did.

          “Hmmmm. As far as dating Humane Learning, I suspect it’s a matter of preference of term. I personally date it from the many treatises criss-crossing Europe inspired by Marsilio Ficinio, hence Baldassare Castaglione, and thus eventually Thomas Elyot and all that. Perhaps there is a more scholarly established definition of the term of which I’m falling afoul. If so, my first inclination would be to blow raspberries at all that.”

          You forgot to mention Pico della Mirandola. *And mis-spelled “Castiglione”. (Yah boo sucks. )

          Hey, you want to post “Myra”, or shall I?

          Ah, here’s a link:


          Most of the rest of the Luminarium site seems simply to cross-link to google books. A pain.


        • Uche Ogbuji says:

          Thanks. If you do find other errors, please do let me know. I’m not entirely incorrigible 🙂

          And I’ll fix “demades” tonight and add a gloss. Can I beg you to suggest a good brief gloss for me to put in the right margin? Considering you’ve pondered the matter far more than I have. And if you do find an electronic text, I’ll gratefully receive it, but I agree it’s probably prudent for me not to hold my breath.

          And no, never read all of _Mustafa_. I wouldn’t make a good proper scholar because I am very quick to duck out of dreary chores. Thanks for posting the link to “Myra.” We’ll get people hooked on Greville yet, by cherrypicking the tasty bits and not letting on to loudly how much dross one has to avoid 😉

          Re: Pico della Mirandola and Castiglione. Yep, you got me. What I get from dashing that off on the run 🙂

        • Rodent says:

          “And I’ll fix “demades” tonight and add a gloss. Can I beg you to suggest a good brief gloss for me to put in the right margin?”

          Been a while, but I’ll see what I can come up with. Basically, Demades was the author of a life of Alexander the Great which may have been the first place where it was suggested that Alexander was a literal divinity. Don’t think I ever got round to reading that particular biography, but references to it get kicked up here and there, and it’s what Greville was referring to in that line in the Treatise. (Crudely) “Demades made Alexander into a god.”

          Or at least, so I inferred when I was originally (early seventies) trying to work out just what the hell the line meant.

          For the moment, I’ve just discovered that I can’t find a text of Greville *anywhere on my computer, which means that more got lost in the latest computer shuffle than I was aware of.

          Memo self — Keep Regular Backups. (And make a note of where they are.)


          More tomorrow.


        • Uche Ogbuji says:

          OK I made the fix, with a stand-in gloss. Thanks. And so sorry to hear about work lost in computer shuffle. And I can sympathize because keeping regular backups is a lot harder than it should be. Best move on that front in ages is Apple’s TimeMachine.

  10. Cynthia Hawkins says:

    This is great, Uche! You’ve reminded me of something I’ve gotten out of the habit of — reading poetry as inspiration to better writing in any form. It also reminded me of something my former poetry professor, Richard Murphy, once told me in his lovely Irish lilt: “You’re far more of a poet in your fiction than in your poetry.” This is absolutely true of me. I’m much more at home in prose, but I’ve always taken everything I love about poetry and put it there as well. I think I’ll dust off some of my favorite poetry collections today …

    • Uche Ogbuji says:

      Cynthia, thanks, and I really hope that reminder helps. I think poetry belongs everywhere: in prose, in music, in drama, and of course in verse, and regardless of what genre you write, I think: poetry in, poetry out.

      If you do find a few gems in you explorations today, please feel free to come back and share.

      • Cynthia Hawkins says:

        Found this one by Joy Harjo. I used to read this one over and over again. “The Woman Hanging from the 13th Floor Window.” It’s rather long, so I’ll just include a bit of it:

        She is the woman hanging from the 13th floor
        window. Her hands are pressed white against the
        concrete moulding of the tenement building. She
        hangs from the 13th floor window in east Chicago,
        with a swirl of birds over her head. They could
        be a halo, or a storm of glass waiting to crush her.

