Commonsensical (and Sometimes Whimsical) Literary Criticism
by Michael R. Burch
This is a page of literary criticism and advice to writers by the American poet, editor, essayist and translator Michael R. Burch.
You can find Burch's analysis of his own poems here: "Auschwitz Rose" Analysis,
"Will There Be Starlight" Analysis,
"Davenport Tomorrow" Analysis,
"Passionate One" Analysis,
"Self Reflection" Analysis
My Main Tips for Beginning and Intermediate Poets, Along with Other Observations about Poetry and Writing
• Poetry is the art of finding the right word at the right time.—Michael R. Burch
• The most common cliché in contemporary poetry is: "Show, don't tell!" Unfortunately, someone forgot to inform
Homer, Dante, Shakespeare and Milton.—Michael R. Burch
• "Art for the sake of art" is an option ignored by the greatest poets, and even
by the inventors of the inane idea.—Michael R. Burch
• We can't change the past, but we can learn from it.—Michael R. Burch
• Don't be afraid to bend and break counterproductive
rules.—Michael R. Burch
• When I was being bullied, I had to learn not to judge myself by the opinions of intolerant morons. Then I felt much better.—Michael R. Burch
• Intolerance is unsuccessful because one cannot argue successfully against success.—Michael R. Burch
While it may seem simplistic to say that poetry is largely a matter of
finding the right word at the right time, I believe this is nonetheless true. If I
remember correctly, A. E. Housman said something to the effect that writing
poetry for him was mostly a matter of getting rid of the wrong words. And I
am reminded of a story about James Joyce and his obsession with finding
the right places for the right words. A friend visited Joyce to find him very
unhappy. Why? Joyce had spent an entire day and had only come up with seven
words to use. "But that's pretty good day's output for you," the friend
observed, trying to be encouraging. "Yes, but I don't know where to use them!"
was Joyce's agonized response. So I think two writers as different as Housman and
Joyce might have agreed with my premise. However, finding the right word at the right
time in poetry requires a good ear. Someone who is tone deaf had best stick to
singing in the shower and give up dreams of performing at the finest opera
houses. Ditto for would-be poets. Joyce was a musician and had a musician's ear
for melody. If I remember correctly, his earliest publications were poetry. I
write poetry entirely by ear and never scan my poems. In fact, I don't think my
ear really believes in scansion because there are so many different levels of
stress. Some syllables get stretched out and others get compressed. How can all
the language's dynamics be reduced to two symbols? So I never scan and when I
do, I scan very badly, not really believing in what I am attempting. T. S. Eliot
said that he didn't know the definitions of the various metrical feet and I
believe him, because the only one I can remember is the iamb: da DUMB. Mind you,
I love the effects, it's only the rules and definitions that I quibble with,
One of the mantras of modernism is "Show, don't tell!" Let me quickly
mention that I'm not
mindlessly opposed to modernism like so many of my formalist friends. Rather, I believe in plucking and using the good while
discarding the bad, as I used to do
when picking blueberries in blueberry-rich England as a boy. The wisest blueberry pickers know to avoid
the shriveled, diseased and unripe berries. Always go for the most succulent,
that was our motto! And so it should be with the mantras of modernism. There is
freedom in free verse, and freedom is generally a good thing, as long as one
uses it wisely. Thus I will keep free verse in my basket of poetic bounty. But
what about "Show, don't tell!" and "No ideas but in things!" and "Fear
abstractions!" These hysterical mantras all mean essentially the same thing:
Poets should not say what they mean directly, they should beat around the bush.
But no one got this ultra-important message to the greatest writers.
Shakespeare's characters — Hamlet, Lear, Falstaff, Romeo,
Juliet, et al — went around saying exactly what they meant without couching
everything in imagery and metaphor. Ditto Milton's characters. Ditto Chaucer's.
Ditto Dante's. Ditto Homer's. Do we perhaps see a pattern emerging? And what
about Walter Raleigh's magnificent poetic rant "The Lie," or William Blake's
stirring "Jerusalem." or the marvelous direct statement poems of A. E. Housman?
The simple truth is that great poets have been telling us exactly what they
think since the dawn of literature. It is probably good advice to caution
writers: "Avoid preaching tedious sermons that will bore your readers to
tears and drive them away in droves." But it
is asinine to scream "Show, don't tell!" like a raving lunatic, when the world's
greatest poets did tell, and did it so very well.
Similarly, "art for the sake of art" is an option regularly ignored by all the
great poets, and even by the inventors of the inane idea. Well, perhaps Poe
stuck to it more than his inconsistent disciples, but is he a major poet for
poems like "The Raven" and "Annabel Lee," as entertaining as they may be? I very
much doubt that Emily Dickinson would have agreed with "art for art's sake." She
might have preferred "art for the heart's sake." I believe Walt Whitman would
have agreed with Dickinson over Poe. It's also interesting and ironic that
Archibald MacLeish, who wrote the famous Ars Poetica poem with the silly blurb
that a poem should "not mean, but be," did a complete turnaround due to fascism
and WWII, and wrote the stunning poem "Memorial Rain" in memory of his slain
brother, publishing the moral truth in no uncertain terms. The poetry of Ezra
Pound and T. S. Eliot is replete with abstract speech and "teaching moments"
that might be construed as small sermons. Probably the greatest word-painter of
them all, Wallace Stevens, was quite the abstract philosopher. So the best "art
for art's sake" poets failed to abide by their highly dubious rule. Let me
quickly admit that the non-rule is certainly an option.
But the greatest poems go beyond mere art to communicate profound ideas and
meaning. Hamlet communicates far more than the most delightful
watercolorings of wildflowers. And it accomplishes most of what it accomplishes
not through things, not through artistic imagery and metaphors, but through
highly complex ideas expressed as such. Shakespeare's art is primarily in his
rhetoric. Ditto for Milton's in Paradise Lost. Do
modern self-alleged "literary critics" never read and think
before they effuse? I'm afraid I may have just made more sense in fourteen
sentences than they have in all their opuses combined!
"We can't change the past, but we can learn from it." This is true for most
human beings, but not for writers, because writers have a tool called
"revision." We can go back to our writings of the past, learn from our mistakes,
and correct what we wrote. Walt Whitman revised his masterpiece, Leaves of
Grass, long after the book had been published and made him famous. Whitman was
still working on LoG on his deathbed: the final edition
is called the "deathbed edition." Well, if America's greatest poet can revise his
masterpiece, mere mortals can correct their youthful effusions. I cock a Spockian eyebrow when I hear poets saying, "I can't change my poem." Of course
you can change anything you wrote at any time. If the writing can be improved,
why not improve it? It would be vastly silly to do otherwise.
"Don't be afraid to bend and break counterproductive rules." I have been
criticized by various formalists for breaking the ironclad rules of sonnets,
villanelles, limericks, etc. But most of my favorite sonnets are rule
breakers: "Ozymandias," "Acquainted With The Night," "Those Winter Sunday,"
"Sweet Rose of Virtue," a curtal sonnet here and there. Hell, Shakespeare broke
his adopted rules in some of his sonnets: iambic tetrameter here, 12 lines there.
Where are the literary critics with their hysterics and screaming heebie-jeebies
when the Bard of Avon bends and breaks the not-so-ironclad-after-all rules? In his article on the sonnet for Encylcopaedia Britannica, the
formalist poet Anthony Hecht said that a canonical form like the sonnet requires
innovation on the part of poets, or something to that effect. I agree with
TO BELIEVE OR NOT TO BELIEVE: SHAKESPEARE OR THE KEYSTONE SCOPS?
