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.
Subjects discussed include:
Literary Devices with Examples
Tips for Beginning and Intermediate Poets
Observations about Poetry and Writing
Why I Call Addled Poetry "Experts" the Keystone Scops
My Literary Heresies
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? It had taken an entire day for Joyce to come up with only 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,
The main mantra 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 (or large) 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 Hamlet accomplishes most of what it
accomplishes not through things, not through artistic imagery and metaphors, but
through highly complex ideas expressed as such. 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," the curtal sonnets of Gerard Manley Hopkins. 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. The question is, of course, rhetorical.
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
THE MADNESS OF THE MANTRAS OF MODERNISM
Michael R. Burch
I was asked what makes "The Red Wheelbarrow" different from other poems. I
don’t know that it is all that different from other poems. It
seems rather ordinary to me. The poem gained fame as an “example” of these
nonsensical modernist mantras:
No ideas but in things!
Show, don’t tell!
As I have pointed out before, these hysterical commandments boil down to the same thing: Poets should not say
what they mean directly. Rather, they should beat around the bush. Now as options these imperious commandments would be fine. It is perfectly fine to
show rather than tell. But the greatest poets did “tell” — Homer, Dante,
Shakespeare, plus your personal favorites, most likely.
Furthermore, I find it ironic that in his famous poetic treatise William Carlos Williams begins by
blatantly telling: “So much depends …”
If WCW hadn’t given the game away by telling us what he was up to, no one would
remember his nonsensical treatise. It would just be a brief series of mundane,
meaningless images. It is only the telling that makes the poem of any interest
I also feel compelled to note that the most prominent of the early modernists, Ezra Pound and T. S.
Eliot, wrote poetry full of abstract notions delivered directly via abstract
For instance, when Eliot, speaking as Prufrock, wants us to understand his
Shakespeare he resorts to direct statement:
No! I am not Prince Hamlet, nor was meant to be;
Am an attendant lord, one that will do
To swell a progress, start a scene or two,
Advise the prince; no doubt, an easy tool,
Deferential, glad to be of use,
Politic, cautious, and meticulous;
Full of high sentence, but a bit obtuse;
At times, indeed, almost ridiculous—
Almost, at times, the Fool.
Pound’s Cantos are similarly replete with telling.
So there is a lot of hypocrisy involved. The apostles failed to set good
examples for their disciples, who nonetheless repeat the absurd mantras, ad
Common sense tells us that because the greatest poets both showed and told, both
methods are perfectly fine. The best poets can do both, have done both, and will
continue to do both. The parrots will, alas, continue to parrot nonsense.
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.
Michael R. Burch
“Ode to a Nightingale” by John Keats employs a wide variety of poetic
• Form: I believe Keats created a nonce form for this ode.
Meter: Iambic pentameter with trimeter in the eighth line of each stanza.
End Rhyme: The rhyme scheme is ABABCDECDE.
Internal Rhyme: “To toll me back from thee to my sole self.”
Repetition for Emphasis: "Away! Away!"
Alliteration: “With beaded bubbles winking at the brim.”
Assonance: “In some melodious plot.”
Imagery: “Fast fading violets cover’d up in leaves.”
Simile: “Forlorn! the very word is like a bell.”
Metaphor: “Fast fading violets” are a metaphor for the briefness of human life.
• Allusive Metaphor: “Bacchus and his pards” is a metaphor that alludes to
excessive drinking. Bacchus was the Greek god of wine and drunkenness. He was
worshiped by frenzied priestesses known as the Bacchae. A
bacchanalia is a drunken orgy. By declining to travel with Bacchus, Keats
is saying that he will not fly to the nightingale by getting drunk.
• Extended Metaphor: The poem may be considered an extended metaphor in which
the nightingale’s immortal song represents Keats’s poetry. When Keats enters the
night of death, his song will still be heard and he will have joined the
Symbology: The nightingale symbolizes the poet, poetry and poetic inspiration
(the Muse). The nightingale’s song symbolizes the poet’s verse.
Allusion: The nightingale is an allusion to Philomela (also Philomel). In Greek
mythology Philomela was a princess of Athens who was raped and mutilated by
Tereus, her sister's husband. Tereus cut out Philomela’s tongue to prevent her
from accusing him. But she was transformed into a nightingale by the gods who
made her immortal and gave her the loveliest of voices. I believe Keats is
identifying with Philomela because he suffered with tuberculosis that had
attacked him and threatened to silence him. He would die tragically young at age
25. But like Philomela he would still be heard thanks to a gift of the gods, the
Muses of poetry.