        She thinks she will be set free.

        The woman hanging from the 13th floor window
        on the east side of Chicago is not alone.
        She is a woman of children, of the baby, Carlos,
        and of Margaret, and of Jimmy who is the oldest.
        She is her mother’s daughter and her father’s son.
        She is several pieces between the two husbands
        she has had. She is all the women of the apartment
        building who stand watching her, watching themselves.

        When she was young she ate wild rice on scraped down
        plates in warm wood rooms. It was in the farther
        north and she was the baby then. They rocked her.

        She sees Lake Michigan lapping at the shores of
        herself. It is a dizzy hole of water and the rich
        live in tall glass houses at the edge of it. In some
        places Lake Michigan speaks softly, here it just sputters
        and butts itself against the asphalt. She sees
        other buildings just like hers. She sees other
        women hanging from many-floored windows
        counting their lives in the palms of their hands
        and in the palms of their children’s hands.

        She is the woman hanging from the 13th floor window
        on the Indian side of town. her belly is soft from
        her children’s births, her worn levis swing down below
        her waist, and then her feet, and then her heart.
        She is dangling ….

        • Uche Ogbuji says:

          The repetition, and the understated pathos here are remarkable. I can see hot it would be worth frequent return. And the last stanza you quote is especially clutching.

  11. dwoz says:


    You have quite inadvertently pushed forward research for my novel about 25 percent, in one quick post.

    Good work.

  12. Uche Ogbuji says:

    W00T! Let me guess. An accomplished statesman is trying to figure out how to preserve the crown against threats from Spain and France, and courtiers keep stopping by saying:

    “Hey Fulky, maybe you should check out that artillery stuff the Italians pulled from China”


    “Brooke, baby, have you tried sending some spotted Dick to La Infanta? That might get her off our backs.”


    “You just need to talk to The Queen! Problem is that London Defences don’t follow Feng Shui.”

    Then suddenly he slams down his writing implements and bellows “Enough! Enough! I’ll be shot of useful advice!” And just like that, it occurs to him. How to get the best of The Queen’s enemies without over-extending the nation’s meager resources. As his plans unfold, so does the drama…


  13. Joe Daly says:


    Thanks for this enormously illuminating column. I look forward to further installments.

    Reading through these poems, I realize that my greatest fear in approaching poetry is the concern that my impression (often one quickly formed) of what the author is describing, is wrong. Sometimes i read a poem and think right away that I know what the author’s talking about, and because I “figured it out” so quickly, I’m most certainly wrong. Can poetry really be that simple? I won’t allow myself to say “yes.”

    Even when people suggest that a poem’s meaning is whatever you believe it to be, I can’t abide. The poet most certainly had a subject/emotion in mind and my ego will not allow me to miss the point. So that’s a key struggle for me.

    I once heard a poet on NPR talking about how he had been working on a poem for the past few weeks, and was pretty happy with the result, which he read. It was a short, simple poem. So it blew me away that he had spent weeks on it. Don’t get me wrong, it was very pretty and I enjoyed hearing it read. Still, I would have guessed the guy had banged that out in an afternoon. So yeah, I feel like I know precious little of how poems come to be, and therefore even less as to how they are to be deconstructed.

    Keep this party rolling, man- I’m in full on dig-it mode.

    • Uche Ogbuji says:

      Thanks, Joe.

      I’m very curious at your approach. I guess it makes sense as an introspective writer to get pretty engrossed in thoughts of the meta-writing. For my part, I think there is nothing wrong with understanding a poem in one way, or on one level, and then another way, on another level, and so on. I’m still discovering new things about my favorite poems all the time. Do you feel pressure to “get it right” the first time? If so, I wonder whether that pressure comes from past teachers, present friends? I understand it may just be your introspective nature, but I thought I’d ask anyway.