Michael R. Burch
Five features of Shakespeare’s poetry raise serious questions about a
confederacy of dunces I like to call the Keystone Scops, in one of my cuter
METER. Shakespeare wrote sonnets almost exclusively in iambic pentameter. He
wrote his plays primarily in blank verse, or unrhymed iambic pentameter. He also
employed limerick meter at times and incorporated melodic songs into his plays.
So a fundamental feature of Shakespeare’s poetry is meter.
RHYME. When Shakespeare wrote lyric poetry, he was a rhymer. His famous sonnets,
all 154 of them, are rhyming poems. Since Shakespeare is the consensus choice of
modern literary critics as the greatest poet of all time, it’s amusing that so
many of them pooh-pooh meter and rhyme in modern poetry. Why didn’t the
world’s greatest poet agree with these founts of wisdom?
ABSTRACT VERSE. For my purposes here the term "abstract" means "immaterial."
Concrete is not abstract because we can touch it, but we have to imagine love. Modern literary critics in their vast collective (or
parrot-like) wisdom frequently echo the mantras of modernism: “Show, don't tell!
No ideas but in things! Fear abstractions! Poets should never directly say what
they really mean! Poets should always use concrete imagery and couch their
meaning in metaphors! Beat around the bush!” Unfortunately, or more
likely, fortunately, Shakespeare never
got this ultra-important message, nor did other poets generally considered to be
among the world’s best: Homer, Dante, Chaucer, Milton, Goethe, Whitman,
Neruda, et al. These great poets regularly expressed abstract ideas in abstract
speech. For instance, Shakespeare’s sonnets are much more about thoughts and
feelings than “things.” The great soliloquies of Hamlet and other Shakespearean
characters are wonderful examples of abstract ideas being expressed in abstract
speech, with an image here, a metaphor there, but with the main drift always
being the heart and mind of a man or woman as fully exposed as possible in
words. Why didn't the world's greatest poet fear abstractions as the Keystone
Scops imperiously demand that we do?
PERSONIFICATION. Modern literary critics and most modern poets shun
personification as if it were Lucifer incarnate. But Shakespeare had no such
qualms. For example: "The moon, methinks, looks with a wat'ry eye; / And when
she weeps, weeps every little flower, / Lamenting some enforced chastity." Once
again, if we are sane and able to read and have any common sense at all, we must
ask ourselves if these self-appointed censors of poetry are utterly clueless
dunces. I assure you they are.
DIDACTIC VERSE. A didactic poem is directly instructional or informational: it
teaches or explains something such as a truth, a moral, a principle or a
process. The English word "didactic" derives from the Greek didaktikos ("able to
teach or instruct"). While modern literary critics have more or less "written
off" didactic poetry (pardon the pun), they are contradicted by the fact that
some of the greatest poets wrote didactic verse, including Shakespeare. Many of
the Bard's famous sonnets conclude with didactic couplets. Perhaps they all do:
isn't that a feature of the form? For example, Shakespeare's
first sonnet ends on a decidedly didactic note: "Pity the world, or else this glutton be,
To eat the world’s due, by the grave and thee."
In conclusion, we have at least five features of Shakespeare’s poetry that
modern literary critics regularly chide and deride. Should we believe the world’s greatest
poet and playwright, or the Keystone Scops? You can probably guess my
SOME OF THE MOST BRUTAL LITERARY REVIEWS OF ALL TIME
Michael R. Burch
These acidic excerpts were extracted from some of the most brutal reviews of works of
literature and their authors, delivered by some of the world’s most astute
readers and writers:
Ezra Pound said of James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake that
“Nothing so far as I can make out, nothing short of divine vision or a new cure
for the clapp, can possibly be worth all the circumambient peripherization.”
Dorothy Parker, writing under her byline The Constant Reader for The New
Yorker, complained that the incessant cuteness of The House at Pooh Corner
caused her to vomit — that when she got to the word “hummy” the “Tonstant Weader
In his review of the later work of W. H. Auden, the poet-critic Randall Jarrell
compared him to a windmill endlessly churning out rhetoric, and to a man
obsessively washing his hands.
Mark Twain ripped James Fenimore Cooper’s sometimes-illogically-acclaimed novel
The Deerslayer to absolute shreds. Here’s an illustrative example:
“Cooper's art has some defects. In one place in "Deerslayer," and in the
restricted space of two-thirds of a page, Cooper has scored 114 offenses against
literary art out of a possible 115. It breaks the record.”
In his review of The Great Gatsby, H. L. Mencken calls the story
“obviously unimportant” and says the characters are “mere marionettes—often
astonishingly lifelike, but nevertheless not quite alive.”
Charlotte Bronte said that when reading Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice
she found: “An accurate, daguerreotyped portrait of a commonplace face, a
carefully-fenced, highly-cultivated garden, with neat borders and delicate
flowers; but no glance of a bright, vivid physiognomy, no open country, no fresh
air, no blue hill, no bonny beck. I should hardly like to live with her ladies
and gentlemen, in their elegant but confined houses.”
While I will not include myself in the august company of reviewers above, I like
to think that I have had my moments. For instance, this is an excerpt from my
review of a poetry anthology too terrible to be named aloud, like Sauron:
I found locating the better poems to be like searching for treasure concealed
within the eerie, seaweed-enshrouded skeleton of a sunken ship. At times the
waters grew confoundingly murky: for instance, in the section where V [the
editor-in-chief] indulged in self-congratulatory commentary about a garland of
sonnets he penned concerning the Titanic's catastrophic maiden voyage. V began
his less-than-objective analysis in the third person, as if someone else were
praising his work, then switched—seemingly obliviously—into the first person,
giving the game away. In his commentary, V employed broken, sometimes
incomprehensible, bizarrely-punctuated English. It is undoubtedly the strangest
passage of literary criticism that I have ever read, being simultaneously
narcissistic and incredibly awkward: an unmitigated disaster. Thus, my
references to the Titanic in this review are not gratuitous. It seems fitting
that this over-hyped collection's most vaunted poems are about a voyage that
began with hubristic marketing of an "unsinkable" ship, only to end with a
symbol of human arrogance and its chief officers vanishing, never to be seen
again. Can V and his anthology escape similar fates? Not a chance. I am
reminded of a line from "The Convergence of the Twain" by Thomas Hardy: "What
does this vaingloriousness down here?"
And because the anthology's numerous defects remind me of the Titanic's popping
rivets and flooding compartments, I question whether readers will consider the
book to be worth its cost, their valuable time, and the annoyances and
frustrations they'll experience in their search for something of value.
Unfortunately, the worthier poems may remain undiscovered as readers give up the
search due to numerous quality control failures on the part of the anthology's
editors. Or, more accurately, on the part of the editor who posed for the
literary equivalent of "selfies" while at least four members of his crew sounded
alarms about the disaster looming on the horizon.
The Power of a Few Words Delivered by the Right Writer at the Right
Michael R. Burch
Essays can influence public opinion even if most people don’t read the essays,
as long as the essays reach and influence the world’s intellectual “movers and
shakers.” For instance, I suspect many human beings have been influenced
Voltaire's essays, even though they haven’t read Voltaire themselves, because
Voltaire was so influential with other writers.
Voltaire continues to influence us more than we realize, as does William Blake,
perhaps the world's most influential poet and artist.
Another example of an influential essayist is Martin Luther. Luther published
his revolutionary ideas in August 1520, and sold only around 4,000 copies in the
early going. But his ideas spread like wildfire and ignited the Protestant
Other essayists who remain influential despite not being read directly in large
numbers today include Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau (who rented
his Walden Pond house from Emerson). Take the idea of civil disobedience, which
many Americans probably think originated with Dr. King. However it was the great
Romantic poet and essayist Percy Bysshe Shelley who originated the idea of
nonviolent civil disobedience. Thoreau took up the idea in his essay “Civil
Disobedience.” Gandhi quoted Shelley in his speeches. Dr. King continued and
expounded upon the theme with with his essay called the “Letter from the
Birmingham Jail.” The concept of civil disobedience took on a life of its own
and grew over time. We shouldn’t underestimate the power of an essay or similar
communication such as a poem, song or novel, when it is delivered at the right
time into the right hands.