Personification: Beauty is personified with “where beauty cannot keep her
lustrous eyes.” The Moon is personified: “And haply the Queen-Moon is on her
throne.” The Stars, Love and Death are also personified.
Apostrophe: The poet speaks directly to the nightingale: “Thou wast not born for
death, immortal Bird.”
Anaphora: Keats opens the poem with an anaphora, stressing the personal nature
of the poem by beginning its first two lines with “My.” In the third stanza
Keats begins a series of lines with “Where.”
Anadiplosis: The term means “double back” in Greek. In poetry this is to
emphasize a word or phrase through close repetition and especially to repeat the
ending word of a line or stanza at the beginning of the next line or stanza.
Keats concludes the seventh stanza with the word “forlorn” and begins the eighth
stanza with the same word.
Wordplay, Puns, Double Entendres: I believe “my sole self” probably
means “my individual self” and “my soul-self” or simply “my soul.” The word
“darkling” is rare and may have been chosen because it sounds like “darling”
and "daring," although that is just a guess on my part. One does wonder if Thomas Hardy
got his “Darkling Thrush” from Keat’s darkling nightingale.
Ditto for Matthew Arnold's "darkling plain."
Exclamations: “O” twice, "Forlorn!" and "Adieu!" and “Away! Away!”
Poetic Contractions: “’Tis” and “Charm’d” among others.
Enjambment: “My sense, as though of hemlock I had drunk, / Or emptied some dull
opiate to the drains.”
Hyperbole: Keats calls the nightingale “immortal” but of course its lifespan was
shorter than his. Nightingales have lifespans of one to five years. And
ironically the females are mute.
Paradox: Keats portrays approaching Death in dark terms — “weariness,” “fever,”
“fret,” “palsy,” “leaden-eyed despairs,” etc. — but he also calls Death
“easeful” and says he has called Death “soft names” in “many a mused rhyme.”
Antithesis: Keats compares the brevity of a human life to the immortality of the
nightingale. But perhaps he means that the nightingale’s song is immortal. If
so, Keats may be saying, “I am going to die soon, but this poem will be
immortal.” If so, he was unfortunately correct on the first count, and an
accurate prophet on the second.
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
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.
My Literary Heresies
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,
YES, THERE HAVE BEEN AMERICAN EPIC POEMS
Michael R. Burch
Have there been any American epic poems? Much depends on what one means by the
term “epic poem.” If we construe the term widely, to mean a long or longish poem
with some sort of sweeping epic theme, these are my personal choices for the
greatest epic poems in American literature:
Leaves of Grass by Walt Whitman is my landslide winner. Whitman was his
own Ulysses, his own Aeneas, his own Moses, his own Christ, and perhaps his own
Pilate as well. He was Homer making Homer a hero for the ages, and Milton making
Milton a Lucifer incarnate, but somehow we end up liking and admiring Uncle Walt
nonetheless. He was a great spirit and a great poet. Like a winged Pegasus, they
can pull off such unlikely and marvelous things.
The collected poems of Emily Dickinson might qualify as an epic yet unstintingly
introspective vision of one woman, in 2,000-plus short verses. If Whitman made
himself his own Christ, Dickinson may have made herself her own Mary Magdalene,
but she was no shirking violet in her poems. (For instance, “Wild Nights.”) As
different as they were as people and in style, I think the father and mother of
American poetry were similar in the way they investigated and exposed
themselves, warts and all, to their readers. One might call them the first major
American confessional poets. They were the subjects of their respective epics.
“I Have a Dream” by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. is an epic national vision and I
think it qualifies as poetry of a high order as well. Poets write memorable
words and who can ever forget Dr. King’s?
Howl by Allen Ginsberg was another unabashed vision of America — warts
and all. In this case, mostly warts.
The Bridge by Hart Crane was his response to the bleak vision of T. S.
Eliot in The Waste Land. Few modern poets can hope to challenge the
endlessly eloquent Eliot, but I think Crane exceeded him in a few poems — for
example, “Proem: to Brooklyn Bridge” and the magnificent longer version of
“Voyages.” Crane was not always consistently excellent, but no rhapsode ever hit
higher notes or held them longer. And we do remember Babe Ruth for his
gargantuan clouts, not his strikeouts.
Another poet able to challenge and sometimes exceed Eliot was Wallace Stevens.
