The monthly Classic Poem series at Slate, conducted by Robert Pinsky, has resumed. The most recent discussion posted on March 26, 2015 is of two translations, one by Langston Hughes and one by J.V. Cunningham.”

Slate maintains an archive of the Classic Poem discussions reaching back for years.

The free-standing, blog-style version that has been presented here for about a year as the Poetry Forum will remain available as an archive. (List of those eleven discussions below).

As always, the series is a forum, and emphatically invites discussion with, and among, readers.



Rhetoric That Is Not Rhetoric: Robert Hayden’s “Frederick Douglass”

A poetic triumph of rhetoric against rhetoric.

Douglass image

 Dec 3, 2014

The Word “Dear” on the Upper Verge

An enduring, brilliant image for loss, including loss of memory and loss of love, on a blank page.

Landor reading Homer in Greek for one last time, in his mid-eighties, sketched by his friend William Wetmore Story

July 30, 2014

The Projection of Meaning

Two trashy protagonists — actual trash — imbued with feeling and meaning by the force of imagination.


July 30, 2014

The Art of Noticing

A poet deploys her acute powers of observation to evoke the chemo-induced gaps and peculiarities in her search for a word.

Chemeleon Hours

Sept 17, 2014

Fine Knacks, Painted Things: John Dowland and Michael Drayton

The intricate, elaborate pursuit of “plainness,” in courtship and poetry.


Mar 26, 2014

The Sweetest Dream that Labor Knows: Williams and Frost

How the facts of work demonstrate the similarities between Robert Frost and William Carlos Williams.


Feb 12, 2014

Epigrams and Images: Dickinson, Pound, and Landor

Do conventional categories like “Imagism” and “Epigram” blur the nature of actual poems?

ImageEpigram 2

Jan 09, 2014

“The Man of Double Deed,” Anonymous

Method and wildness, fundamental energies of poetry, in a great anonymous work.

 Dec 04, 2013

Poe’s “Fairy-Land” and Bishop’s “Man-Moth”

Did Egar Allan Poe’s best poem, according to Elizabeth Bishop, inspire one of hers?

Oct 23, 2013

“Nick and the Candlestick,” Sylvia Plath

What the voice of a Jamaican immigrant demonstrates about Plath’s poem.

Sylvia Plath

Sep 25, 2013

“Women,” Louise Bogan

The mill-worker’s daughter who became poetry editor and reviewer for The New Yorker writes twenty lines of defiant irony.


Sep 18, 2013


Rhetoric That Is Not Rhetoric: Robert Hayden’s “Frederick Douglass”

Douglass image

Poetry is not the same as mere eloquence or high language. That’s a truism. The stock modernist examples demonstrating it include William Carlos Williams’ “This is just to say.” In a related way, Marianne Moore clearly enjoys saying, in the first line of her “Poetry,” “there are things that are important beyond all this fiddle.” Her double “are” in that sentence is a kind of exaggerated flatness, plainness to the point of parody.

Pre-modernist examples of plainness might include Ben Jonson’s “To Heaven,” which proceeds not by vivid images or resounding phrases but by an exquisitely boiled-down moral acuity, as in the opening questions:

Good and great God, can I not think of Thee
But it must, straight my melancholy be?
Is it interpreted in me disease,
That, weary of my sins, I wish for ease?

Jonson defines this considerable complexity in just two couplets: thirty-two words.

A post-modern example—I think written before the term “post-modern” emerged—might be John Ashbery’s “The Instruction Manual,” which follows its title with a deadpan beginning;

As I sit looking out of a window of the building
I wish I did not have to write the instruction manual on the uses of a new metal.

In another poem, his “Paradoxes and Oxymorons,” Ashbery comically borrows the language of an earnest academic description: “This poem is concerned with language on a very plain level.” The amused limpness of “on a very plain level” reminds me of Moore smiling as she borrows the language of a philistine impatient with “all this fiddle.”

These examples, to me, all suggest that the matter of being plain or fancy, direct or rhetorical, is complicated. It has a lot to do with expectation. For example, the unforgettable conclusion of Robert Hayden’s “Those Winter Sundays” (I once took part in a television segment—revived for my MOOC—on this poem, in various voices):

What did I know, what did I know
Of love’s austere and lonely offices?

The word “offices” is cold, but is it plain? Is the repeated “What did I know” rhetorical, like a phrase in a speech, or direct, like a phrase one might mutter to oneself? I think it is a matter of degree, as irony in these phrases I’ve quoted from Moore and Ashbery is (in quite different ways for each poet) a matter of degree and of expectation.

Here is another poem by Hayden, his tribute to Frederick Douglass. Here, Hayden quite explicitly presents the terms “rhetoric” and “gaudy mumbo jumbo.” At the same time, he takes a kind of almost-conventional approach to his subject, with a kind of paradoxical daring. (Another poem that has this kind of audacious directness, in my view, is Czeslaw Milosz’s “Incantation,” in which different readers hear different degrees and kinds of ironic reservation . . . . depending maybe, upon what they expect.) As Hayden’s “Frederick Douglass” is almost a formal sonnet, it is also almost a speech or sermon, a quality that makes it all the more thrilling as a poem:


When it is finally ours, this freedom, this liberty, this beautiful
and terrible thing, needful to man as air,
usable as earth; when it belongs at last to all,
when it is truly Instinct, brain matter, diastole, systole,
reflex action; when it is finally won; when it is more
than the gaudy mumbo jumbo of politicians:
this man, this Douglass, this former slave, this Negro
beaten to his knees, exiled, visioning a world
where none is lonely, none hunted, alien,
this man, superb in love and logic, this man
shall be remembered. Oh, not with statues’ rhetoric,
not with legends and poems and wreaths of bronze alone,
but with the lives grown out of his life, the lives
fleshing his dream of the beautiful, needful thing.