Thomas Paine’s essays are another pertinent example. The novel Uncle Tom’s
Cabin is another. The poems of William Blake, which influenced
singer-songwriters like Bob Dylan and John Lennon, are another. Such writings
“go viral” and infect other writers, like a communicable disease. The best
essays, poems, songs, short stories and novels are like mustard seeds,
germinating into massively larger growths over time.
THE CONTINUING INFLUENCE OF GEOFFREY CHAUCER
Michael R. Burch
This is my answer to a question posed on Quora ...
How did the literature of
the Middle Ages affect the poetry of the ages to come?
It was like a chain reaction!
Take just one writer, Geoffrey Chaucer. He influenced English poets, poetry and
literature in profound and important ways.
Chaucer was the first major poet to write primarily in English. Before Chaucer
the majority of poetry produced in England had been written in other languages:
Anglo-Saxon (heavily Germanic), French, Greek and Latin. At the time Chaucer
wrote, English kings were still speaking French, the language of the crown, and
the courts of law were still being conducted in Latin. Obviously, the choice of
a major poet to write his masterpieces in “vulgar” English had a profound
influence on writers to come. And not only on poetry, but on all English
literature and even the language itself.
But for all his English-ness, Chaucer was a cosmopolitan poet. His influences
included French poets, Ovid, Dante, Petrarch, and Boccaccio. Through his
continental influences, Chaucer helped broaden and deepen English poetry and
literature. For example, Chaucer wrote English rondels patterned after the
French. For example, this is my translation of a lovely rondel attributed to
by Geoffrey Chaucer
loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch
Your eyes slay me suddenly;
their beauty I cannot sustain,
they wound me so, through my heart keen.
Unless your words heal me hastily,
my heart's wound will remain green;
for your eyes slay me suddenly;
their beauty I cannot sustain.
By all truth, I tell you faithfully
that you are of life and death my queen;
for at my death this truth shall be seen:
your eyes slay me suddenly;
their beauty I cannot sustain,
they wound me so, through my heart keen.
Chaucer’s characters such as the Wife of Bath seem alive and fully-fleshed, and
no doubt influenced how Shakespeare drew characters of his like Falstaff. Thus
Chaucer had tremendous influence on English playwrights, through his own and
Shakespeare’s continuing influence.
Chaucer has also been credited with introducing iambic pentameter and rhyme
royal to the English language. With his early version of iambic pentameter,
Chaucer was able to write longer poems that seemed natural and conversational
while maintaining an enjoyable rhythm. The more musical English poets would
follow his lead. For instance, the mellifluous Edmund Spenser claimed to be the
reincarnation of Chaucer. That is some influence!
We can see the influences of Chaucer — iambic pentameter, fully-fleshed
characters, etc. — in the highly popular plays of playwrights like Christopher
Marlowe and William Shakespeare. So Chaucer helped make English poetry popular.
He was like Elvis inspiring the Beatles. John Lennon once said, “Before Elvis
there was nothing.” Modern English language poets might opine, “Before Chaucer
there was nothing, or very little.”
My Favorite Writers
Michael R. Burch
These are my favorite writers. By “favorite” I mean the ones with whom I feel
the closest kinship, the most affinity, the closest likeness ...
1 - William Blake
2 - Robert Burns
3 - e. e. cummings
4 - Mark Twain and Voltaire (two irascible reformers)
5 - Walt Whitman
6 - Sappho (the Mother and Muse of all lyric poets and songwriters)
7 - The Archpoet (a medieval Latin poet whose tongue-in-cheek "Confession" is
8 - Basho and Issa
9 - Ernest Dowson (his Cynara poem is at the top of the list of poems I wish I'd
10 - The Divine Oscar Wilde (his stunning poem "Requiescat" is one of my
all-time favorites and Wilde was the master of the epigram and witty repartee)
Others: Conrad Aiken, Anne Reeve Aldrich, Louise Bogan, Bertolt Brecht, Emily
Bronte, Cervantes, Thomas Chatterton, Geoffrey Chaucer, Sam Cooke, Hart Crane, John Donne,
William Dunbar, Dan
Fogelberg, Langston Hughes, Keats, Neruda, Rilke, Shelley, Paul Simon, Wallace
Stevens, Thomas Wyatt
If You Want to Be Well-Read, Start Here
Michael R. Burch
(#1) The Norton Anthology of Poetry, where one can read the best poems
of poets like Chaucer, Spenser, Shakespeare, Donne, Milton, Blake, Wordsworth,
Shelley, Keats, Whitman, Dickinson, Yeats and Frost for a fraction of a penny
per poem. There is no better investment to be made. My first copy has fallen
apart from constant use. If a particular poet doesn't strike your fancy, feel
free to skip him/her.
(#2) The Norton Anthology of World Literature, to greatly broaden one’s
(#3) The Lord of the Rings Trilogy, by J. R. R. Tolkien, for sheer
entertainment and marvelous, masterful storytelling.
(#4) The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and The Adventures of Huckleberry
Finn, by Mark Twain. Please be sure to read them in the proper, indicated,
(#5) Leaves of Grass and Specimen Days, by Walt Whitman. Uncle
Walt's sublime prose puts most poetry to shame. His best poems are otherworldly.
(#6) Don Quixote, by Miguel Cervantes. The first modern novel remains
one of the very best.
(#7) The Complete Works of William Shakespeare. You don't have to read
them all, but the more the better. Be sure to at least read Hamlet, Othello,
King Lear and Macbeth.
(#8) The Odyssey and Iliad, by Homer. One cannot be well-read
without Homer, the first great storyteller and still perhaps the best.
(#9) The Painted Word, by Tom Wolfe. This side-splitting book will
explain how modern literary and art theory became the death of poetry and art.
There has never been a better or funnier critic of the arts than Tom Wolfe.
(#10) Lives of the Poets, by Michael Schmidt. If you want to really
understand how poetry came to be written by creatures rarer and stranger than
Honorable Mention: The Collected Works of W. H. Auden, Basho, William Blake,
Louise Bogan, Robert Burns, Anton Chekov, Hart Crane, e. e. cummings, Charles
Dickens, Emily Dickinson, John Donne, Ernest Dowson, Robert Frost, Goethe,
Langston Hughes, Victor Hugo, John Keats, John Milton, Pablo Neruda, Rainer
Maria Rilke, Sappho, Wallace Stevens, Dylan Thomas, Leo Tolstoy, Virginia Woolf,
William Wordsworth, W. B. Yeats.
My Top 25 Poetry Books of the 20th Century
Michael R. Burch
The Collected Works of William Butler Yeats
My Literary Heresies
The Collected Poems of Wallace Stevens
The Collected Poems of Robert Frost
The Collected Works of Langston Hughes
(*)The Collected Poems of Sylvia Plath
(*)The Collected Poems of Dylan Thomas
(*)The Collected Poems of Wilfred Owen
(*)The Complete Poems and Selected Letters and Prose of Hart Crane
The Complete Poems of Elizabeth Bishop
The Collected Poems of Archibald MacLeish
100 Collected Poems by e. e. cummings
Collected Poems by Edna St. Vincent Millay
Four Quartets by T. S. Eliot (I prefer Eliot's more accessible mature
poetry to his often obscure earlier work, although I love "Prufrock")
Blue Estuaries by Louise Bogan ("After the Persian" and "Song for the
Last Act" are stunners)
Les Fleurs du Mal by Charles Baudelaire (I have translated some of
Baudelaire's sexier poems and the translations have become popular with porn
stars and escort sites!)
