James J. Kilpatrick

If you aspire, dear reader, to write really good prose, first hone your skills by writing verse -- that is to say, by writing verse that scans and rhymes.

That sound advice is prompted by a story in The New York Times three weeks ago. It appears that two professional poets, Paul Muldoon and Thylias Moss, accepted a good-natured challenge from an Internet site. They would be given 15 minutes to compose a poem. The assigned topic would be: "Writing poetry is an unnatural act," but they didn't really have to stick to it. They could choose their own prosodic form. There would be no prizes, not even a certificate suitable for framing.

Both suckers chose to write in free verse. Mr. Muldoon, who holds a Pulitzer Prize for poetry, used his whole 15 minutes to write a poem he titled "Aim." If the Times quoted it exactly, his poem read, in full: "The sense of the poem as having always been,/as the redknot is bent on that selfsame patch/of tundra grass on which it was hatched."

Let us assume, generously, that as a matter of grammar the subject of Muldoon's epic was "sense." If that subject had a predicate, it flopped away in translation.

Ms. Moss, for her part, used only 13 minutes and 19 seconds. She is a professor at the University of Michigan; she has written 10 books. Her untitled poem read, in full: "my headache remains/a kind of proof of the seriousness/of what is locked in my brain, everything tucked in there, fusing there/into a feeling so tremendous it hurts."

Two other professional poets, Andrei Codrescu and Mark Strand, declined an invitation to join the affray. The former objected to improvisation "online." The latter responded in the fashion of Dr. Samuel Johnson, i.e., that only a blockhead writes except for money.

Now, the eggs laid by Mr. Muldoon and Ms. Moss are not at all what I'm suggesting for readers who want to improve their style. Those two eminent contestants were writing, arguably, poetry. I urge you to write verse. There's a difference.


James J. Kilpatrick

James J. Kilpatrick has been reporter, editor, columnist, commentator, and briefly an adjunct professor of journalism.

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