Go with the 1931 version of Harmonium, which adds 14 poems to the
original. Or better yet, buy his Collected Poems.
Ezra Pound’s Cantos will be hard for many readers to like, and most
won’t bother, but the man could write. My favorite Pound poem is his exquisite
Kensington Garden poem. I can forgive him many literary sins for that one. As
for Pound being an antisemite, from what I understand he helped Jews fleeing
from what became the Holocaust. So I will give Uncle Ezra the benefit of the
doubt on both counts. But even he expressed doubt that he had accomplished what
he set out to do with his Cantos. And Pound strikes me as more
cosmopolitan than American, like his protégé Eliot, who might otherwise qualify
for The Waste Land and Four Quartets. If we are talking about
epic poems penned by Americans, Pound and Eliot are contenders. If we are
talking about national epics and/or Americana, not so much.
I seem to remember Charles Olson calling Pound and Eliot “inferior
predecessors.” Thus we should expect Olson’s epic-length The Maximus Poems to
be remarkably better than anything produced by his inferiors. Well, Olson did
tower over the diminutive pair in physical height, at six-foot-eight, so that is
something. Otherwise, I remain unconvinced and will opt for “Prufrock,” the
“Four Quartets,” the lovely Kensington Garden poem …
I think Robert Hayden’s marvelous sonnet “Those Winter Sundays” is one of the
very best poems written in the last hundred years, or so. But I must confess
that I haven’t read his longer epic poem Middle Passage except for
snatches here and there, so I can’t comment other than to mention it as a
possible contender, based on the man’s obvious talent and erudition. So much to
read and so little time — a cliché but nonetheless true.
Paterson is a poem of beyond-epic length, published in five volumes by
William Carlos Williams. While I did like his poem about the icy plums, I am not
in general a WCW fan, and I cannot imagine reading one volume, much less five. I
mention the poem here because of its remarkable length. If I can manage a decent
couplet, I’m happy. And readers will be able to finish it, so we are all
The Mouse Whole by Richard Moore is an American epic poem of an
entirely different flavor. The poet turns himself into a mouse, sets himself
afloat in an overflowing sewer, then artfully poses questions such as, "Should
parents who don't want kids have them?" Such questions should be rhetorical but
might be lost on the MAGA crowd. The hero is so small and of such little
consequence that his name isn't revealed until the third book. But he is Byronic
in his ability to come up with implausible rhymes to save couplets here and
there from going under! For instance:
I turned and swam downstream,
and two feet down with a shiver
climbed out of that stinking river
and sat on a stone in despair
and thought of my dripping hair
and how long it would take to dry...
then out of the side of my eye
saw the envelope floating by.
And I thought of the fatuous hopes
stirred up by envelopes ...
Such a sense, I am certain, shined
in the depths of her dim little mind,
and perhaps those others who'd brawl so
occasionally sensed it also ...
Those who in a spasm
of hot enthusiasm
thoughtlessly beget us:
how soon do they regret us?
At 18,000 lines, Clarel by Herman Mellville has been described as “the
longest skein of verse in American literature and as knotty as the pasture pines
Edward Arlington Robinson wrote three long blank-verse narrative poems —
Merlin, Lancelot and Tristram — that may be considered
three volumes of a major Arthurian epic poem.
The Song of Hiawatha by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow would be an early
contender. But I think Longfellow’s best poems were his shorter lyric poems, and
this one does not rank high in my personal canon. The meter may be of interest,
the story less so to most readers, probably.
The Four Monarchies by Anne Bradstreet, written I believe circa 1650,
would be the earliest American contender, if only because nothing of great
significance had been written on the continent in question previously. But can a
largely or entirely unread poem be considered epic? I am not a huge fan of the
Bradstreet poems I have read, and I haven’t read the longer work in question, so
once again I must reserve judgment.
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 happy
to describe their torments in great detail, and he very conveniently saves
himself via his lover Beatrice and his favorite pagan 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, his Ahab, his Huckleberry Finn?
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, with his mind-numbing morality. 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, and all ends well. Sorry,
but the plot and characters don’t
strike me as the height of literature. I am not a Dante fan. Perhaps the poetry
reads wonderfully well in Italian, but so far the translations I have read offer
no redeeming values.
Also, I very much doubt that Dante has been as "influential" as advertised, at
least in terms of English language readership.
Homer influenced English poetry because his works were translated into English,
as early as 1581 by Arthur Hall. There were also major translations by
recognizable names like George Chapman (1598), Thomas Hobbes (1676), John Dryden
(1700) and Alexander Pope (1715). But there was no major translation of Dante
for most of the history of English poetry. How many English readers were able to
read the original Italian — one in a hundred?
