Friday, January 31, 2020

Wild Fridays #4: Moonlight Musings


More of a vent than a musing, this time: 

Potted Homilies

‘I’m so sick of homilies masquerading as poetry!’ I said to my friend as we browsed in a bookshop recently.

[Whilst a homily is usually thought of as having religious connotations, as in a sermon ... not necessarily. The most succinct and also general definition I can find is the Cambridge Dictionary’s: ‘A piece of spoken or written advice about how someone should behave.’]

And why should poetry not moralise or advise? No reason at all, so long as it does so in poetry! What I suddenly noticed that I’m very tired of is when the precepts are set as verse – and sold in whole books of! – but are just prosy statements chopped up into lines and stanzas. 

I didn’t think it was going to bug me so much that I’d want to vent about it here, so I didn’t save any examples of what I mean. But just think of some old platitude and you’ll get the idea. (‘Home is where the heart is.’ ‘It never rains but it pours.’) And then chop it into lines which ignore any poetic possibilities for the pauses. E.g. (making it up on the spot):
Never step / into the same / river twice.
If she / doesn’t love you / find someone / who does.
Don’t look / over / your shoulder.

(Hmmm, didn’t require much effort, I must say, to come up with those little gems.)

On the shelves I was looking at were volumes of this kind of thing in amongst the likes of Marianne Moore, Pablo Neruda, Frank O’Hara, Denise Levertov, Audre Lorde....

‘Quick, look at this. Just the first verse,’ I said to my friend, thrusting a page of Marianne Moore under her nose. We both gasped with relief at how good it was.  Wonderful language – creating wonderful pictures in our heads and tinglings in our spines!

We became reluctant to open volumes by contemporaries whose names we didn’t know! But I’m glad to say we did find some real poetry amongst them too.

So how did those other things get to be on the same shelves? And how did they even get published? I was so quick to put them back on the shelves, I didn’t look to see who the publishers were. The books were very nicely produced though, very professional-looking. Perhaps the publishers, whoever they are, take these writers on because they know such books will sell – to some non-discerning buyers.

Yet why not put them in the Self Help section instead? Perhaps because the ideas are not very original, and they wouldn’t sell unless dressed up as verse? Labelled poetry, it seems, they do sell. Otherwise they wouldn’t keep being published, you’d think. I actually saw a series by one author, which suggests that people must even be willing to buy successive volumes.


Digital too

On Instagram a few weeks ago I saw some ads for a new young woman poet who was said to be taking Instagram by storm, posting micropoetry that everyone was going crazy for. I watched her interviewed on YouTube. She was full of confidence, and the belief she’s providing a service. Well maybe she is, and good luck to her – only, PLEASE, Ms X, don’t call your little bites of potted precepts poetry! (I looked her up. I read them. They just aren’t.)

It’s doubly sad when there is so much good poetry on Instagram – much of it written by you, dear readers. Where are our hordes of admirers, as opposed to the discerning few?

Is it, perhaps, the nature of real poetry that it doesn't appeal to the lowest common denominator?


I know that members of this community quite often write in ways meant to be uplifting, or reassuring, or sharing what spiritual insights or pieces of wisdom we may have acquired. Some of us like to express particular religious points of view or share our personal epiphanies. None of that is what I’m objecting to. We all write poetry! OK, some of us also write stories some of the time – and they too are thoughtfully crafted. In verse or prose, we do our preaching (when/if we do) with some elegance and wit.

Surely, if a message is important, it deserves to be said as well as one can. Even if it’s not deeply significant but instead light-hearted and ephemeral, I think half the fun is in making something which readers will enjoy.

Neither am I talking about beginner poets who are still learning their craft, or refining it. We’ve all been there. (Perhaps we always are.) In a community like this, we see each other develop as we keep on writing. The thing is, we do develop; we do care about the words, about the way we say things. We’ve understood that if what we say matters, how we say it is vital for it to reach and move people.

