Ulysses And Phenomenal Woman

We might call this the readable poetry project, or poetry typeset for maximum readability for those who, like me, suffer from the inability to profitably read words plastered on a page as if by shotgun. This inability is itself caused from the lack of reading poetry, which, following the chain, is caused by so much bad poetry being praised.

In order that any poem be great, the words must stand on their own. A good test of a bad poem is that once the choreography of the page is removed, what’s left is lifeless or banal. Try it and see. Here’s a snippet from Phenomenal Woman by Maya Angelou:

Men themselves have wondered what they see in me. They try so much but they can’t touch my inner mystery. When I try to show them they say they still can’t see. I say, it’s in the arch of my back, the sun of my smile, the ride of my breasts, the grace of my style. I’m a woman phenomenally. Phenomenal woman, that’s me.

Now try Ulysses set as prose. I think you will agree that Tennyson, unlike most modern (read academic) poets, did not suffer from typesetitis.

Ulysses. Alfred, Lord Tennyson, 1842

It little profits that an idle king, by this still hearth, among these barren crags, matched with an aged wife, I mete and dole unequal laws unto a savage race, that hoard, and sleep, and feed, and know not me.

I cannot rest from travel; I will drink life to the lees. All times I have enjoyed greatly, have suffered greatly, both with those that loved me, and alone; on shore, and when through scudding drifts the rainy Hyades vext the dim sea. I am become a name; for always roaming with a hungry heart much have I seen and known—cities of men and manners, climates, councils, governments, myself not least, but honored of them all—and drunk delight of battle with my peers, far on the ringing plains of windy Troy. I am a part of all that I have met; yet all experience is an arch wherethrough gleams that untravelled world whose margin fades for ever and for ever when I move. How dull it is to pause, to make an end, to rust unburnished, not to shine in use! As though to breathe were life! Life piled on life were all too little, and of one to me little remains; but every hour is saved from that eternal silence, something more, a bringer of new things; and vile it were for some three suns to store and hoard myself, and this gray spirit yearning in desire to follow knowledge like a sinking star, beyond the utmost bound of human thought.

This is my son, mine own Telemachus, to whom I leave the sceptre and the isle—well-loved of me, discerning to fulfill this labor, by slow prudence to make mild a rugged people, and through soft degrees subdue them to the useful and the good. Most blameless is he, centred in the sphere of common duties, decent not to fail in offices of tenderness, and pay meet adoration to my household gods, when I am gone. He works his work, I mine.

There lies the port; the vessel puffs her sail; there gloom the dark, broad seas. My mariners, souls that have toiled, and wrought, and thought with me—that ever with a frolic welcome took the thunder and the sunshine, and opposed free hearts, free foreheads—you and I are old; old age hath yet his honor and his toil. Death closes all; but something ere the end, some work of noble note, may yet be done, not unbecoming men that strove with Gods. The lights begin to twinkle from the rocks; the long day wanes; the slow moon climbs; the deep moans round with many voices. Come, my friends. ‘Tis not too late to seek a newer world. Push off, and sitting well in order smite the sounding furrows; for my purpose holds to sail beyond the sunset, and the baths of all the western stars, until I die. It may be that the gulfs will wash us down; it may be we shall touch the Happy Isles, and see the great Achilles, whom we knew.

Though much is taken, much abides; and though we are not now that strength which in old days moved earth and heaven, that which we are, we are—one equal temper of heroic hearts, made weak by time and fate, but strong in will to strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.


  1. E. E. Cummings.

    In addition to his unreadable experimental poems such as “r-p-o-p-h-e-s-s-a-g-r” there are the perennially entertaining “she being Brand”, “don’t get me wrong oblivion”, “logeorge”, and many other lyrical poems in which typography is an essential element. “ygUDuh” is a concentrated condemnation of xenophobia, if you care to work through it.

    Even if you don’t like his poetry, you have to admire his craftsmanship.

  2. bob

    Tennyson’s words are full of power and meaning. I don’t get Angelou”s “the ride of my breasts” thing, unless it is part of a Playtex advertisement. It makes me think about the return of Wonder Woman. Can’t wait.

    Tennyson describes a lifetime of experiences in just a few words, as quoted below. Remarkable.

    “Though much is taken, much abides; and though we are not now that strength which in old days moved earth and heaven, that which we are, we are—one equal temper of heroic hearts, made weak by time and fate, but strong in will to strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.”

  3. Tennyson speaks to the depth of human experience, Angelou on the shallowness of her world.

  4. A great example, showing why we don’t teach the works of those Dead White Males like Tennyson nowadays. They make everything else look shabby, like our students.

  5. Had a great poetry prof, Dr. Stephan Curry, at Oregon State. The key to works, like e.e. cummings “In-just” was that it was written to be read aloud. You just don’t get the bitterness and mediocrity of an Atwood without reading aloud.