We are all familiar with John Keats explaining in his famous sonnet how Homer
only swam into his ken when he was able to read Chapman’s translation. How can a
work of literature be vastly influential if almost no one can read it? And that
would have been the case for the Italian verses of Dante in England. From what I
have been able to gather in my studies, Dante’s
poetry was largely unknown in England, until the translations of his namesake
Dante Gabriel Rossetti, published in The Early Italian Poets in 1861.
But Rossetti translated La Vita Nuova, so even then the Comedy
lacked a superior, popular translation by an important poet, as far as I can
tell. It would be 1867 before a major poet, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow,
translated the Comedy into English. It’s hard for a work that didn’t
have a major translation until 1867 to be of much influence. English poetry was
already mature by 1867. Hell, Walt Whitman had published Leaves of Grass,
the first major work of modern free verse, in 1855.
Ironically, Ciaran Carson, who has been credited with one of the better modern
translations of Dante, as late as 2000 "was almost completely unfamiliar with
Dante's work"! How did that happen? Because translation of Dante into English is
something of a recent novelty. Gilbert F. Cunningham took on the unenviable task
of reading 44 translations of 44 Dante and critiquing them. Renaissance
Quarterly, when introducing Cunningham’s book, mentioned “the slowness of
the appearance of English translations” and the difficulty English readers had
understanding and appreciating Dante. According to that review, only a few of
the translations were “reasonably successful”: those of Cary, Carlyle,
Longfellow, Norton and Wicksteed. The earliest of those was Cary’s in 1814 and
he had to publish the book at his own expense. In any case, it seems English
readers didn’t have even “reasonably good” translations of Dante until
1814–1867, with the work of Cary, Carlyle, Rossetti and Longfellow. Worse, they
didn’t have even bad translations until 1802 …
As the Wikipedia page notes, Dante’s Divine Comedy was translated “into
Latin, French, Spanish and other European languages well before it was first
translated into English. In fact the first English translation was only
completed in 1802, almost 500 years after Dante wrote his Italian original. The
lack of English translations before this is due in part to Dante's Catholic
views being distasteful, or at least uninteresting, to Protestant English
audiences, who viewed such a Catholic theology, mixed with references to
classical mythos, as heretical.”
That 1802 translation was by Henry Boyd, an obscure Irish cleric, not a renowned
poet like Chapman or Pope. How many people read the translation? I have never
heard it cited, not once, in a literary career spanning more than half a
century. And without a stellar translation, where is the allure of Dante? I have
read several different translations of Dante, and none of them were good enough
to convince me to keep reading. I don’t think Dante has been all that
influential, as far as English poetry is concerned, except perhaps through the
work of poets like Chaucer and Milton. But that would be like us getting
Shakespeare through Moby Dick and West Side Story!
Lacking the ability to read the original, I suspect many readers have done what
I did, giving up the enterprise as a lost cause.
How influential was Dante, really? According to Tim N. Smith, the Inferno
“did not work its way into the mainstream of English literature and translation
until the nineteenth century, when Samuel Taylor Coleridge presented a series of
lectures on Dante.” William J. De Sua in his book Dante Into English
agreed, saying that “Coleridge was largely responsible for raising Dante’s
reputation to the height it still [occupied in 1964].” But Coleridge only joined
the Dante bandwagon later in his life, after a “fortuitous” meeting with H. F.
Cary in 1817 introduced him to Cary’s blank-verse translation “which had lain
neglected since its publication three years previously.” So it seems Dante only
became popular and influential in English literary circles after there were
finally some “reasonably good” translations for people to read. Before 1814, it
seems Dante’s influence was mostly limited to small numbers of English speakers
who were fluent enough in Italian to read the originals.
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.
HOW I CAME TO CREATE MY TRUMP PAGES
Michael R. Burch
The golden image of Trump at the 2021 CPAC conference reminded me of an earlier
insurrection involving a golden calf. Millions of Americans who call themselves
Christians are worshipping Trump the way he worships himself. But let no one say
that I didn't warn them many years in advance.
I came to my findings in a somewhat mysterious way.