Twenty Love Poems and a Song of Despair by Pablo Neruda
The Selected Poetry of Rainer Maria Rilke
Duino Elegies by Rainer Maria Rilke
Sonnets to Orpheus by Rainer Maria Rilke (Is it clear that I'm a Rilke
Those Winter Sundays by Robert Hayden (the title poem is a masterpiece)
Field Work by Seamus Heaney
Auden: Poems by W. H. Auden
Selected Poems by Robert Lowell
New and Collected Poems by Richard Wilbur
Autumn Sonata: Selected Poems by Georg Trakl
(*) Any one of these four marvelous poets could have ended up topping this list
if they had lived longer.
Michael R. Burch
I like Shakespeare’s songs better than I like his sonnets, which seem overly
philosophical to me and not wonderfully convincing as expressions of love and
passion. I wonder if the Bard wrote them for a patron and didn’t really have his
heart entirely in the task. In any case, I give Shakespeare higher marks for his plays and
songs than for his lyric poems.
I am not a fan of Dante and do not have him among my top hundred poets. I
find his plot lacking. Where are his great characters? My heart and mind rebel
against the hideous concept of “hell.”
I like James Joyce’s Dubliners and a few of his poems here and there better
than his more celebrated works of literature. Having read the first chapter of
Finnegans Wake with a cocked Spockian eyebrow, I agree with Ezra
Pound's criticism of the book. If Uncle Ezra finds you too difficult, you are
tres difficult indeed!
I join A. E. Housman in questioning whether John Dryden and Alexander Pope were
poets. Yes, they were accomplished writers, but where is their poetry?
Polished wit is not living, breathing, vital poetry. I agree with Housman that
there was a long dry spell in English poetry, from the last major works of John
Milton to the first major works of William Blake. There were pleasant exceptions
in a few poems here and there by, for example, Thomas Gray and the "marvellous
boy" Thomas Chatterton, but for the most part poetry was lacking.
"There are two ways of disliking poetry; one way is to dislike it, the other is to read Alexander Pope."—Oscar Wilde
I suspect that Edward de Vere, the Earl of Oxford, wrote the plays and poems
credited to the actor William Shakespeare. This has nothing to do with “class
discrimination.” I side with Charles Dickens, Mark Twain and Walt Whitman, three
commoners with no agenda against their own kind. I base my deduction on the
following facts: (1) There is no evidence the actor owned any books; in his will
he discussed the fates of his pots, pans and furniture, but not a far more valuable library; books
were rare and therefore valuable in those days. Nor did the actor bother to
discuss the fate of the writings he claimed would make him immortal. Isn't that
beyond odd, unless he didn't write the immortal words himself? (2) There is no evidence the
actor had any literary correspondence or wrote any other letters of note. Even
if his collection of letters was lost, what about his letters to other writers
that should have survived in their collections? Literary people own books and
write letters, but where are Shakespeare's? Daniel Wright, an English professor
who directs the Shakespeare Authorship Research Center at Concordia University,
observed, “He's the only presumed writer of his time for whom there is no
contemporary evidence of a writing career. And many of us find that rather
astonishing.” (3) Shakespeare’s epitaph sounds like that of a rustic: “rough
doggerel” that is not at all Shakespearean. (4) The Shakespearean sonnet was
invented by Oxford's uncle, Henry Howard, the Earl of Surrey. (5) Shakespeare's
plays were written predominately in blank verse, which was first used by Surrey
in his translation of Virgil's Aeneid. (6) Oxford owned an acting
company and put on plays for the royal court, where he was favorite of the
queen. (7) There are strong parallels between Shakespeare's plays and events in
Oxford's life. (8) In 1571, Oxford composed the first Shakespearean sonnet of
the Elizabethan reign. Will Shakspere was seven at the time. (9) In the first 17 sonnets it
seems possible that Shakespeare was trying to persuade Henry Wriothesley, the
third Earl of Southampton, to marry and have children with ... Oxford's
daughter, Elizabeth Vere! (10) In 1578, Oxford was praised by Cambridge scholar
Gabriel Harvey as a hero whose "countenance shakes speares." (11) Oxford's
brother-in-law was an emissary to Denmark who wrote letters to de Vere that
mention courtiers named Rosencrantz and Guildenstern and drinking rituals that
involved downing a shot then firing cannons. How would Will Shakspere have known
such obscure things? (12) And why, for Christ's sake, isn't Shakespeare buried
where he so obviously belongs: at Poets' Corner in Westminster Abbey? But
perhaps he actually is! Edward de Vere was originally buried in Hackney, then
later reburied in Westminster.
I have heard the argument that certain Shakespeare plays were written after
Oxford's death. But they could have been written earlier. And whoever wrote
Shakespeare's plays is known to have collaborated with other writers.
I have no "agenda" against the actor, just legitimate questions. I have no
desire to discriminate against my own kind, since I come from common stock. I do
not claim to "know" who wrote the plays. But if I had to lay a wager, I would
bet on Oxford.
WRITERS BEST-KNOWN FOR THEIR NOT-BEST WORK
Michael R. Burch
Edgar Allan Poe is probably most famous for his poem “The Raven” — hell, the
Baltimore Ravens were named after the poem! Can we doubt that the NFL’s
celebrated intellectuals carefully reviewed all Poe’s opus (opuses? opesi?)
before determining that “The Raven” was his signature work? But any number of
Poe poems — for instance, the lovely and haunting “Annabel Lee” — are better, as
are a number of his short stories. “The Raven” is an entertaining poem,
especially if one likes jingly dark comedies, but not Poe’s best work.
Salman Rushdie called The Da Vinci Code by Dan Brown "a novel so bad
that it gives bad novels a bad name," although I’m not sure if Brown ever wrote
anything better and don’t really care to find out. Dan Brown had me at
Stephen King has admitted to being under the influence of cocaine when he wrote
The Tommyknockers, but what was his excuse for Christine, From a
Buick 8, Mr. Mercedes, Pet Sematary, Cujo, Silver Bullet, Rose Madder,
Of Mice and Men is not a bad book like some of the others mentioned
here, but John Steinbeck should be remembered more for East of Eden.
Ditto for Jules Verne, who best novel was Mysterious Island.
Since it is literally impossible to write a more boring, tedious,
allegorical-sermon-laden book than Pilgrim’s Progress, if John Bunyan
wrote anything else in even a slightly different vein, it would automatically be
better. A Valentine’s poem, perhaps, although Bunyan would probably turn that
into an interminable sermon as well.
I agree with Mark Twain's acerbic criticism of James Fennimore Cooper's Last
of the Mohicans.
I have tried to read Pride and Prejudice, but have never actually
succeeded. So many tea parties and ballroom dances! So much cultivation and
polite chit-chat! So many carefully trimmed hedges and delicate flowers! Did
anything ever actually happen? I fell asleep before I could find out. I agree
with Charlotte Bronte’s criticism of Jane Austen: “She does her business of
delineating the surface of the lives of genteel English people curiously well.
There is a Chinese fidelity, a miniature delicacy in the painting. She ruffles
her reader by nothing vehement, disturbs him by nothing profound. The passions
are perfectly unknown to her; she rejects even a speaking acquaintance with that
stormy sisterhood. Even to the feelings she vouchsafes no more than an
occasional graceful but distant recognition—too frequent converse with them
would ruffle the smooth elegance of her progress.” Now I know why I fell asleep!