      I do think it’s interesting the process of how poems are written, and how in some cases it comes with difficulty, and in some cases it comes easily. I end up thinking of Robert Grave’s crazy mysticism about the muse and her process of selecting whom to possess for an inspired frenzy of composition, but of course a lot of that is crap. Sometimes great poems come from inspiration, and sometimes they come from a gawd-awful slog. And the length isn’t always a clue, because sometimes it takes a lot of work to make writing brief and yet effective.

      Interesting parallel in music, where Mozart was known for his ability to toss off superlative symphonies in hours, while Beethoven toiled and toiled for his output. Yet for me, both are equally “inspired.”

      • Joe Daly says:

        >>Do you feel pressure to “get it right” the first time? If so, I wonder whether that pressure comes from past teachers, present friends? I understand it may just be your introspective nature, but I thought I’d ask anyway.<<

        I think so. Maybe not right away, but I feel like there’s an obligation to understand what the author is saying without too much ado. I would guess it comes from past teachers, although I’d say it would be intentional on their part.

        My experience in learning poetry was that a teacher would introduce a poem to the class, and then through discussion, the class would move towards finding out the (singular) meaning of the poem. I don’t recall there being any room or encouragement for someone to abandon the stated or supposed meaning of a poem to forge ahead with a personal interpretation. But I do think that this process of constantly moving towards “clarity” has instilled in me the belief that every poem has a meaning, latent or patent, and it is the author’s intent for the reader to discover that meaning.


        • Uche Ogbuji says:

          Well, maybe I should speak for myself as an author of poetry. I do enjoy when people read in my poems what I consciously put into them, and given my style, I generally recognize that it must have taken some work and perception on their part to have done so, and I find that very satisfying.

          But at the same time, I find it satisfying if others take something from the poem that I did not put into it, or was not aware of putting into it. I’ve had that happen several times when a reader tipped my conception of my own poem on its head. I can’t say that has ever been a problematic experience.

          Maybe the bottom line with me is that I have always written poetry for myself first and foremost. If others derive use or pleasure from it, I truly see that as a bonus. I write poems because they seem an utter purification of my impulse to communicate, and they give me energy in all my other forms of communication.

          So to tie that back to your point, my personal feeling is that we should not look at poems as having singular or restricted meanings. I’m a strong believer that every poem takes on a new parallel dimension of its life every time it is read, heard or interpreted by a person.

          I think you should feel free to take the credit for giving that poem its dimension of meaning in your own head, and that you should be liberated by that power.

    • dwoz says:

      …Even when people suggest that a poem’s meaning is whatever you believe it to be, I can’t abide. The poet most certainly had a subject/emotion in mind and my ego will not allow me to miss the point. So that’s a key struggle for me….

      please forgive my interjecting myself into this discussion, I have had many discussions about capital “A” Art, vs. “just-plain-art,” and the position of the artist…a slight twist on the utility/aesthetics jam.

      My own take on this is to overburden the words “subjective/objective” with a specific meaning when applied to a bit of art: Capital “A” Art is essentially a dialog. It occurs through the auspices of whatever medium the Art is rendered in. Since we’re using words like ‘dialog,’ then the intent is a “message” of some sort. The dialog can be between the artist and the consumer of the Art, or between the artist and herself, or the consumer and herself.

      In creating an embodiment of Art, in whatever medium, the artist imbues it with intent…she indicates and hopefully encapsulates that intent. I call this the “objective” context.

      In experiencing an embodiment of Art, the consumer (I use this word without the prejudice of economic meaning) may actually glean the artist’s context and resonate with it, but likely, she instead brings the Art into her own context, and creates her own meaning from it. I call this the “subjective” context.

      Think if you will, about meaning and context across art forms that may use non-representational semantics. One “proof” I use is the listener, hearing a rhythm and message in the weary, bedgraggled footsteps of a homeless derelict. Was there an intended message? was it “Art”? The musics of urban soundscapes, same thing. How about a love sonnet written by Mengele? We certainly overlay our own context to arrive at a starkly different meaning.

