Monday, 24 October 2016

Not a Poem

Readers of Donne have probably noticed more than once a reference to Donne's poem "No man is an Island." It happens a lot. Problem is, it is not a poem. It is not even a work of literature entire of itself. It belongs to a main: his prose work, Devotions Upon Emergent Occasions. It is a poetical piece of prose to be sure. And perhaps this is one positive reason to remark on this cultural phenomenon: it presents a ready opportunity in the classroom for a discussion about form and mode. Why don't we consider this poetry? So, for next time such a teachable moment is desired, here is a good starting point: this is the passage from Devotions, identified as "Poem #1" in a worksheet by Mensa for kids:



So, beyond posing a possible teachable moment, why else might we even remark on this regrettable instance of misinformation? Well, some of these Mensa kids might grow up to be literary editors and journalists. In a "Poetry Round Table" feature in the New York Times Sunday Book Review section published online on 22 December 2015, the question was posed to a collection of literary and media luminaries, "What's Your Favourite Poem?" One respondent (a television producer and president of HBO films) offered that her "favorite poem is John Donne, 'Devotions Upon Emergent Occasions: No Man Is an Island'." Perhaps this respondent was trying to make a point by naming this work of prose a "poem" (and giving it a new subtitle). Probably not. She refers to it a second time as a "poem," and without comment. And, perhaps more significantly (and alarmingly), the editor of the Sunday Book Review seemed not to notice. Lest we blame the Internet for degrading public literacy, it should be noted this feature was also published in print on 27 December 2015. So, to save this romp from becoming a rant, how about a proposal? A game sorts (worthy of Sisyphus perhaps) to clean up the Internet. Let's unmask these masquerading poems as not-poems with #notapoem. Follow us on Twitter @DonneProse to participate.

1 comment:

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