I’m not referring to matters of style, either. Again, this community is a fine example of how many different styles and approaches are encompassed in contemporary poetry. We have Robin (Old Egg)’s apparently simple ditties of love and romance, meticulously yet unobtrusively crafted; Susie’s sharply succinct word-plays; Rajani’s philosophical questionings couched in superb language and apt metaphors; Sanaa’s lush sensuality and delight in the sumptuous music of words; Kim’s and Joel’s different and equally enthralling recreations of the natural world in their personal environments.... We have people using all manner of forms and techniques. When we write our prose stories, too, we give attention to the way we write them. (I was recently told that one of mine was ‘melodious’. I was thrilled – having paid much attention to its sound and rhythm.)

Why do readers keep accepting that other stuff? It’s not even that it’s bad advice, as a rule. On the contrary, most of it reiterates current insights into behaviour, which have become popular because they do contain some truth (if little depth). Fine – but why do publishers, readers, and the authors themselves accept it as poetry?

The Instagram sensation makes her posts look pretty with flowers and fancy calligraphy, but that doesn’t disguise the banality of her words. Yet people must be lapping them up. Is it the greeting card school of poetry? No – such verses at least rhyme and have metre. Perhaps it is BECAUSE they don't require much from the reader, who can then move rapidly to the next momentary distraction from life.

Or has nothing really changed?  Was it ever thus? Is it simply that we never get to see the bad poetry of earlier eras because it hasn’t lasted?

Hard to imagine, isn’t it (for us) that someone would crave fame as a poet, with so little understanding of the necessary work required? Even harder to imagine they’d want to churn out so-called poems with none of the qualities of poetry! But it seems the poetasters have always been around.

['Poetaster' is an old word, invented for a reason. ‘A derogatory term applied to bad or inferior poets. Specifically, poetaster has implications of unwarranted pretensions to artistic value. The word was coined in Latin by Erasmus in 1521.’ – Wikipedia.]

It’s alarming to think the words of the current ones may last a lot longer, due to being digitally preserved!

This whole issue was annoying me so much that I needed to let off steam. Thanks for your indulgence! But now what? (I might even say, ‘So what?’) We can’t legislate against bad taste, or even ignorance.

The only thing we can do, I suppose, is continue to write our own words as well as we possibly can, and share them as widely as we may. E.g. blogging; spoken word performances; videos; journals and anthologies, digital or paper ... yes, all the things we already do. Hopefully the market for good poetry, even if smaller, will last longer.

If you have any suggestions –
or just opinions – I’d love you to share your thoughts. Please use the comments.)

Material shared in this post is presented for study and review. Poems, photos, and other writings and images remain the property of the copyright owners, usually the authors. The moon photo is my own. The bookshelf photo is a free download from Pixabay, in the Public Domain (didn't think to take any of my own in the bookshop).


  1. Thanks so much for the mention, Rosemary. And I am smiling. Because I've ranted about this for long and arrived at pretty much the same conclusions. We just have to keep doing our thing and hopefully the principles of natural selection will apply and eventually insta poetry and insta poets will become extinct. Poetry is supposed to be at a new high overall but I'll be surprised if I can find one new reader outside the echo chamber of poets and poet-bloggers! Am so glad you wrote this!

  2. I'm with you and Rajani, Rosemary. One thing that came to mind: I wonder if the readers of those books are the kind of readers who used to enjoy reading almanacs, books with an adage for every day of the year, to lighten up the important dates, astronomical data, tide tables and other information. Or are they people who choose homilies and mottoes to use in presentations at work?

    1. Just from the non-writers I meet (hardly a perfect or large enough sample) the older generation thinks poems must be like the classics - simple, short and rhyming - and the younger folks need them to fit into a tweet or instagram post just enough for one fleeting feel-good moment.

    2. @Kim: Well there's no doubt the adages and mottoes are popular. (I like some of them myself, when they're not pretending to be anything but what they are, and have been known to share a few.)

      @Thotpurge: Ha ha, good points about the older and younger non-writers. Ah well, 'once more into the breach...'

  3. Goodness this one is on fire!💝 I wholeheartedly agree with you, Rosemary. It is due to these poetasters that people who have little to no knowledge of Poetry fail to distinguish what is good and what is less. I too have agonized over this issue for a long time. I mean oh my god the kind of stuff that they put out there and label it as Poetry makes me seethe!

    It's very common to witness this on Instagram with their flowery and bright posts with captions. What's more is that people actually like them! Sing praises of them!