But my personal non-favorite in the book category is Ulysses by James
Joyce. While it has been called the greatest novel of all time, etc., I think
Dubliners is a better book. Who’s afraid of Virginia Woolf? Perhaps
Joyce, because she called his writing in Ulysses “diffuse, brackish,
pretentious, overly self-conscious, etc.” However, I must hedge my bet because
Finnegans Wake puts Ulysses to shame, in terms of being
diffuse. Even the famously difficult Ezra Pound threw up his hands after
cracking FW, then slapping it shut angrily forever. Or as Vladimir
Nabokov, who used some fancy words himself, albeit ones with dictionary
definitions, said in a review for Paris Review: “I detest
Punningans Wake in which a cancerous growth of fancy word-tissue hardly
redeems the dreadful joviality of the folklore and the easy, too easy,
Books and poems I struggled to finish or was unable to finish, from most success
(however unpleasurable) to least success: Silas Marner, the essay poems
of Alexander Pope, Pilgrim's Progress, Pride and Prejudice, Ulysses,
Enough with the Over-Rigid Rules, Already!
by Michael R. Burch
What is the purpose of the 5-7-5 syllable form in English-language haiku? Let's
consider the sonnet form and how it evolved over time. The original Petrarchan
sonnet had an octave and a sestet, with no closing couplet. What would have
happened if all the poets had said, “We can’t innovate! We can’t change the
rules! We can only write sonnets one way!” There would have been no
Shakespearean sonnet. We wouldn’t have the curtal sonnets of Gerard Manley
Hopkins. We wouldn’t have “Acquainted With the Night” by Robert Frost. We
wouldn’t have “Ozymandias” by Percy Bysshe Shelley. We wouldn’t “Those Winter
Sundays” by Robert Hayden. All those sonnets are rulebreakers. They differ from
each other. Blindly following restrictive rules would rob the English language
of these masterpieces because they each break the "rules" in different ways.
Hell, Shakespeare repeatedly broke the rules of the
sonnet form that now bears his name. His Sonnet 145 is written in iambic
tetrameter, with only four iambs per line. Sonnet 99 has 15 lines. Sonnet 126
has 12 lines and is written in heroic couplets. Sonnet 46 is rhymed
ababcdcdefefff; Sonnet 69 is rhymed abbbcdcdefefgg; Sonnet 135 is rhymed
ababbcbcadadaa; Sonnet 136 is rhymed ababcdcdefefbb.
I prefer the more flexible original definition of “sonnet.” The Italian word sonneto means
"little song." When the term "sonnet" was first used in English, it referred to
any short poem about love and the words "song" and "sonnet" were
interchangeable. So I see no need for a slavish obedience to any particular form
or rhyme scheme. None of my top ten sonnets are "standard" Shakespearean or
Petrarchan forms. In his article on the sonnet for Encyclopaedia Britannica,
Anthony Hecht observed that all canonical forms inspire or require innovation (I
forget which). And there was certainly a lot of innovating by the poets who
My Top Ten Sonnets of All Time
"Those Winter Sundays" by Robert Hayden (a blank verse sonnet with an irregular
"Acquainted with the Night" by Robert Frost (a non-traditional sonnet written in
four tercets with a closing couplet and the unusual rhyme scheme aba bcb cdc dad
"Ozymandias" by Percy Bysshe Shelley (a non-traditional sonnet with the rhyme
"Sweet Rose of Virtue" by William Dunbar (a non-traditional sonnet of 15 lines
with the rhyme scheme aabba ccddc eeffe)
"The Unreturning" by Wilfred Owen (a non-traditional sonnet with the rhyme
scheme abba cbbc defdef)
"The Death of a Toad" by Richard Wilbur (an 18-line sonnet written in three
"Bread and Music" by Conrad Aiken (a 12-line sonnet with no closing couplet and
the rhyme scheme -a-a -b-b -c-c)
"Piano" by D. H. Lawrence (a 12-line sonnet with no closing couplet and the
rhyme scheme aabbccddeeff)
"The Snow Man" by Wallace Stevens (a 15-line blank verse sonnet written in five
"The Windhover" by Gerard Manley Hopkins (a highly eclectic sprung rhythm sonnet
with two closing tercets rather than a single couplet and the rhyme scheme
aaaaaaaa bcb cbc)
Getting back to haiku, the 5–7–5 form seems meaningless in English because no
one can hear the form. No one will ever know if a word is dropped or added. What
is the point of a form that does, literally, nothing? I never count syllables in
my original haiku or translations. And I'm not averse to a haiku having two
lines, or four or five, either. What matters is the result, the finished
product, not the formula used to create it.
My Favorite Poetic Ghost Stories
by Michael R. Burch
Everyone loves a good ghost story, and some of the very best ghost stories are
poetic ghost stories. My favorite poetic ghost stories, beginning with my
all-time favorite, are:
"The Highwayman" by Alfred Noyes
"La Belle Dame sans Merci" by John Keats
"The Listeners" by Walter de le Mare
"Luke Havergal" by Edward Arlington Robinson
"The Unquiet Grave" an anonymous ballad
"The Kind Ghosts" by Wilfred Owen
The Power of Poetry
Michael R. Burch
I was asked what characteristic I would add to literature, if I had the power.
I was an avid reader as a boy, and I read widely. My favorite subjects were
nature, dinosaurs and other animals, history, ancient empires, warfare, heroes
of the past, explorers and exploration, fantasy, science fiction, and comic
books. One day I was reading a comic book and I was struck by the power of what
I now call “poetry.” An immortal super villain called a mortal superhero a “pale
envelope of flesh.”
I was struck by the vividness, the electricity and the power of that phrase.
Years later, I used the phrase in a poem, which I have shared below. The
characteristic that I would add to literature is poetry. Some prose literature
rivals poetry. When it does, we call it “poetic prose.” But most prose
literature falls short of poetry. What if all literature reached the heights of
poetry? Novels would rival the plays of Shakespeare and the epic poems of Homer,
Virgil, Dante and Milton!
Here is my poem that was inspired by a poetic phrase I found in a comic book:
Frail Envelope of Flesh
Michael R. Burch
for the mothers and children of Gaza
Frail envelope of flesh,
lying cold on the surgeon’s table
with anguished eyes
like your mother’s eyes
and a heartbeat weak, unstable ...
Frail crucible of dust,
brief flower come to this—
your tiny hand
in your mother’s hand
for a last bewildered kiss ...
Brief mayfly of a child,
to live two artless years!
Now your mother’s lips
seal up your lips
from the Deluge of her tears ...
Published by The Lyric, Promosaik (Germany), Setu
(India) and Poetry Life & Times; also translated into Arabic by Nizar
Sartawi and Italian by Mario Rigli
Rejection Slips: "Fine, even beautiful," just not for us ...
Michael R. Burch
This is a true story. The names of the journals have been changed to protect the
In my advancing age, I seldom submit poems for publication unless I know the
journals and their editors. But every now and then, I decide to take a chance.
When I do, strange things can happen. For instance, I have had poems rejected by
editors who said:
I do believe your poems are fine, even beautiful ...
Your poetry is evocative, but not what we're looking for ...
Being a poetry editor myself, of The HyperTexts, I believe I understand the most
basic function of poetry editors everywhere, which is to publish the best
possible poetry that meets the editors' stated guidelines. So, for example, if a
journal publishes only haiku, any poetry submitted must fit the editor's
definition of "haiku" while being worthy of publication in his/her opinion. I
would certainly have no objection if the editor of a haiku journal rejected my
submission of a sonnet: indeed, I would have been foolhardy to submit a sonnet
to, let's say, Haiku Heaven. But what about a poetry journal whose guidelines
say that it "includes all fronts of poetry with as little bias as possible." I
might expect to be published if the editor of this journal—let's call it Biasless
Schizophrenic, or BS for short—found my poems to be "fine, even beautiful."