      Those are extreme examples, intended to illustrate.

      I think that even in strictly representational forms, with a strongly dictated message, an artist can only throw up her hands and go about her day, and accept that the consumer of her art will stubbornly overlay a different context and take away a different message. The best the artist can hope for is that the consumer’s context becomes a little bit broken as it collides with the Art, and heals in a new and enriched way.

  14. Becky Palapala says:

    Maybe I missed this question elsewhere, but is your dichotomy between emotion/utility a false one? Did you mean for it to be a dichotomy?

    Is this the most obvious question on the earth?

    I’m tired. I had a long weekend of sun and cheap beer.

    • Uche Ogbuji says:

      Sorry, I don’t think I meant to express that as dichotomy. Perhaps I worded something clumsily? Can you quote what struck you that way? And no better excuse than a weekend of sun and beer. I guess in honor of the Damn Spanish World Champions I’ll say:

      Arriba! Abajo! Al centro! Pa dentro!

      • Becky Palapala says:

        You more just suggested it. Not in the sense that any given poem must be either emotionally evocative or utilitarian but in the sense that an emotional reaction is not utilitarian. I mean, that’s a tough line to draw. You acknowledge that.

        I see your chair example.

        And I get it.

        But arguably every poem has some purpose or function or “utility.” I mean, to extend your metaphor: Is the same beautiful chair useless because I can’t, say, cut vegetables on it?

        Of course not.

        That’s not what a chair is for, and it is perfectly reasonable that I shouldn’t be able to use it as a cutting board.

        I just don’t understand, honestly, how one poem can be useful and another not (presuming we are talking about a specific subset of well-crafted-enough poems). I mean, is that like sitting on the cutting board and then throwing it away for being uncomfortable?

        • dwoz says:

          would it be useful to more closely define the word “utility” as used in the classical argument as meaning something like “informing the physical?”

          Because I agree with you, Becky. How can a poem that “helps me understand love” not have utility?

        • Becky Palapala says:

          But wouldn’t that screw up Uche’s use of a didactic poem as an example of “utility,” since it’s intellectual, which is really no more physical than emotional?

          I see nothing but trouble for this word when it comes to poetry. Not because no poetry is useful but because it all is. At least in theory.

        • Uche Ogbuji says:

          Becky, I am limited in considering your line here in that I’m dashing this while off to take the kids to Kenpo class, but my first impression is that you are quibbling. You could easily construct a definition by which everything in the universe has utility, but I don’t know what you gain by defining it out of insistence. If my use of the term “utility” genuinely encumbers what I was communicating in the piece (and based on all those who have commented before you, I suspect this would be a far-fetched claim), then please explain how it does.

          Otherwise, quiddities are really not my interest in this discussion.

        • Becky says:

          Indeed I could say that, but that’s not what I’m saying. I’m asking you for clarification on a distinction that is central to the essay, by your own assertion. If that’s a quibble, I don’t knowwhat you would possibly consider substantive. But if you don’t want to talk about it, it, you don’t want to talk about it.

        • Becky says:

          I probably shouldn’t be replying to tnb while driving. Look at all the typos.

        • Becky says:

          I missed answering your question. It encumbers it because I don’t know what you mean, Uche.

          Do you mean “instructive?” Do you mean “helpful?” I don’t understand how the first poem is “useful” as opposed to emotionally evocative, since you said that it is useful in its ability to evoke emotion (sympathy). I don’t understand what you’re saying.

          Save your condescension. I’m being serious. Those are actual questions.

        • Uche Ogbuji says:

          I think you completely mistake the purpose of my essay. I have no high Platonic axe to grind. I posted Greville for an example of all that, and I enjoy it in moderation, and at a distance, but I don’t let it rule my discourses. How many angels can dance on the head of a pin? Well, as many as the number of times you can divide the flight of an arrow into perfect stillness on its way to the target.