I grew up in an evangelical Christian family with missionaries, a deacon, and
Sunday School teachers ... all very well-versed in the Bible. I read the Bible
from cover to cover, starting at age eleven, and I know it better than most
pastors because I read it honestly and didn't ignore the more difficult parts
that pastors refuse to discuss with their flocks. And I had felt for a long time
that most evangelical churches were on the wrong track. Was Jesus an
auburn-haired Rambo, really? As an adult, I briefly attended a Southern Baptist
Church but was having deep misgivings. One day as we were singing a hymn, I felt
what one might call a "suggestion" (it wasn't an audible voice) to investigate
the last hymn in the Baptist Hymnal. To my shock, the last hymn in the Baptist
Hymnal was number 666!
That was no accident because my mother later had a Baptist Hymnal given to her,
and it too concluded its hymns with number 666. But she had added a 667th hymn
by handwriting the lyrics of one of her favorite hymns, "Jerusalem," on the back
inside cover. Mom didn't know it, but the lyrics were written by my favorite
poet, William Blake, the great English poet, artist, engraver and mystic who
said he was able to communicate with angels. Blake's angels did not agree with
the organized religion of his day. I have Blakes in my recent ancestry, so it's
possible we may be related.
In any case, I left the church and launched my own independent studies.
When Trump announced his candidacy in 2015, everything about him seemed wrong,
but I was not thinking "Antichrist" at the time. Then something mysterious
related to the number 666 happened again. At the first Republican debate, Trump
attacked Megyn Kelly for simply quoting what he had said publicly about women
when he called them "pigs," "dogs," "disgusting animals," etc. There was an
understandable backlash and Trump announced that he would skip the next debate
in order to do a charity event for the veterans he claims to "love." This too
struck me as wrong, so I decided to investigate.
Trump "love" is such a curious thing:
does he love our vets half as much as his bling?
—Michael R. Burch aka "The Loyal Opposition"
I learned that Trump had tried repeatedly to keep veterans from selling
patriotic flags and t-shirts on ritzy Fifth Avenue, even though that was their
right by New York state law. Trump had written public letters to New York mayors
demanding that they prohibit vets from street vending. When the mayors refused
to break the law, Trump had massive concrete pillars built outside his Trump
Tower doors to deny vets space to street vend. Such a patriot, that Trump!
While I was doing my research, I felt another curious suggestion: Who owns 666
Fifth Avenue? Once again, it wasn't an audible
voice, but once again it was a very clear and specific question. At first I told
the non-voice it was crazy. There couldn't be such an address in Christian
America! But I decided to do the research and it turned out the Trumps had
purchased the 666 tower through Jared Kushner and his wife Ivanka Trump (who had
converted to Judaism). Here are some of the interesting things I discovered
during my investigations:
The Trumps purchased the most expensive building ever bought in the US, at 666
Fifth Avenue, a street symbolic of money (Mammon).
The Trumps paid $1.8 billion for the 666 tower.
And 18 = 3*6 = 666. The 666 tower was bought by Ivanka Trump and her husband Jared
• According to the
Bible, Kush was the patriarch and founder of Babylon.
• The 666 tower looks
like a Babylonian ziggurat.
The infamous Trump Tower is 203 meters tall
according to multiple reports. And 203 meters = 666 feet.
• Trump's namesake tower has what
appear visually to be hanging gardens like those made famous by Babylon.
Donald Trump inherited his grandmother's real estate empire when she died on
June 6, 1966 = 6-6-6.
• Trump's grandmother's name was Elizabeth
Christ Trump. Elizabeth means "vow" so her full
name means "Vow for Christ to be Trumped."
• Trump was born a blood
moon in 1946.
• The first mention of
the Antichrist in the book of Daniel calls him a "little horn."
• In the last book of
the Christian Bible, a "Trump of Doom" sounds and is followed by a terrible
On the Ides of March, the day Rome changed from a republic to a dictatorship,
Trump had 666 delegates.
• The 2016 election was
"all Trump all the time" and 2016 = 666+666+666+6+6+6.
• Trump's first fiscal
deficit was 666 billion dollars. (Per Fox Business
and other sources.)
• The number of migrant children Trump separated from their mothers and fathers is
666, according to lawyers trying to reunite the families.
Trump uttered an unholy trinity of heresies on August 21, 2019, when he claimed
to be the "King of Israel," the "second coming of God" and the "Chosen One."
• August 21 was the 233rd day of the year, and 2*3*3=18=6+6+6.
The Trumps are in
the process of building a $666 million tower at One Journal Square.
According to multiple reports the height
will be 666 feet.