Alas, this was not the case, and I fear it's because some editors still consider
poems that employ meter and rhyme to automatically be "archaic." But if this was
the case, most popular songs and many TV jingles would be automatically archaic.
Since Mick Jaggar and Eminem are considered to be modern practitioners of the
language, and hardly antiquarians by any measure, I disagree that such a
strange, unjust rule should be applied to poets. Since my best poems are written
in grammatically correct modern English, I take issue with what seems to be a
knee-jerk reaction against rhymed metrical poetry. Here are some excerpts from
the BS rejection missive I received:
"Mike, Thanks for your response to my editorial spewings ... and thanks as well
for the additional submissions. Returning now to your work—the larger volume of
pieces to review—it comes to me that there is simply a stylistic difference
here, with no real argument ... My own taste is toward a more decidedly modern
or current speech usage in poems, a poetry that may still be beautiful but
perhaps not in the same ways that it has been in previous times. I imagine you
might actually do well to submit to more classically leaning journals
like Poetry. Perhaps it's my oddball aesthetic philosophy at work here. In any
event, I do believe your poems are fine, even beautiful, and no sense splitting
hairs over phrases. It's just that these aren't fitting into the evolving
collection as I see it, and I am sorry not to be inviting you to include your
work in this paticular [sic] issue of BS. I believe at present I'll be
guest/contributing editor just this one time for now, so things are always
changing ... Anyway, thanks again, and may the Muse be with you!"
I will let the reader judge whether the work I submitted was written in anything
other than good modern English. Here are two examples:
See how her hair has thinned: it doesn't seem
like hair at all, but like the airy moult
of emus who outraced the wind and left
soft plumage in their wake. See how her eyes
are gentler now; see how each wrinkle laughs,
and deepens on itself, as though mirth took
some comfort there and burrowed deeply in,
outlasting winter. See how very thin
her features are—that time has made more spare,
so that each bone shows elegant and rare.
For loveliness remains in her grave eyes,
and courage in her still-delighted looks:
each face presented like a picture book’s.
Bemused, she blows us undismayed goodbyes.
Once, only once,
when the wind flicked your skirt
to an indiscrete height
and you laughed,
outblushing shocked violets,
everything had changed . . .
and as you braided your hair
into long bluish plaits
the shadows empurpled,
last darting feints
dissolving mid-air . . .
we watched the sun’s long glide
knowing and unknowing . . .
O, how the illusions of love
await us in the commonplace
and haunt our small remainder of hours.
With regard to those two wonderful poems of yours that the BS publisher refused,
all I can say is that having them on THT is our gain and his loss. Both poems
are exquisite. The first, "See", brought tears to my eyes and an aching to my
heart as I remembered my grandmother, my mother, and now myself trying to
approach old age with courage and bemusement. The stanza:
"suddenly/I knew:/everything had changed" in the other poem, "Violets", is so
transcendent, so universal, that, regardless of the fact that my moment had
nothing to do with violets and everything to do with football, it made me feel
again like that 15-year-old girl whose illusion of love was born on an
unremarkable Friday night in 1965.—Catherine Chandler
I also, by the way, particularly like the closing lines of your opening poem:
"O, how the illusions of love...haunt our small remainder of hours." I think
those lines are excellent.—Tom Merrill
“See” is quite extraordinary!—Zyskandar Jaimot
I liked both [poems] a lot, especially "See" for its extraordinary
"See" is very lovely, the "elegant" and "spare" portrait, with all that emu
fluff and burrowing mirth.—Marly Youmans
This poem ["See"] is very clear, very simple, very loving, keeps the reader
abreast—and charmed—and the language as well as the meaning flows smoothly from
beginning to end. And the end is lovely. A very nice one, my compliments.—Tom
“Great news [about “See” and “At Wilfred Owen’s Grave” finishing 3rd and 7th in
the 2003 Writer’s Digest Rhyming Poetry Contest] and a worthy recognition for
your beautiful poetic touch.”—Chesil, editor of Poetry Webring
"My sincere compliments to Mike Burch on his award-winning poems, "See" and "At
Wilfred Owens' Grave", which seem to me deep, qualified, interesting, and well
crafted. I found "See" particularly touching—rarely does one come upon so
perceptive a portrayal of old age—and "At Wilfred Owen's Grave" becomes a
clarion battle cry. For a better day. Clearly, these two poems deserve repeated
and frequent rereading. Many thanks for letting me see them."—Rhoda Bandler in a
letter to Yala Korwin
Rarely does one come upon so sensitive and sympathetic a portrayal of old age
... poems about old age express often pity, derision, even revulsion. Yours is a
lovely portrait, not a caricature."—Yala Korwin
"See" is a marvelous poem.—Greg Brownderville
This, Michael, is nearly faultless. I can't advance a single reservation as to
its diction, meter or general execution. One senses that you accomplished
precisely what you set out to do. From see how each wrinkle laughs until and
courage in her still-delighted looks, your individual style and sensibility
truly shine. A great poem.—Jeffrey Woodward
Oh these are so beautiful. Like you I still believe that love is what matters
and your poems glow with it. I'm old enough to be deeply moved by 'See'. How
strange that a comparative child and an old poet like me should see the world
the same way and how grateful I am to you for crystallising the link.—Janet
Kenny, poet, opera singer and peace activist
My many thanks for the opportunity to read Mr. Burch's two poems you sent. I
have read them many times—each reading a further revelation of his sensitivity
and word usage to convey each separate poem in each separate tone. To break down
the flavor of each this follows: SEE. This poem is a tender paean to an elderly,
lovely woman. It is so full of love without actually saying it, and that in
itself is intrinsic to its tug of the reader's heart. It presents a vivid
picture of the gallantry and courage of the aging. I quote a few lines that I
found unforgettable: ‘see how her eyes are gentler now.’ So sure in youth but
quieter with the acquiring of a certain wisdom. The image of wrinkles: ‘burrowed
deeply in, outlasting winter’ leaves a mark on the uncritical mind, that accepts
and sees the beauty carved by life. AT WILFRED OWEN'S GRAVE. Thoughts of war and
death in the years of youth can bring nothing but an ache in the heart. This
poem presents it with perfect pitch. The use of language to depict the horrors
of war without saying the word horror, but by describing existing in its midst,
trying to survive, yet almost surely knowing survival would be a miracle, that
death in wars denies life to the ordinary unsung as much as to the gifted cut
short untimely, fighting side by side. These are boys lived by family and
friends no matter what status in society. This poem is almost a painting using
words instead of oils to depict murder while the initiators stay home mouthing
phrases of patriotism. Yala, I hope I'm not too wordy. I am deeply affected by
both poems.—Emma Landau, in a letter to Yala Korwin
These are accomplished poets who care deeply about poetry speaking, so it's hard
for me to understand why the poems they admired would be rejected, especially
when the editors who rejected the poems called them fine, beautiful, evocative,
etc. My educated guess is that a bias against formal poetry has resulted in my
poems being banished to the back of the bus.
Michael R. Burch
I am going to play Devil’s Advocate and ask whether Dante is one of the very
greatest poets of all time: Does he rank with Homer, Chaucer and Shakespeare,
First, this is Dante’s plot: He damns all his enemies to hell, seems to be happy
to describe their torments in great detail, and he very conveniently saves
himself via his lover Beatrice and his favorite poet, Virgil. Is that a great
Next, where are Dante’s great characters? Where is his Wife of Bath, his Hamlet,
his Falstaff, his Ulysses?