          And here, I am using one large forearm to brush all that aside. The purpose of this essay is to tell readers that it’s OK to look *by your own lights* for something that makes a poem useful to you. You do not need to justify that to angel counters or paradox theorists.

          I’m grateful to have many comments by people who seem to have understood that and appreciated it, and if I am not interested, just right now, in a denotation sparring match over the word “utility.” You may choose to characterize that as “you don’t want to think about it,” if that suits you.

        • Becky says:

          If you were as good at looking into my head as you think you are, you’d know I’m not interested in a detonation sparring match.

          There is something I’m not getting here. I told you what it was. You have made it clear it is not something you want to talk about. You said exactly as much. I don’t think I’m making anything up.

          At any rate, your post, your choice. Fair enough. God knows I’ve invoked my right.

          The purpose of this essay is to tell readers that it’s OK to look *by your own lights* for something that makes a poem useful to you.

          You could have said that 2 pithy comments ago and this all would have been over.

        • Uche Ogbuji says:

          I’m sorry I didn’t say that earlier, Becky. I honestly didn’t know that was the clarification you were looking for.

        • Becky Palapala says:

          We really have to work on your ability to tell when I’m fucking with you and not.

        • Becky Palapala says:

          That is to say, in this case, I was serious, and you thought I was fucking with you.

        • Uche Ogbuji says:

          Fair enough, but I think that addresses whether or not I claim to be able to see into your brain. Given simple experience, I’d be mad to make such a claim.

  15. dwoz says:

    Uche, what’s your take on the use of typographic devices, for example the one used in “Useful Advice?” (i.e. the line break/tab stop)

    Does that not entrap the poem on the printed page?

    • Uche Ogbuji says:

      Hi, dwoz, a quick answer to this as well. Maybe more later 🙂

      I think that a poem can be one thing with several forms, for example a poem as recited/heard is one form, and as printed/read is another. I think that there are cases where that distinction makes a real difference, but certainly not all the time. In this case,, for example, you can find “Useful Advice” printed on the Internet without any spacing and such, but I happen to know, having spoken to the author, that she prefers it as I presented it. As such my editorial consideration of her preference outweighs any question of how it affects the fundamental nature of a poem.

      No, I don’t think the poem is trapped on the page because you can recite it just fine, and enjoy it. Yes, you lose some of what the poem has on the page, but I think here is a case where that causes no trouble.

      • dwoz says:

        I’ll definitely agree that this example is one where some meaning is forsaken, but the overall meaning is not lost if the poem is rendered without the typography.

        I suppose the simple answer is that typographic devices ought to be interpreted as inflection. The question then comes up, is that something that has a canonized or at least well-understood grammar?

        Is it to be interpreted the same way you would inflections marked in sheet music? ppp vs fff, rit., staccato, legato, etc?

        • Uche Ogbuji says:

          I think if you keep on trying to make such fine distinctions, you’ll keep on falling into confounding traps. Inflection overlaps meaning, and in all cases, it depends. Is the use of a serif or sans-serif font significant? Did Dickinson’s first anthologists invent their own poems by doing away with her proliferation of dashes? How about my modernization of spelling in “A Treatise of Humane Learning”? And where do you start with Concrete and other Visual poetry, anyway?

          Typographic devices have various uses and characteristics and consequences in various situations and to various audiences, and for my part I leave it at that.

  16. angela says:

    i loved “Useful Advice.” have been there. am there now. “how’s the baby making going?” how do you answer a question like that? “yeah, we f*ked yesterday morning, and then today. . .”

    but anyway, poetry! junior year in college, i took both poetry writing and chinese, and that year my poetry was so much more interesting, so much better. i think learning a language so different from english, so visual, made my thought process quirkier and able to see unusual connections between ideas and images.

    i think that’s what poetry does for the brain, at least for me. it’s a good “remedy” to business writing or what not. but i find good essay writing is a lot like poetry. sometimes when i feel like an essay is getting away from me, getting too long and covering too much, i boil it down to a poem, and then expand from there.

