2014 Poetry Essay for University of Pennsylvania Modern Poetry Course

Final ModPo Poetry Essay: Butchering Byron:  A Bernadette Mayer Experiment (Poetry)

By: V.C. McCabe

My final essay for poetry class, in which we were assigned to use one of Bernadette Mayer’s proposed writing experiments on a poem of our choice. I chose Byron…

She Walks in Beauty” by Lord Byron (original)

She walks in beauty, like the night
   Of cloudless climes and starry skies;
And all that’s best of dark and bright
   Meet in her aspect and her eyes;
Thus mellowed to that tender light
   Which heaven to gaudy day denies.

One shade the more, one ray the less,
   Had half impaired the nameless grace
Which waves in every raven tress,
   Or softly lightens o’er her face;
Where thoughts serenely sweet express,
   How pure, how dear their dwelling-place.

And on that cheek, and o’er that brow,
   So soft, so calm, yet eloquent,
The smiles that win, the tints that glow,
   But tell of days in goodness spent,
A mind at peace with all below,
   A heart whose love is innocent!

She Walks in Beauty” by Lord Byron(sans verbs)

She in beauty, like the night
   Of cloudless climes and starry skies;
And all that best of dark and bright
   in her aspect and her eyes;
Thus to that tender light
   Which heaven to gaudy day

One shade the more, one ray the less,
   half the nameless grace
Which in every raven tress,
   Or softly o’er her face;
Where thoughts serenely sweet
   How pure, how dear their dwelling-place.

And on that cheek, and o’er that brow,
   So soft, so calm, yet eloquent,
The smiles that, the tints that
   But of days in goodness
A mind at peace with all below,
   A heart whose love innocent!

Utilizing Bernadette Mayer’s writing experiment calling for the systematic elimination of certain words or phrases, I have attempted to remove all of the verbs from the poem “She Walks in Beauty” by Lord Byron.

This proved to be a somewhat tricky task since, like most great poets, Byron was fond of using and manipulating idioms and adverbs to give a poem a sense of movement rather than relying on strict, traditional verbs.

Removing only literal, single-word verbs was an interesting experiment, as it not only challenged my concept of grammar within the framework of any poem but made me appreciate the evocative language in this particular poem.

However, the resulting poem of this procedure does not seem to enhance or even really change the original poem, it merely stilts and stifles the beauty of Byron’s naturally inspired language.

For example, “She” no longer “walks in beauty,” but simply “in beauty.” Without going beyond Mayer’s subtracting experiment to replace “walk” with another verb (such as “resides” or “lives”) or replace the pronoun “in” with “is,” the first line posseses neither the depth necessary to give it any new meaning nor the eloquence to have even a fraction of the original line’s emotional impact.

Thus this poetic exercise reinforced my opinion of this week’s lesson – that playing with language in such restricted forms may be a fun process to engage in as a writer, but the results aren’t quite as captivating for a reader as more personal, less restricted forms of poetry.

Despite the class debates over our vastly differing opinions, for me it’s not the question of what is or isn’t art  — that’s entirely subjective to each artist and their respective audience — or the merits of a particular poetic form, but the forcing of any poetic form (whether modern forms like mesostics or traditional forms like iambic pentameter) at the expense of personal artistic expression especially by extraordinarily talented poets. A point I think is well illustrated in my above Mayer-inspired butchering of Byron’s exquisite poetry.

It’s not that I don’t get or even appreciate what poets like Cage and Mayer were trying to do with such experiments. I know every generation tries to rebel and free themselves from the traditions of previous generations, especially within the arts. But sometimes it feels like that chasing of liberty in regards to form sacrifices the heights an artist may be capable of reaching if they just expressed their own vision rather than focusing so much on breaking free of visions of the past. Such a blind devotion to nonconformity can be a kind of conformity itself, as there’s more of a restraint of emotion and denial of natural inspiration required.

I feel the same about pop and abstract art, I understand and respect the why’s and how’s behind them, but Warhol’s soup cans and Pollock’s paint splatters will never evoke as much emotion from me as Van Gogh’s Starry Night, Hopper’s New York Movie or Waterhouse’s The Lady of Shallott. Likewise these “free of ego” poetry experiments fail to grab my attention and heart like classic poetry or modern poetry that is more emotionally inspired. Give me Sharon Olds, Louise Glück, Saul Williams or Crystal Good over Cage and Mayer any day.

All of the poets we’ve considered in this course so far – from Dickinson to Ginsberg – were able to defy the poetic conventions of their time without losing their own distinctive voices. And how sad it would’ve been if those great, utterly human voices had been suppressed simply for the sake of some rigid, albeit rebelliously creative, form. So while I respect the concept and practice of such poetic procedure, I still feel there’s far more meaning to be found in a poet’s own personal (as they say, “warts and all”) expression.

As a writer, this experiment did make me appreciate the motivation and the process a little more. There’s certainly value in thinking outside our own poetic boxes…just as long as it doesn’t blind us to the wonders within.

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