When I read John Bunyan’s once-bestselling Pilgrim’s Progress as a boy,
I thought it was the most mind-numbingly boring litany of puritanical morals
imaginable. But at least Bunyan was trying to save his characters,
against all odds. At least give him a gold star for
effort. Dante doesn’t even bother with that. Just damn everyone you don’t like
to hell, give yourself an easy “get out of jail” card in the form of your lover
and favorite poet, and all ends well. Sorry, the plot and characters don’t
strike me as the height of literature. Gloating over your enemies suffering in
hell seems sick and demented to me. I am not a Dante fan. Perhaps the poetry
reads wonderfully well in Italian, but what about the plot, the characters and
the rotten-at-the-core heart?
THE STRANGE (AND ESTRANGED) ROOTS OF ENGLISH ROMANTICISM
Michael R. Burch
A. E. Housman said — and I agree — that there was a long dry spell in English
poetry between the last major poems of John Milton (1608–1674) and the
revolutionary romantic poems of William Blake (1757–1827). If Housman was
correct, and I believe he was, that was a long time to go without a major
English poet: around 150 years. So what changed? The leading poets of the “dry
spell” — John Dryden (1630-1700), Alexander Pope (1688-1744) and
Samuel Johnson (1709-1784) — were certainly accomplished writers,
but Housman questioned whether they were actually poets. Something seemed to be
missing. They have been accused of settling for the status quo and for couplets
that clicked too easily into place. Yes, they were witty, but is wit poetry?
Yes, they wrote well, but is mere good writing poetry?
I agree with Housman and find, for instance, that Pope’s essay poems are hard to
read and harder to like. They seem too pat, too satisfied with easy,
unsatisfying answers, not challenging enough. The words “ring hollow” occur to
There were some bright spots during the dry spell, especially the two great odes
of Thomas Gray (1716-1771). But as the next major poet complained in "To the
How have you left the antient love
That bards of old enjoyed in you!
The languid strings do scarcely move!
The sound is forc'd, the notes are few!
When the first major Romantic poets — Thomas Chatterton (1752-1770), William Blake
Robert Burns (1759-1796) — finally showed up, they really shook things up. And all the easy, pat
answers flew out the window.
Chatterton, the “marvelous boy,” died too young to leave a major mark, but he
did blaze a trail of sorts. He returned English poetry to the ancient well of
Anglo-Saxon poetry, channeled through Chaucer, light on the frenchificaitions.
But it was William Blake who really shook things up. While the
Romantics have been called “nature poets,” Blake was more of an anti-nature,
anti-Creator, anti-orthodox-religion poet. He was something English poetry had
not seen before. One might call him the first major English prophet, crying in
the wilderness. Blake claimed to be able to speak to angels, but his angels were
rebel angels, not the pallid conformist angels of orthodox Christianity.
At around the same time, Robert Burns was assailing kings, lords and the corrupt
church of his day. Blake and Burns were not just poets, they were harsh critics
of the establishment. They were reformers. On the eve of the French Revolution,
Burns was already writing about the rights of women. Blake was the first artist
to graphically depict the horrors of the slave trade and he wrote one of the
first poems about racial equality, “The Little Black Boy.” William
Wordsworth (1770-1850) was the most influential of the Romantics in their day, a
penner of masterful sonnets and odes. Lord Byron (1788-1824) was
another anti-establishment figure. Percy Bysshe Shelley (1792-1822) was an atheist and no
fan of the status quo. Shelley was the first major writer to propose the
nonviolent resistance to unjust governments. John Keats (1795-1821) died far too
young but left an indelible mark on the English language and its literature.
I think what linked the great Romantics was not nature so much as the individual
self. They threw out the themes of classical poetry — praise of kings and lords,
of God and church, of the established (or mythical) order and harmony — to
express deep dissatisfaction with the status quo. They were in favor of the
individual, not of the herd mentality. Many of our modern ideas — of equality of
the races and sexes, of the common man being as good as any king or lord (and
probably a lot more honest), of the primacy of artistic truth and beauty — either
originated with the Romantics or had their first public flowering there.
Today we tend to think of the Romantics and nature primarily because of the
pantheistic nature of some of William Wordsworth’s more famous poems. But Blake
was no lover of nature. Burns was more concerned with the common man and his
struggles (and loves and desires) than nature, per se. Byron’s best poems touch
lightly on nature, if at all. Keats and Shelly employed nature imagery, but they
were more philosophers than naturalists. Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772-1834) was
a bit of a mystic. His best poems are pure works
of the human imagination: “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” and “Kubla
So I believe what united the Romantics, more than anything, was the elevation of
the individual self and the human imagination above the common herd and its conformist
mentality. The Romantics rejected easy, pat answers that eternal truths
were to be found in the Bible, or in orthodox religion, or in fealty to church
and state and crown.
They were rebels, essentially.
Romanticism was essentially a rebellion against everything that preceded it, and
against everything that denied the worth and the value and the rights and the
dreams of the individual. And this takes us back to Milton and his rebellious
angels — the original source of English Romanticism. As William Blake pointed
out, the poet who claimed he intended to justify the ways of God to man did not
such thing. Instead, he made Adam, Eve and Lucifer romantic, rebellious heroes
for the ages. And that is where English Romanticism begins: with rebellion.
WAS KING SOLOMON, THE WORLD’S WISEST MAN, AN ATHEIST?
Michael R. Burch is an American poet who lives in Nashville, Tennessee with his
wife Beth, their son Jeremy, and three outrageously spoiled puppies. His poems, epigrams, translations, essays, articles,
reviews, short stories and letters have appeared
more than 6,000 times in publications which include TIME, USA Today, The Hindu,
BBC Radio 3, CNN.com, Daily Kos, The Washington Post, Light Quarterly, The Lyric, Measure, Writer's Digest—The Year's Best Writing,
The Best of the Eclectic Muse, Unlikely Stories and
hundreds of other literary journals, websites and blogs. Mike Burch is also the
founder and editor-in-chief of The HyperTexts, a former columnist for the Nashville City Paper and, according to Google's
rankings, a relevant online publisher of poems about the Holocaust,
Hiroshima, the Trail of Tears, Gaza
and the Palestinian Nakba. He has two published books,
Violets for Beth (White
Violet Press, 2012) and
O, Terrible Angel (Ancient Cypress Press, 2013).
A third book, Auschwitz Rose, is still in the chute but long delayed.
Burch's poetry has been translated into fourteen languages and set to music by
twelve composers. His poem "First They
Came for the Muslims" has been adopted by Amnesty International for its
Words That Burn anthology, a free online resource for
students and educators. Burch has also served as editor of International
Poetry and Translations for the literary journal Better
Michael R. Burch
Ironically, the first atheist we know by name may have been the wisest man of
all time, the famous King Solomon.
The author of Ecclesiastes calls himself “the Preacher, the son of David, king
in Jerusalem,” which would of course be Solomon, the son of David who ruled
Israel sometime around the tenth century BC. Ecclesiastes also mentions that the
Preacher wrote many proverbs, and the book of Proverbs has also been attributed
If Solomon wrote Ecclesiastes, as many Christians believe and maintain, and as
the Bible itself clearly states, he was apparently a fatalist and a nonbeliever
in the power of God to save or establish justice. The Preacher does not describe
God as creating justice on earth, or having any role in salvation after death.
The Preacher never praises God, does not pray to him, expects no help from him,
and believes prophecy is impossible. Depending on the translation, the Preacher
repeatedly says that everything is “vanity” or “meaningless.” He sounds nothing
like a Catholic pope or a Protestant minister.
The Preacher does not believe in the justice of God on earth: “There is
something else meaningless that occurs on earth: the righteous who get what the
wicked deserve, and the wicked who get what the righteous deserve. This too, I
say, is meaningless.” He does not believe that God is in control of the fates of
men, but says “time and chance happeneth to them all.” This is one of the most
heretical passages in Ecclesiastes, if one believes in an all-powerful God, and
there are quite a few.