  17. Uche Ogbuji says:

    Very interesting about the Poetry+Chinese connection. I wonder to what extent you think it’s the fact of the different language versus the nature of the different language versus the nature of the writing in the different language. I think of Ezra Pound, for whom studying ideography and Chinese and Japanese poetry (albeit much less literately than he liked to admit) completely changed his approach to poetry.

    For my part, I worked on my French almost entirely in order to read French poetry in the original, and that experience profoundly affected my poetical thinking and writing.

    And I’m also fascinated with your idea of using condensation to poetry as a way to marshal your writing resources. That perfectly matches my own prejudices about poetry, so glad to hear it 🙂

  18. Erika Rae says:

    I love this series so much, Uche. The usefulness of poetry is an interesting topic. To me “useful” poetry is so often what I would consider almost tongue-in-cheek styled poetry – probably because it’s hard to make a set of instructions serious if it rhymes. Maybe this is a modern assessment? Anyhow, I once wrote a poem on how to write a poem. It’s not funny by any means, but definitely not serious.


    Recipe For A Poem

    1. Write from your heart.
    2. Use poignant images summoned from deep introspection.
    3. It’s all right to make rhymes sometimes, but don’t make it too obvious.
    4. Write.
    5. In fragments.
    6. Trees are nice – especially when viewed through windows.
    7. Speak of people as if they are being moved, not moving.
    8. Include a large black bird whenever you are able.
    9. Make the bird witness nature defying its own laws (i.e. rain falls heavenward while a raven smoothes its wings).
    10. Never explain why.
    11. Search through the drawers of your nightstand for intangibles.
    12. Give geographical formations the personalities of an aging father or a lead character in a Woody Allen movie: oceans torment, mountains deliberate, hills easily get confused.
    13. Use botanical terms gratuitously and without explanation. For example, Forsythia.
    14. Children speak in incandescent prose – and Latin.
    15. The walls always hear too much.
    16. And finally, when you are at the end of your poem, take your readers to the edge of a cliff and

    • Uche Ogbuji says:

      “14. Children speak in incandescent prose – and Latin.”

      That’s why you have to be quick with a “Stulte, puer,” or a “Stulte, puella,” (or you can be vulgar and say “Stulte, Gaie,” or “Stulte, Gaia,”) when teaching them perfect poetry in Sybilline form 😀

      And so I have to ask what you think of Alexander Pope’s “Essay on Criticism.”

      • Uche Ogbuji says:

        Realize I should probably quote from “Essay on Criticism,” in the spirit of the column, and all, but I do so with some reluctance 😉

        ‘Tis hard to say, if greater Want of Skill
        Appear in Writing or in Judging ill,
        But, of the two, less dang’rous is th’ Offence,
        To tire our Patience, than mis-lead our Sense:
        Some few in that, but Numbers err in this,
        Ten Censure wrong for one who Writes amiss;
        A Fool might once himself alone expose,
        Now One in Verse makes many more in Prose.

        ‘Tis with our Judgments as our Watches, none
        Go just alike, yet each believes his own.
        In Poets as true Genius is but rare,
        True Taste as seldom is the Critick’s Share;
        Both must alike from Heav’n derive their Light,
        These born to Judge, as well as those to Write.
        Let such teach others who themselves excell,
        And censure freely who have written well.
        Authors are partial to their Wit, ’tis true,
        But are not Criticks to their Judgment too?


