Consider the Minor Poets

So, given the number of poets, poetry journals, and publishers out there, we should all be clear by now: not everyone will make it big, right?  I mean, really, was Shakespeare the only guy writing in Elizabethan England?  Or, dare I say it, even the best?  Nope.  Not likely.  He is, however, what survived.  Besides, let’ s consider this: how many poets can most folks name?  (Other than we poets, right?). But it gets interesting when we acknowledge the unique genius of the often forgotten “minor poets.”

Think of it; no, the world of poetry is not made up entirely of Shakespeares, Miltons, or more to my taste, Yeatses and Heaneys.  And in fact, we writers should happily acknowledge the very strong possibility that not one of us will come close to the ability or recognition of any of these folks, right?  Thus, I sing the praise of the “minor poets,” whose work makes up the great body of our art.  I’ll say it: there’s as much to learn, and better, to enjoy, from these unsung singers as there is from the acknowledged greats.oped

And while their words may not ring throughout history as reverberantly as those of the poetic titans we all know and study, they give us this: they did it.  They practiced their art.  They wrote their songs.  They strove to create.  And all as we should, if we truly seek to be poets, sung or unsung.  And, really, for all their “minority” let’s not forget the stunning work of the many who have been so relegated, for one reason or another: John Donne, Gerard Manley Hopkins, S.J., Patrick Kavanagh, E.E. Cummings, or Mary Oliver.  We, each, could be / are them, and that’s worth recognizing.  These are talented, stunning voices that the canon, or history, or scholarship have somewhat let fall to the wayside; this certainly doesn’t mean they are lesser poets, or that we can learn less from them.

To close, I’ll go to the long-forgotten poet whose ecstatic work “Jubilate Agno,” inspired this little piece: Christopher Smart.  I’d say most folks have probably forgotten Smart, whose work, written in debtors’ prison in England in the 1700s fell under the shadow of so many others, including Pope, Swift, Spenser, and the then-late Milton.  But what joy is there in his work, outrageous, fragmentary, and slightly insane in its ecstasy!  Thus, from its over 1200 lines, in strict form, I leave you with a bit of “Jubilate Agno,” in hopes that Smart’s poetic joy will mirror your own joy in the work of poetry, you own minor poetry, which, we hope will never be stifled:

“Rejoice in God, O ye Tongues; give the glory to the Lord, and the Lamb.

Nations, and languages, and every Creature, in which is the breath of Life.”


“For there is no musick in flats and sharps which are not in God’s natural key.

For where Accusation takes the place of encouragement a man of Genius is driven to act the vices of a fool.”


“For the trumpet rhimes are sound bound, soar more and the like.
For the Shawm rhimes are lawn fawn moon boon and the like.
For the harp rhimes are sing ring string and the like.
For the cymbal rhimes are bell well toll soul and the like.
For the flute rhimes are tooth youth suit mute and the like.
For the dulcimer rhimes are grace place beat heat and the like.
For the Clarinet rhimes are clean seen and the like.
For the Bassoon rhimes are pass, class and the like.”


“For the Greek and Latin are not dead languages, but taken up and accepted for the sake of him that spake them.
For can is (canis) is cause and effect a dog.
For the English is concise and strong. Dog and Bull again.
For Newton’s notion of colours is αλογος unphilosophical.
For the colours are spiritual.”

So, here’s what I suggest: ignore the designation “major” or “minor” and read and write what inspires you.  It’s the best way to be a poet.

By Brian F. McCabe

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