A greater heresy for Catholic popes and Protestant ministers is that the
Preacher says sacrifices are meaningless: “All share a common destiny—the
righteous and the wicked, the good and the bad, the clean and the unclean, those
who offer sacrifices and those who do not.”
The Preacher’s heresies continue to mount because he says “the dead know
nothing; they have no further reward.”
The Preacher holds out no hope for a life after death, neither does he mention
anything about a judgement after death.
The Preacher is not at all complimentary about what God has given human beings:
“the days of this meaningless life that God has given you under the sun—all your
Pro-life Christians will find no agreement with the world’s wisest man, because
he clearly says that it is better not to be born. He also does not advise
prayer, saying “let your words [to God] be few.” He does not believe in
prophecy, saying “no one can discover anything about their future.” This rebuke
of prophecy recurs several times in Ecclesiastes.
The Preacher’s assessment is unremittingly bleak: “Everything to come is
meaningless.” He holds out no hope of life after death. Because there is no
prospect of life after death, all a man can do is enjoy life here on earth. The
Preacher commends “mirth, because a man hath no better thing under the sun, than
to eat, and to drink, and to be merry.”
This is the wisdom of the world’s wisest man: that faith, sacrifice and good
works don’t amount to a hill of beans. Everyone ends up the same: good and bad,
righteous and unrighteous, and sacrifice makes no difference. What really
matters is having a good time. Eat, drink and be merry, because tomorrow we die,
and there is nothing to look forward to after death.
Many Christians like to claim that the Bible is “inerrant” and “infallible.” But
the wisdom of the world’s wisest man is not in accordance with their faith. How
can anyone reconcile “all is meaningless” and “all is vanity” with the idea that
believing this and doing that will ensure eternal bliss? How can sacrifice be
meaningless if the sacrifice of animals or Jesus is the path to salvation?
THE ERRORS AND TERRORS OF CHRISTIANITY
Michael R. Burch
The Bible is literature, so I will criticize it here, since that's my job. The
Bible's author has claimed perfection, inerrancy and infallibility, at least
according to the author's disciples. I will, however, lay that strange notion
immediately and forever to rest.
All Christians believe odd things, but they don't all agree on the details, in
which the Devil lies, if you'll pardon the pun. So I have chosen to criticize
orthodox Christianity and leave the possibly somewhat saner sects, like the
Universalists, alone. Anyone who doesn't condemn me to hell for not believing
their preferred brand of nonsense is an improvement on the typical Christian
hellion, in my book.
What are the main tenets of orthodox Christianity? The main tenet, of course, is
that God is infinitely worse than the Devil and will condemn billions of souls
to an "eternal hell" for guessing wrong about which of hundreds or thousands of
earthly religions to believe. Jesus Christ will cause or allow Einstein and
Gandhi to go to hell. This, to Christians, is "perfection." Other core beliefs
of orthodox Christianity include (1) that Jesus is God, as a member of the
Trinity, (2) that all three members of the Trinity are perfect and are thus in
perfect agreement and accord with each other, and (3) that the Bible is the
"word of God" and, having been authored by God, is automatically "inerrant" and
But, as I mentioned in my introduction, I intend to burst this little bubble
immediately and forever. Let me commence ...
The burden of perfection is quite large. Immense, really, and thus wildly beyond
human capability. The greatest human writers made mistakes. For instance, the
near-consensus choice for the greatest writer of all time, Shakespeare, had
clocks in ancient Rome and billiards in ancient Egypt. And Shakespeare was a
genius, while the authors of the Bible undoubtedly included any number of evil
morons. So we can expect to find colossal mistakes in the Bible, coupled with
ghastly evil, and of course we do.
Let us begin our investigation operating under the orthodox Christian premise
that Jesus is God, and that as part of the Godhead he was in perfect agreement
with all the perfections of the entire Bible, with not a word amiss from
chilling beginning to even more chilling end. This means that Jesus, as part of
the Godhead, commanded slavery, sex slavery, the stoning to death of children
for misdemeanors, infanticide, matricide, ethnic cleansing and genocide. Are
these "perfections" or the ravings of ancient depraved lunatics?
I rest my case.
Ah, but I see that you don't believe me! The magical allure of the Christian
religion continues to prevail, like a fishhook securing a grouper. So let me
give you a quick "for instance."
Take Deuteronomy 22:13-21, for instance. This delightful little passage,
authored by Moses according to the book itself, is automatically sheer
perfection because the great prophet and lawgiver received his commandments
directly from a perfect God, which means a perfect Jesus was in complete
agreement with the passage's stunning perfections. Said perfections include: If
a man "hates" his wife and wants to murder her immediately after marrying her
and having sex with her, all he has to do is produce a "cloth" sans bloodstains
that "proves" she was not a virgin on her wedding night. There would then be a
little community get-together at her father's front doorstep, where the girl's
skull would be broken open with flung stones until her brains oozed out and all
was well again. Now, I am not normally one to quibble with perfections, but I
can see some enormous bottleflies buzzing around in this rancid ointment. First,
since DNA testing wouldn't be invented for several millennia, how would anyone
know if the cloth had anything to do with the
to-be-slaughtered-in-the-most-ghastly-fashion-imaginable little girl in
question? (Please keep in mind that in those prehistoric days most wives were
girls in their early teens, or younger.) How would anyone know the murderous
lunatic husband hadn't produced some alternate cloth? And of course the real
Creator would have known that not all girls bleed the first time they have sex.
The real Creator could not have made such a moronic mistake. Human morons,
however could, and obviously did.
And even if the little girl in question had had sex prior to marriage, how many
of the men stoning her to death would have also had extramarital sex? Probably
all of them. Jesus made this point when he repudiated the ghastly concept of
murdering girls and women for having sex. Who is qualified to cast the first
stone where sex is involved? And what, pray tell, do Christians say when girls
are stoned to death in Muslim countries for having sex? Of course millions of
Christians thunderously call Islam a "false religion"! Imagine that! How can
they fail to see the absolute perfection of caving in the skulls of little girls
because someone said it was "the will of God"?
What did Jesus say about religious hypocrites, do any of his disciples remember?
So in this brief passage we can clearly see that one of two things must be true:
Either God is not perfect because he authored an evil commandment that is
completely lacking in even the rudiments of justice and which he repudiated
himself in the person of Jesus Christ, or God did not author the evil
commandment and thus the Bible is not "the word of God" nor "inerrant" nor
While I have been accused of "blasphemy against the Holy Spirit" for not
agreeing that it is complete and sheer perfection to stone little girls to death
for something they didn't do, I think it actually works the other way. I am
saying that God did not author the
satanic verses in question and thus I am defending the honor and integrity of
God if he/she exists, which I do not claim to know. Nor does anyone else, of
course, so we are all in the same tub together. The ones actually blaspheming
the name of God, if God exists, are the Christians who claim he authored every
word of the Bible. They are accusing their God of being wildly unjust and
commanding the worst crimes known to humanity, which I itemized earlier.
Let me also point out that according to the Genesis account, human beings suffer
and die only because they ate the forbidden fruit and acquired the
knowledge of good and evil. Thus, if human beings do not possess the knowledge
of good and evil, they should be immortal and never suffer or die. But, quite
curiously, many Christians seem to only know that stoning girls to death is evil
when it happens in Muslim countries. When their own Bible commands the same
horror, they suddenly claim this horrendous evil and wild injustice is the
perfection of a perfect God.
Were they gypped by their God, or did evil, lying men write large parts of the
Bible, meaning Christians need to "test the spirits" and "rightly divide the
word" as the Bible itself instructs?
For an expanded bio, circum vitae and career timeline of the poet, please click here: Michael R. Burch Expanded Bio.
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