        True Ease in Writing comes from Art, not Chance,
        As those move easiest who have learn’d to dance,
        ‘Tis not enough no Harshness gives Offence,
        The Sound must seem an Eccho to the Sense.
        Soft is the Strain when Zephyr gently blows,
        And the smooth Stream in smoother Numbers flows;
        But when loud Surges lash the sounding Shore,
        The hoarse, rough Verse shou’d like the Torrent roar.
        When Ajax strives, some Rocks’ vast Weight to throw,
        The Line too labours, and the Words move slow;
        Not so, when swift Camilla scours the Plain,
        Flies o’er th’unbending Corn, and skims along the Main.
        Hear how Timotheus’ vary’d Lays surprize,
        And bid Alternate Passions fall and rise!
        While, at each Change, the Son of Lybian Jove
        Now burns with Glory, and then melts with Love;
        Now his fierce Eyes with sparkling Fury glow;
        Now Sighs steal out, and Tears begin to flow:
        Persians and Greeks like Turns of Nature found,
        And the World’s Victor stood subdu’d by Sound!
        The Pow’rs of Musick all our Hearts allow;
        And what Timotheus was, is Dryden now.


        Be Niggards of Advice on no Pretence;
        For the worst Avarice is that of Sense:
        With mean Complacence ne’er betray your Trust,
        Nor be so Civil as to prove Unjust;
        Fear not the Anger of the Wise to raise;
        Those best can bear Reproof, who merit Praise.

  19. Uche Ogbuji says:

    For some reason Erika’s post ricocheted through my skull, and knocked loose Polonius’s speech from Hamlet, which is a fun-house mirror contrast on “Useful Advice”

    From Act 1. Scene III

    Yet here, Laertes! aboard, aboard, for shame!
    The wind sits in the shoulder of your sail,
    And you are stay’d for. There; my blessing with thee!
    And these few precepts in thy memory
    See thou character. Give thy thoughts no tongue,
    Nor any unproportioned thought his act.
    Be thou familiar, but by no means vulgar.
    Those friends thou hast, and their adoption tried,
    Grapple them to thy soul with hoops of steel;
    But do not dull thy palm with entertainment
    Of each new-hatch’d, unfledged comrade. Beware
    Of entrance to a quarrel, but being in,
    Bear’t that the opposed may beware of thee.
    Give every man thy ear, but few thy voice;
    Take each man’s censure, but reserve thy judgment.
    Costly thy habit as thy purse can buy,
    But not express’d in fancy; rich, not gaudy;
    For the apparel oft proclaims the man,
    And they in France of the best rank and station
    Are of a most select and generous chief in that.
    Neither a borrower nor a lender be;
    For loan oft loses both itself and friend,
    And borrowing dulls the edge of husbandry.
    This above all: to thine ownself be true,
    And it must follow, as the night the day,
    Thou canst not then be false to any man.
    Farewell: my blessing season this in thee!

  20. Simon Smithson says:

    Uche! I love this series. As a very definite nervous explorer of poetry, I can say it’s very helpful.

    I hadn’t thought much of the utility of poetry before. I’ll have to chew on the concept for a little while – although I think it was World War 2 where British soldiers where given mission objectives in rhyme, making it easier to remember their orders when they were on the ground.

    Speaking of: this is one that always viscerally (no pun intended) spoke to me:

    The Kiss
    Siegfried Sassoon

    To these I turn, in these I trust;
    Brother Lead and Sister Steel.
    To his blind power I make appeal;
    I guard her beauty clean from rust.

    He spins and burns and loves the air,
    And splits a skull to win my praise;
    But up the nobly marching days
    She glitters naked, cold and fair.

    Sweet Sister, grant your soldier this;
    That in good fury he may feel
    The body where he sets his heel
    Quail from your downward darting kiss.

    But, of course, my all-time favourite is Yeats’s The Second Coming, although I always liked An Irish Airman, too. I hate saying it (I need to take your instruction), because to say it is almost to say ‘Yeah, I like grunge. Well… just Nirvana.’

    • Uche Ogbuji says:

      Oh Sassoon is definitely one of the most under-appreciated 20th century poets, at least outside the circle of British public school old boys. Good pick, too.