    But like you mentioned the only thing we can do is continue to write our words and share them as widely as possible. Who knows maybe one day these poetasters will cease to exist.

    Also, thank you so much for mentioning me! It's a huge honor to be recognized as a decent Poet. Yayy!💝

    1. It occurs to me, a little belatedly, that the fact that Moore, Neruda, etc. etc. were on those shelves too, having lasted a very long time and obviously still selling, is cause for rejoicing. The good stuff DOES last! It even becomes (relatively) popular.

  4. All I can say is, "I wish I'd written this." Thank you for speaking out on an issue that I, too continue to agonize about.🙏🏽

    1. Thank you, that makes me glad I wrote it! I always wonder, about each of my 'Moonlight Musings', whether it will be of any interest. So far, so good (smile). It's good to know that this one, too, did strike a chord.

  5. Ouch and oh dear! I guess my Sunday Muse #92, for example, would be termed a homily, and I may tiptoe on the skirts of the poetasters. Mea culpa. I'm well aware my folksy little rhymes don't measure up with some of the profundity I see. Heaven help me, I'm one of the "older" ones who tend to draw an archaic line between poetry and prose....a habit I'm trying to overcome. I only know I enjoy the variety of skill levels and styles I find here, and the community of writers who share my love for words. Each has something to offer and each offers a lesson to be learned.

    1. Nonsense, Bev; don't sell yourself so short! Your writing is always a delight to read, and you obviously put thought and care into it. I think 'love for words' is the key, and you do have that. Those others – I don't know, they don't seem to.

    2. Bev, your Sunday Muse #92 (which I loved) is not even close to an example of what Rosemary is talking about. At least, I don't think so. First of all, the line breaks in that poem add a whole lot to what it's trying to say. Like Rosemary said before, she wasn't suggesting that we shouldn't put ourselves and some of our beliefs in our poetry (if that's the case, you and I will keep each other company, lol). But I've seen what she speaks of, the taking of seemingly random lines (worse yet, old axioms) and (without changing them much) chopping them into bits and calling the bits lines in a poem. I've never seen you do that. In fact, I've always found your poetry to be witty and your line breaks on point.

  6. Ah Rosemary...I totally agree with you while fearing I fall into the not poetry thing. I love me a good American Sentence though. I am afraid I am a lover of T.S.Eliot as well. At least I don't post on Instagram...either "poems" or pics of food. I love you dearly dear and hope that while I am included in this, you still like me. ♥️

    1. I can’t believe this! First Bev and now you! I wouldn’t have posted this if I’d thought anyone would think it applied to them. I promise it doesn’t. How could you even think so? You’re such a beautiful writer! And of course you write poetry ... as well as excellent prose.

      I also like Eliot and American Sentences, among other things.

      Don’t worry, we are twins forever. I just hope you still like me even though I do (lately) post on Instagram and even, sometimes, pictures of food, LOL.

    2. Toni, what nonsense! If anything, you tend to walk the traditional road of poetry even when the form is not exactly traditional (like in the case of American Sentence).

  7. To be mentioned is an honor as I don't consider myself of much note. (It's not a lack of confidence as much as I'm self-critical.) Thank you, Rosemary.

    I'm the new "kid" here, having only started contributing a few short months ago but I've felt welcomed from the start. With everyone's feedback and kind words in some of the comments of my posts, other ideas have germinated. Like my first haiku since grade school earlier this week. I wouldn't have written that if it wasn't for the people in this community.

    I've read some very good works here at Poets and Storytellers and Poets United that I wouldn't have otherwise enjoyed if I was reading in the shade of a tree at the farm (while on a break, of course - I have work to do.) I have to agree with many here that some works passed off as poetry just doesn't cut it for me. I call it beatnik poetry. It's the banana that was taped to a wall to be passed off as art. It's a king-sized box of emptiness.

    Yes, I hold close to Longfellow, Yeats, Byron, etc. but I'm coming around to newer works but my favorites right now are here :) Yesterday, I came across a collection of Mennonite poetry in a used book store. Because of this community we share, I'm drawn to search through the poetry section more seriously.

    As my wife told me tonight, I'm still trying to find my voice and I have much more to share. Some of which doesn't fit the theme of the tree farm or the word count is too long for the prompts. They will be shared someday because I believe I have found a home here among friends. Your encouragement has added fuel to the small ember that I carried and I hope my words become better as our journey progresses.