• Donald Trump's name in
various forms equates to 666 in Jewish gematria,
English gematria, and ASCII computer code. You can
confirm this with simple Google searches.
I was the first person to put all these eerie facts together and "go public" as
they unraveled, but I think I had some help in the form of nonverbal
MY THEORY OF THE EVOLUTION OF WRITING, WITH A THOUGHT EXPERIMENT
Michael R. Burch
The earliest known drawing, circa 70,000 BC, was found at Blombos, South Africa.
The drawing, made with a red ocher crayon, looks like a # hashtag! Very
curiously, researchers have identified 32 common geometric symbols used in 52
different caves around the world. The symbols seem to have significance and may
be the earliest form of writing. Our ancestors went to great lengths to create
the symbols, but unfortunately we do not understand what they represent. “This
capacity goes back at least 100,000 years,” says Francesco d’Errico of the
University of Bordeaux, France. The Altamira Cave cave paintings, circa 39,000
BC, may be the earth's oldest paintings and the earliest carbon-dated examples
of human figurative art. Skipping rapidly forward in time, researcher Genevieve
von Petzinger determined that symbols she had found on numerous cave walls were
being combined on necklaces, circa 14,000 BC, found at the French village of Les
Eyzies-de-Tayac. The necklaces, discovered with the body of a young woman, had
beads made from ancient deer teeth. The beads were etched with symbols:
different combinations of straight lines, an X, and an asterisk formed by
running a straight line through an X. Von Petzinger believes this combination of
symbols is the evolution of some form of human code. If so, over time the code
could have further evolved into more complex cuneiform script and hieroglyphics.
But if there is a code, no one has been able to crack it so far. That is, at
least, until I took a whack at it ...
This is speculation on my part, but let’s assume a straight horizontal line was
used for counting, with one line representing the number one, two lines
representing two, and so on. Now let’s assume an X represents two people mating,
while an asterisk formed by adding a straight horizontal line represents
"adding" a baby (this is wild speculation for purposes of example). Three
straight lines and an X could represent a woman's third mate. The beads could
then be used to keep track of when a woman had sex with a certain partner and
when she became pregnant. Perhaps nine different beads represented nine moons or
nine menstrual cycles. One new bead might be added each new month or cycle, with
the oldest bead being discarded when it no longer fit. If a woman had two or
more partners, she could keep track of whose children she might potentially be
bearing. Again, this is speculation. But it might have been very important for a
pregnant woman to know whose child she was carrying, men being inclined to
prefer their own children to those fathered by other men.
The evolution of writing includes other important milestones. Inscriptions cut
in stone on Fourth Dynasty tombs of Giza and the Second Dynasty tablet of the
Ashmolean Museum in Oxford date to around 4200 BC. Symbols on Gerzean (Egyptian)
pottery, circa 3800 BC, have been compared to later hieroglyphics, although the
connection is disputed. The Kish Tablet, circa 3250 BC, may be the oldest extant
example of Sumerian proto-cuneiform (i.e., pictographic) writing. Early Egyptian
hieroglyphics date to around this time. A Seth-Peribsen tomb seal, circa 2690
BC, has the first known complete sentence: "The golden one of Ombos has unified
the two realms for his son ... Peribsen." The Sumerian Kesh Temple Hymns and Instructions
of Šuruppak, circa 2500 BC, may be the earth's oldest surviving literature.
The Egyptian Tale of a Shipwrecked Sailor has also been dated to around
this time. Thus we may consider 2500 BC as the approximate beginning point of
literature and songwriting. But there does seem to be the possibility, at least,
of some form of communication that goes back at least 70,000 years, and perhaps
100,000 or more. If the 32 common cave symbols have meaning, the use of symbols
could have expanded over time into more complex forms of writing like cuneiform
It may be impossible to crack the earliest code. But my little thought
experiment seems intriguing to me. A bead might represent a moon or menstrual
cycle. The easiest symbol to draw, a straight line, might be used for simple
counting — something I use nearly every day myself,
although I prefer vertical lines. But a vertical line might have been assigned
another meaning, like "myself." In any case, what would a young woman be most
concerned about, calendar-wise and mathematically? If she had more than one
mate, keeping track of when she had sex, and with whom, might have been very
important, men being as they are. Perhaps mate swapping was only allowed when a
woman was infertile, to help establish paternity. Our ancestors may not have
been as prudish about monogamy as we are. If similar necklaces with the same
symbols are found only with the bodies of females, that might be a big clue. Of
course I am only an amateur (and some experts might consider me rank), but we
may have to consider what was most important to our ancient ancestors if we want
to crack the code. Was the beaded necklace, perhaps, an early calculator,
calendar, and note-taking system? If so, we will have to bow to the genius of
the caveman — or, more correctly — the cavewoman! If I'm correct, some
enterprising young cavewoman created an early iPad: a combination of calendar,
calculator and note-taking system. And she did it with a few beads, something to
twine them on, and an etching tool.
