The one poetry fundamental that poets always forget and need the most work on

Poetry, like any other sport, has fundamentals. You wanna be a competitor, you gotta get the fundamentals down. Otherwise you gonna have no game. But for some reason poets always forget about this one. Yet, it’s so important, that not having it is equivalent to boxing with a glass jaw. And so many poets do not have it and do not take the time to train it. And it keeps them in the amateur division.

What fundamental am I talking about? That poetry uses lines? Nah, they get that, more or less, eventually. That word choice matters, that poets ought to read other poets, that revision is a good thing? That poetry ought to move us through emotions and experiences by using imagery, and not hit us over the head with statements? That rhyming well is hard, and that being witty is harder? I could go on. I get a lot of fresh-faced poets in college who resist all these things, especially a good number of millennials who think I don’t know nothin’. Maybe ’cause I’m “old,” and therefore suspect, or maybe because the whole enterprise of learning and practicing goes against instant-gratification, one-click get-to-the-goal spontaneity.

Hey, but this post isn’t about millennials, it’s about teaching people who are interested in learning, no matter what cohort they belong to. There’s still plenty of those. The rest, can’t teach em, so not part of this conversation.

All those fundamentals I mentioned above, there’ll be time for those in other posts. But they aren’t the most important one that poets always forget about and need the most work on, because it’s the hardest one. It’s this one:

Poetry is Music

Far as I’m concerned, if you want to be a contender in the poetry world you have to know this-you have to be able to put this into practice-perhaps after painstaking revision. Poetry. Is. Music.

And although there is amazingly good slam poetry and other live performance poetry-literally people who can kick my ass in their amazing recitation style and the excellent words that they build upon, I do see the incorrect attitude that if you say any cliché with emphasis and rhythm you are now a poetry big-shot and a poetry musician. No, sorry. That’s not what it is – “poetry is music” means —

–that poetry is not:

A lyric accompanied by music – nope

A bunch of statements with a repetitive monotonous rhythm – nope

Something that you perform well despite the lack of its inner music – nope

It’s not in the scaffolding around the poem. It is that—

above all, the poem itself, as constructed on the page, sliding off the tongue of the reader, or speaking directly inside the mind of the reader, is the performance. I mean that the poem itself is the music, said music also being the very reason for its existence.  I’m not saying that the good poem “has musicality,” or “has lyrical qualities.” I’m saying that poetry is music.

Or to put it another way, that the lyric poem that was accompanied by the lyre in ancient Greek times has now become the lyre. Poetry has become the instrument that plays itself.

But how do you teach that fundamental?

It sure would help if in the rush to train future scientists schools didn’t throw out training future musicians. A passing acquaintance with some musical instrument or choir and some ideas of musicality such as the arch of melody, breath, rest, cadence, not to mention dynamics and phrasing would be useful. So, performance values and ear training, you see.

It’s not just a simile to compare language to music. Language is music and that’s no metaphor.

But what do you do to educate a giant cohort within a generation that has tin ears, having had no basic musical training whatsoever, into the endless melodic possibilities of English? That’s the subject for another post on this fundamental. My objective here was to get this most difficult concept of all to learn about poetry out in the open. I think this requires an entire course. I’m not sure one semester is even long enough. I think it takes more than a year to train the ear. But we don’t have that luxury. In the meantime, I have some ideas. But until the next post, I’m open to suggestions.

you can still read my old columns on The Autochannel

I own a 2007 Honda Fit Sport –

Michael’s 2007 Honda Fit Sport in better looking days.

an amazing little car that gets great mileage. I used to write a column about this model, called “A More Perfect Fit” for The AutoChannel when it was newer. I was really surprised when I did a google search today on mileage to discover that my old columns were still up there – so enjoy!

This column has links to the others: “Toward a More Perfect Mileage”

life is poetry with breakfast spaghetti on a cold morning – try it!

After we all took the dogs up the road to the top of the hill and back the other morning it was time to warm up with some hot coffee for the parents, and hot cocoa and oatmeal for the kid. As we slowly thawed out from freezing temperatures and light snow flurries my thoughts turned to one of my favorite breakfasts when I used to visit my mom and stepdad in their house in the Pennsylvania Poconos: breakfast spaghetti.

As usual when talking to the kid, my retelling turned into part reminiscence and part teaching.

Everyone in the family loves this dish, which is wonderful on a cold morning, easy to prepare and easy on your budget. The ingredients for breakfast spaghetti are simple:

  1. Leftover pasta
  2. Minced garlic cloves, one or two depending on your garlic-philia
  3. Plenty of olive oil
  4. 1-2 beaten eggs
  5. Salt and pepper to taste, and other herbs as desired, for example, oregano or basil.

In a well-oiled skillet heated to low-medium, sauté the garlic until soft but not brown. This will only take a minute or so. Turn up the heat to medium and stir in the leftover pasta to coat with olive oil. Continue stirring frequently as the pasta heats up. Pour in the beaten eggs and mix in gently until the eggs are just firm. Finally, season to taste and serve immediately.

To me this dish and the dinner variation below are a culinary equivalent to lyric poetry: brief, simple, unadorned, made out of common ingredients, and beautiful.

For the dinner variation, a classic pasta entrée that only uses olive oil as a sauce, substitute a can of well-drained and washed chickpeas for the eggs. You can also use dried chickpeas that you have prepared first, which taste much better. I have my trustworthy Fagor pressure cooker for this. But using canned chickpeas keeps the virtue of a rapidly prepared and delicious simple meal.

It never hurts to enhance the dish by also sautéing some fresh, coarsely chopped tomatoes and spinach or the greens of your choice.

Sprinkle with freshly grated Parmesan cheese and serve with a simple mixed-greens salad dressed with homemade balsamic vinaigrette, another elegant and simple culinary treat. Enjoy with a nice wine. This would be a white-wine dish if you were a wine snob. Since there’s nothing snobby in the origins of this meal, go ahead and drink confidently from any red wine you want. Red wine from a box will make the perfect anti-snobbery statement. Make sure to prominently display the box as the centerpiece.

My stepfather Joe used to whip this up on a cold morning. A first generation American of Italian descent, Joe and his brothers and sisters lived through the depression by eating pasta their mother prepared. Cheap and plentiful, easy to make from scratch, and able to be prepared with endless variations, pasta was the survival food for an entire generation of poor Italian immigrants and anyone else lucky enough to share their tables before pasta became a thing for the rest of America.

If you’ve never tasted fresh pasta, and by that I mean home-made with semolina flour and not the upscale fresh pasta imprisoned in plastic in a supermarket refrigerator, you’ve never really tasted food that is the equivalent of a bel canto aria, of a poem. Linguine is easy to make – I urge you to look up a recipe and give it a try. Maybe I’ll make a future post on it.

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