      And the mission objectives in rhyme is a brilliant example of the usefulness, more of doggerel than of poetry, but who’s counting? 😉

      “An Irish Airman” is one of my favorites to recite to myself when going through shit, so I’m certainly not about to give you a hard time. For helping people salve themselves by projecting their own emotions, Yeats is hard to beat. Very, very useful.

  21. kristen says:

    Uche, thanks for this. What a service.

    “You will find what you love eventually, because poetry in its essence is as deep within us as our desire to communicate”: well said, and a good rejoinder to the boatload of recent stories about how poetry is dead/dying. I mean, wth is that about? Just as there’s no singular means of expressing oneself in fiction–or any other kindof writing–there’s no one way to write and read poetry. Something for everyone willing to give it a try. Ugh. Such blase/blanket statements are obnoxious, senseless, pointless.

    Also, re: “I’ve found that the more poetry I have coursing through my veins, the faster I write, the less I suffer writer’s block, and the more readily I marshal all the latent intellectual resources at my disposal”–yes! The more I read and experiment w/ writing poetry myself, the more I find a certain meter/music accompanying my reading/writing/thinking processes–it’s all rather stunning.

    Oh, language! Such beauty.

    Also, thoughts on the newly minted poet laureate? Love this sparse little number of his: http://www.poetryfoundation.org/archive/poem.html?id=18094.


    • Uche Ogbuji says:

      That’s a gorgeous koan by Merwin. He was on Fresh air a few days ago. As deserving an appointment as any, for sure.

      And as you say I do so hate it when people come up with such arbitrary fictions of genre and then use those to advance petty generalizations. I’m certainly grateful that response to this column are but one demonstration of how well poetry thrives.

      Language is an utter, overwhelming glory. It gives me so much richness. Such pleasure.

  22. Uche Ogbuji says:

    I wanted to pass on a comment I received in e-mail from Timothy Steele.

    Reading your observations the didactic element in art reminded of some remarks the art historian Edgar Wind once made on the subject as it relates to painting. He discusses Baudelaire’s essay “Philosophical Art” and how Baudelaire began from the proposition that true art is aesthetic, not didactic, but revised his opinion on examining the topic and thinking more deeply about it. Wind says,

    “[I]t is a little perplexing to be told [by Baudelaire] first that great ideas produce bad painting, and then to learn on the same authority that great painting rests on great ideas. But there is no need to choose between these two propositions, for we may find that both are true if they are carefully qualified. The pressure of thought upon art does not follow a simple and uniform law. Great ideas have a way of either quickening or clogging the spirit of a painter, with the result that the sort of intellectual excitement which proved the undoing of Chevanard or Kaulbach was the force that made Raphael rise to his greatest height in the painting of The School of Athens.”

    Edgar Wind, Art and Anarchy, 3rd ed. (Evanston: Northwestern Univ. Press, 1985), p. 49

    And Wind adds, “Surely the assumption that rational discourse [or a didactic objective] and art are incompatible is as false as to suppose that they are identical.” As you well note, a lot of modern and contemporary literary criticism is very good at explaining the deficiencies of poor didactic poetry, but is very inadequate at accounting for the triumphs of great didactic poetry like that of Sophocles, Virgil, or Milton.

  23. sheree says:

    Pst, saw this today and thought of you: http://www.today.az/news/entertainment/70414.html

    • sheree says:

      Well I fecked that link up sorry bout that.

      Check out: “Gem Karvani” (Caravan Of Sorrow) By Azebaijani National Poet: Salim Sinedefter.

      • Uche Ogbuji says:

        No worries, Sheree. I fixed your comment 🙂

        Seems hard to find anything about the book more than copies of the same announcement. I’ll keep my eyes open. Thanks.

  24. […] Along the way I also put to use something I claimed in my article “Poetry for the Nervous, Vol 2: What’s useful?” […]

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