Letters on John Donne passage reveal poetry is in the mind of the reader


Having quoted the letters of several readers correcting me for referring to John Donne’s famous passage (“For whom the bell tolls”) as poetry, rather than prose, I think it is only fair to quote a few letters that seek to vindicate me.

Win or lose, I am gratified to have so many students of English literature among my readers.

To begin with, Ed Shoaf, the sage of La Canada, recalls A. E. Housman’s judgment: “I could no more define poetry than a terrier can define a rat.”


Shoaf adds that Wordsworth called poetry “the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings . . . recollected in tranquility,” and Carl Sandburg called it “the synthesis of hyacinths and biscuits.”

So there you are. To begin with, we don’t know exactly what poetry is.

As for himself, Shoaf says: “It is instinct that tells me John Donne’s bell is poetry. Not just poetic, but poetry.”

“Don’t let the pedants intimidate you,” writes Blair Ceniceros, English instructor at Mt. San Jacinto College. “It may be a sermon, but it’s poetry, and a fine example at that.

“The disagreement seems to stem from the inability of your critics to recognize poetry when they see it. . . . Poetry doesn’t have to be labeled as such, and it certainly doesn’t have to rhyme or scan. . . .”

As an example of pure poetry printed as prose, he recalls the first three paragraphs of Chapter 9 from Thomas Wolfe’s “Look Homeward Angel. . . .”


“They (my critics) were all correct in identification,” he concludes, “but I’m with you, Jack, it’s a poem.”

“Among the people taking you to task,” writes Frank Dessayer of Glendale, “was one whose ‘scholarly comment’ loses much of its scholarship by her truly awful use of the word ‘exemplums.’ Had the good lady even a smattering of Latin, she would have used the correct plural of exemplum: exempla. Better still, she should have used the perfectly good word ‘examples.’ ”

“I thought you had escaped!” writes C. Edwin Harwood, author of “Any Man’s Death,” a book whose title is taken from the passage in question. “Besides, you were almost right. Donne’s prose is often quite poetic in mood and in diction--even, at times, in cadence. . . .”

Harwood also understands my defense that I may have been misled by the printing of the passage as an inverted pyramid in Ernest Hemingway’s book, “For Whom the Bell Tolls.” “George Herbert has several poems in ‘shapes,’ too. Dudley Fitts calls them picture-poems, or ‘art playthings.’ . . .

“A pox on all detractors,” he concludes, “especially pedantic (David R.) Evans and his damned ‘correctitude.’ ”

Gladys Foreman also picks on Evans, a Pomona College Bachelor of Arts who wrote in the midst of packing for graduate school at the University of Virginia. Noting that I seem to stand “for the propriety of language usage,” he pointed out that Donne “deserves correctitude in quoting.”

“Why does David Evans prefer ‘the propriety of language usage’ to ‘using language properly,’ ” Gladys Foreman asks, “and why ‘deserves correctitude in quoting’ to ‘deserves to be quoted correctly’?”

Graham O. Smith writes that he studied Donne 25 years ago in an intensive senior seminar at Columbia, and later as a graduate student at Berkeley.

“The supreme irony,” he observes, “is that the only reason you, I and almost everyone else recognize the phrase ‘No man is an island . . .’ is that Donne used poetic techniques so powerfully and audaciously in the midst of this prose essay (Meditation XVII).

“Up until the famous phrase, Donne has been using an elegant rhetorical style which does not ‘scan’ poetically. For the key phrase, Donne switches into an intentionally tortured iambic pentameter that precisely recreates the sound of the tolling death bell. . . .

“Donne composed the Meditations while lying in his sick bed on the church porch (he was the deacon of St. Paul’s in London). He expresses the concept that all of us are bound in human communion by, among other things, death, and then drives it home with the valediction (almost a malediction) expressed in the very sound of the death bell. He wants us to grasp the inescapable truth, and simultaneously to shudder at that truth. . . .”

Marc Nichols of Beverly Hills writes: “Gee, Jack, I worry, when the killer nit-pickers swarm after you, if you’ve enough Flit.

“If John Donne was a poet, then what he wrote was poetry, and it seems to have rhythm and rhyme of Sea with thee. And so much of poetry seems to be nothing other than typography, e. e. cummings, starting each line with a capital. Is poetry rhyme? Blank verse? Rhythm? Of what--a drum? Breathing?

“The whole issue smacks of how many pedants can stand on the point of a pin where I wish they would rest their inflated pontifications.”

If I understand my medieval philosophy, there is plenty of room on the point (or was it the head) of that pin for all of us, and the angels too.

Meanwhile, J. R. Fulbeck, professor of English at Cal Poly Pomona, has sent me a copy of a passage I wrote recently about lunching with my wife at the Rosarito Beach Hotel, altered it slightly, and suggested that I submit it in the annual imitation Hemingway writing contest. He thinks I might win the trip to Florence, Italy, for two.

It really wasn’t bad bad Hemingway--almost reminiscent of Frederic and Catherine in “A Farewell to Arms,” if I say so myself. But I couldn’t submit it. Since I’m a judge in that contest, submitting my own entry would be cheating. And I’d obscenity on Hemingway’s grave before I’d cheat.