    And “Paradise Lost” is brilliant when spoken.

  6. Doug M

    I am not sure that breaking down the structure of the verse makes a difference in the quality of these two poems.

  7. Pat Moffitt

    I’m sorry – re-reading Tennyson above reinforces my college experience—–The pain of sitting through a class teaching anything titled Ulysses made going to Stat class a relief. The next time you see your students drifting away in class break out Joyce and start reading—-I’ll bet they never do it again. The inflicted torture is more effective than water-boarding and its legal!

  8. JohnK

    Poetry, it will be remembered, can be — but is not automatically — extremely powerful. Yet powerful, moving poetry is not necessarily a good thing, because being powerfully affected is not necessarily a good thing. At times, not being affected would be much preferable.

    As a result, poetry that is genuinely mediocre, truly forgettable, can at times, relatively speaking, be a great blessing. Then, we are safe. We can be ‘moved’, enjoy a momentary — something — without being in the least affected. Maya Angelou has her place.

    And one can’t be too careful. To be on the safe side, pray that none you know will ever be affected by poetry. The risks are just too great. Best to leave it all alone. For every Shakespeare or Tennyson, there are not just a million Angelous. There are a billion Vogons.

    Vogon poetry is of course, the third worst in the universe. The second worst is that of the Azgoths of Kria. During a recitation by their poet master Grunthos the Flatulent of his poem “Ode to a Small Lump of Green Putty I Found in My Armpit One Midsummer Morning” four of his audience died of internal hemorrhaging and the president of the Mid-Galactic Arts Nobbling Council survived only by gnawing one of his own legs off. Grunthos was reported to have been “disappointed” by the poem’s reception, and was about to embark on a reading of his 12-book epic entitled “My Favourite Bathtime Gurgles” when his own major intestine–in a desperate attempt to save humanity–leapt straight up through his neck and throttled his brain…”

  9. Briggs


    I am sure you are talking about the pain of statistics class. Tennyson’s words are pure please; they are with me always. I love them.

    Doug M,

    Maybe not. But it is instructive, nonetheless. Proper typography can mask insipid words.


    True. But we often read it to ourselves.


    Amen, brother.

  10. Scotty

    I met a traveller from an antique land
    Who said: “Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
    Stand in the desert. Near them on the sand,
    Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown
    And wrinkled lip and sneer of cold command
    Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
    Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
    The hand that mocked them and the heart that fed.
    And on the pedestal these words appear:
    `My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings:
    Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!’
    Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
    Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare,
    The lone and level sands stretch far away.

    Very powerful and evocative. You can almost hear the lonely desert wind moaning and sighing around the remains…….

  11. Kan

    typeset removed from the poem,
    as though not written,
    the paint of the black solitary cube,
    taken away, never bristled,
    only then may we wonder

  12. Pat Moffitt

    I will go so far as saying- if forced- to read something called Ulysses I’d pick Tennsyon over Joyce- its shorter. Now Byron or Oates ( strange picks lumped together I admit) that’s different – such a class would get a nod over the pain of a Stat class.

  13. Marty

    I agree, completely.

    I was turned off modern poetry in college Lit class, where it was obvious most of the modern stuff was just bad prose where someone hit the carriage return (that’s how old I am) every now and then, and capitalized the first letter on the next line.

    Angelou is even worse, not only is her stuff not poetry, it’s horrible even as prose. She either has nothing to say, or never learned how to communicate.

  14. michel

    You need a couple of things by which to measure. Here are a few:

    Marvell, Horatian Ode, also his Coy Mistress
    Yeats, Speech after Long Silence and Sailing to Byzantium
    Donne’s Holy Sonnets
    Shakepeare’s sonnets, almost all of them, but in particular
    When my love swears that she is made of truth….
    The expense of spirit in a waste of shame….
    Let me not to the marriage of true minds…
    Dr Johnson, London and also The Vanity of Human Wishes
    Thomas Hardy, the 1912-13 poems and in particular
    Woman much missed
    After a Journey
    At Castle Boteril
    Keats Odes but in particular Melancholy.
    Auden, Musee des Beaux Arts

    The trick is to realize that you have to form your taste. You cannot tell what you are looking at by your first reactions. It is like enjoying music for the tune on a first hearing. That is not what it is about. What its about is that moment when you realize suddenly that the words are saying two things at the same time, and you are no longer quite sure what the poet thinks and feels. Read Speech after Long Silence very carefully, several times, and try to figure out what he is really saying. Try to figure out what he is trying to say in Byzantium.

    And what does Marvell really think of Cromwell? Is it even really about Cromwell?

    You notice that Pound, Eliot, Stevens, all that lot, none of them are there. Neither is Tennyson or Bridges. Neither is Kipling’s If. Spend a month on the ones cited, and you will understand why.

  15. michel

    For instance, when he says No, no go not to Lethe, what is he really saying?

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