WAS KING SOLOMON, THE WORLD’S WISEST MAN, AN ATHEIST?
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 it is my self-appointed task to burst this nebulous 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 were more of the evil moron variety. 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
beginning to 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 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 house, 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. Evil 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?
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 such a being exists, which I do not claim to know. Nor does anyone else, of
course, so we are all in the same boat together. The ones actually blaspheming
the name of God, if God exists and is good, 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 pivot and claim this horrendous evil 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 those Christians who claim the New Testament is "more perfect" than the
merely "perfect" Old Testament, what about this verse:
All who are under the yoke of slavery should consider their masters worthy of
full respect, so that God’s name and our teaching may not be slandered. (1
This verse not only condones slavery, it also commands slaves to respect their
masters. Should a slave respect a master who is raping his wife and daughters,
really? Is this the perfect wisdom of a God who wants justice? Apparently so,
Slaves, in reverent fear of God submit yourselves to your masters, not only to
those who are good and considerate, but also to those who are harsh ["perverse"
in other translations]. For it is commendable if someone bears up under the pain
of unjust suffering because they are conscious of God. But how is it to your
credit if you receive a beating for doing wrong and endure it? But if you suffer
for doing good and you endure it, this is commendable before God. (1 Peter
Apparently God wants slaves to submit to unjust, harsh and perverse masters. God
is happy when slaves suffer for doing good. And not only the parents, but their
children as well! Is this the perfect wisdom of God or the mindless babbling of
someone who has no idea what young female slaves experience at the hands of
perverse masters, or just can't be bothered to care? Can a wise God fail to
understand that these verses are commanding that young female slaves must submit
to rape while their mothers and fathers do nothing to object?
But the Bible is very clear that God is cool with sex slavery. Hell, according
to the Bible a father can sell his own daughter as a sex slave, with an option
to buy her back if she doesn't "satisfy" her new owner:
When a man sells his daughter as a slave, she will not be freed at the end of
six years as the men are. If she does not satisfy her owner, he must allow her
to be bought back again. (Exodus 21:7-8)
Male slaves were freed automatically after seven years. But not, thanks to the
wonderful wisdom of God, the female slaves! A female slave was a slave for life,
and she could be sold into a life of sex slavery by her own father. He had the
option (but not the obligation) to buy her back if she didn't please and satisfy
her new owner.
Is this the wisdom of God, really?
MORE BIBLE ERRORS
Michael R. Burch
The Bible’s chronologies are often wildly wrong and the ancient book is full of
errors, contradictions and evil masquerading as "goodness" and "wisdom."
For example: The Genesis creation account says that trees and plants grew on
earth before the sun was created. Any intelligent child knows this is
impossible, because without a sun to orbit, the earth would be a frozen globe of
ice whizzing aimlessly through deep space. Trees do not grow in the coldest
polar regions, and a sunless earth would be far colder than during any ice age.
Also, without the sun the light could not be "divided" from the darkness because
everything on earth would be pitch-black all the time. There could be no morning
and no first day without the sun. So the first five verses of Genesis are
rubbish. The next five verses are no better because they explain rain by a
"firmament" that holds rain water somewhere above the sky. The writers of
Genesis obviously did not understand evaporation or rain clouds. Then we get to
the third day, when trees and plants began growing without the sun to provide
light, warmth and something for the earth to orbit around. This is pure
nonsense, not the "infallible" and "inerrant" word of an all-knowing God.
There are actually two conflicting creation
accounts in the book of Genesis, as if the writers didn’t know which one was
correct and just tossed in both, like a salad thrown together by two warring chefs.
Genesis 1 begins with a dark, watery earth, then adds (1) light, then (2) land,
then (3) the sun, moon and stars, then (4) plants, then (5) fish and birds, then
(6) land animals and humans (male and female created together, at the same
time). By contrast, Genesis 2 begins with the existence of dry land, then adds
(1) water in the form of a mist, then (2) a single human male formed from the
dust of the ground, then (3) plants, then (4) all the animals at the same time
with no mention of fish, and finally (5) a woman created from one of the male's
ribs. One wonders why a "god" who can create everything else with a snap of his
fingers would need to resort to surgery in the case of Eve.