    Again, thank you, Rosemary, for mentioning me among some of the veterans in this community.

    1. We love it that you're getting so much out of being here – and it's the same for all of us. (Some are not so 'veteran' as all that in terms of our membership here.) Thanks for sharing all this. That collection of Mennonite poetry must be fascinating! You certainly do feel very much part of this community already, and I look forward to reading whatever you write. (Perhaps the longer stories might be done in instalments? After all, if it was good enough for Dickens....)

  8. it is like how we don't understand those people that elects a racist, narcissist and liar into office.

    yes, i am also pissed off by those by those trying to pass off homilies as poetry. worse still, if they have a political agenda. (by the way, i loved political poems, if they have the energy and electricity and anger in them).
    i am not so critical in the past, but perhaps i am feeling the years.

    there are some really good poetry on instagram and tumblr. i have an instagram account too, and i post some of my short poetry (which you wouldn't find in my main blog) and photos. yes, shots of food too. 😁

    Good poetry will last, if there is any consolation.

    1. Oh goody, found you on Instagram. I enjoyed all your micropoems, food pics, etc.

      Ah yes, energy, electricity and anger are great qualities in political poetry! But I don't seem to have such fire in my belly any more, to write them as I once did. I think, these days, the state of the world looks to be in the 'too hard' basket. Meanwhile, we live and write....

  9. As you, my dear Rosemary (and anyone who has read me for a while) might've noticed, I do enjoy micro-writings... both poetry and stories. It's one of the reasons why I love the cherita form so much, a feels like a wonderful mix of poetry and storytelling in micro-form. And I completely understand your outrage, when it comes to certain word ventures that are labeled poetry. I share those feelings. I get twitchy when I read things like,

    His eyes were
    the color
    of an

    I just made that up, but I've seen a lot like it. I mean, the concept can be even be turned into a poem, but too many times if seems like whoever is doing the writing has no feel for tone or sound or imagery or structure... or any of the wonderful things that give shape to poems and stories.

    Yes, there are reasons to be twitchy when it comes to micro-prose, too, especially around social media platforms. Not so long ago, I made a writing enemy. This person asked me to critique a micro-story for them. When I finished, I let them know that although the premise was sound, the execution of it didn't result in a story: "This is a fragment," I said. "There is no conflict, the characters don't grow, and nothing really happens. But I really love the detailed descriptions and (insert topic here)."

    As you can imagine, my report wasn't well received. I was told that "a writer is the only one who can say if a story is a story". No, that didn't make sense to me either.

    Like you suggest in this post, different styles and different choice of topics enrich the world of words. At the same time, we need to have some sort of consensus. And if what we are doing doesn't fall under any category, it might help to let our readers know that we are experimenting.

    This was a really interesting one, Rosemary. And I second Khaya's pronouncement.

    1. Ha ha, no you can't do it, Magaly – commit bad poetry, I mean. Your intended example is such a great simile, it redeems itself despite the jumpy line breaks.

      After all, I think 'the test of time' is the decider. But we won't be around to know what posterity says of us – if anything .... and if there will even be any posterity. (Oh well, looks like Eliot got it wrong. Maybe we end with a bang after all; or with Biblical fire, flood, pestilence....) Oops, sorry, got distracted. What was I saying? Ah yes: that it won't much matter which of us will be remembered or for how long, as that is for the future to decide. Meanwhile, writing as well as we can, in the hope of touching others, is also the best thing we (poets-not-poetasters) can do for our own satisfaction.

  10. I know I've seen many examples on Instagram the poetic equivalent of those ubiquitously bland "Live, Laugh, Love" signs you find in Hallmark stores. The worst that I can say about them is how forgettable many of them are, so much so I couldn't give you a good example from memory, although I know I see them daily. Still, someone must appreciate them as they are so popular. I don't know if it's just a generational thing with me.

    1. I hope it's not a generational thing! – if that means the younger generation is universally indiscriminate.

  11. I enjoyed reading your post and the discussion, Rosemary. Hopefully I never write poetry like that! 😅

    1. I don't see much danger of that! I'm sure you have far too much awareness.


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