Furthermore, everything anyone has ever told us about "original sin" and "the
fall" can easily be shown to be nonsensical. First, the Bible claims that human
beings were offered a choice between the "knowledge of good and evil" and
immortality. If they didn't eat the "forbidden fruit" they would lack the
knowledge of good and evil and live forever in a state of innocence. If they ate
the forbidden fruit, they would be sentenced to death and murdered by God, but
they would at least have the knowledge of good and evil. Now, there are some
obvious problems with this strange deal.
First, if Christians don't understand that it is wildly unjust to expect
innocent children to make the right decision when they have no way of knowing it
is "evil" to eat the forbidden fruit, they must lack the knowledge of good and
evil themselves, and therefore should never suffer or die! Did their God gyp
them, or does the Genesis account not pass the "smell" test?
Second, what about all the innocent animals? They didn't eat the forbidden fruit
or gain the knowledge of good and evil, so according to the logic of Genesis
they should all be immortal and never suffer or die. Did the biblical God gyp
Third, why did Jehovah become the first murderer by killing innocent animals to
give their skins to Adam and Eve for clothes? Why didn't he use his superpowers
to give them clothes of cotton or some other fiber?
Do Christians have the knowledge of good and evil? Most of them completely fail
to see that what the biblical God did, according the writer(s) of Genesis, was
evil. It was like putting poisoned milk before a baby who can't understand the
words, and saying, "If you drink the milk you will surely die, because it is
wrong to drink the milk!" Any parent who did such a thing would be locked up for
life, as either insane or a coldblooded murderer. And what about all the
pre-Civil-War American Christians who believed slavery was "good" because the
Bible endorses slavery? Did they have the knowledge of good and evil, or did
they just believe whatever they read?
There are also three different versions of the all-important Ten Commandments!
(Exodus 20:1–17, Deuteronomy 5:1–21, Leviticus 19:1–37). Which one is the
According to Genesis, the biblical “god” withheld the knowledge of good and evil
from Adam and Eve, then murdered them for not knowing it was “evil” to eat the
forbidden fruit. And why did all the animals have to die, when they didn’t eat
the fruit or gain the knowledge of good and evil? When I read that passage as a
young boy, I knew that the biblical “god” was the real criminal in the Garden of
“Clean” animals were referenced in the passage about the Great Flood, but it
seems clear that passage was doctored. The original account had two of each kind
of animal entering the ark. But a later revisionist wanted Noah to sacrifice
animals to God, and thus modified the account to say that seven of the “clean”
animals were taken aboard. But the concept of “clean” and “unclean” animals did
not enter the Bible until much later, at the time of Moses. And yet the prophet
Jeremiah said Moses did not
institute animal sacrifices at that time. Six Hebrew prophets said that God did
not want animal sacrifices at all, and Jesus quoted two of them. So the Bible
contradicts itself on one of its most critical theological issues.
Kings of Israel are mentioned in Deuteronomy 17:17–19, but there were no Kings
of Israel until much later.
The Bible actually tells us how such errors occurred. During the reign of the
boy king Josiah, the Levites pretended to “find” a “lost book of Moses.” This
“lost” book of Moses was surely Deuteronomy, which is full of evil commandments
and keeps “reminding” the Israelites to “take care” of the Levites. How
convenient for the fat cats who wrote the self-serving book! Deuteronomy
commands the stoning of children for misdemeanors, the murder of rape victims
and child brides, and other horrors. How anyone can believe such a satanic book
was authored by a loving, wise, just God is beyond me. But in any case the
writers had clearly forgotten that the were no kings of Israel at the time of
Moses, and not for centuries afterward.
In Genesis 14:14, Abraham pursued his enemies to Dan. But the tribe of Dan and
the region named after it would not exist until many centuries later.
Jericho’s famous walls were destroyed long before the time of Joshua.
There is no evidence that Hebrews were ever enslaved in Egypt.
And so on …
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
For an expanded bio, circum vitae and career timeline of the poet, please click here: Michael R. Burch Expanded Bio.
"Auschwitz Rose" Analysis,
"Will There Be Starlight" Analysis,
"Davenport Tomorrow" Analysis,
"Passionate One" Analysis,
"Self Reflection" Analysis,
from Shakespeare and Elsewhere,
Literary Devices: Definitions and Examples,
Bible False Prophecies