The very bingeable Lord Byron is having a moment. In 2019, the first two cantos of his great verse epic Don Juan enjoyed their 200th anniversary. This coming Sunday, August 8, 2021, cantos III, IV, and V will turn 200, as well.
Don Juan is a comic masterpiece. It eavesdrops on the exploits of the title character (stress on the surname’s first syllable: Don JU-an), a young man who gets himself into scrapes—adultery, shipwrecks, and the like. It remains a model for any poet who wants to go long and recount a story in rhyme and meter.
It’s also a work of snarky literary criticism by other means, with occasional shiv-sharp jabs at contemporaries like William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge. Early in the poem, Byron even offers some “poetical commandments,” a few stanzas designed to edify (and definitely not troll) his 19th-century readers, including lines like:
Thou shalt believe in Milton, Dryden, Pope;
Thou shalt not set up Wordsworth, Coleridge, Southey;
Because the first is crazed beyond all hope,
The second drunk, the third so quaint and mouthey…
To mark the 200th anniversary, I present an updated set of “poetical commandments” in Don Juan’s style: iambic lines arranged in octaves that go ABABABCC. These commandments offer sturdy advice that contemporary Byrons-to-be might wish to consider as they pursue literary immortality and ponder the important stuff: aesthetic choices, which workshops to apply for, and whether to follow up by email about the status of a poetry submission.
“Thou Shalt Not Take or Teach an MFA.”
Or, Poetical Commandments for the 21st Century
Thou shalt not write a line that’s not five feet.
Thou shalt put down that book by Leonard Cohen.
Thou shalt not share book contracts via tweet.
Thou shalt not follow up about thy poem
Nor link its brethren in a book-length suite.
Avoid the open mic, the Word that’s Spoken.
Thou shalt not take or teach an MFA.
(See Homer; Dickinson; and Ryan, Kay.)
By all means, focus on the epigram—
On verse that’s entertaining. Crystalline.
(By all means, Google “J.V. Cunningham”
And poet’s-poet types like “Daryl Hine.”)
Thou shalt not craft one’s poems for the Gram
Nor reach out to an editor online.
No emailed Word docs, please. Submittable.
Thou shalt write poems that are readable.
Avoid the triple-headed, water-pitchered panel.
Avoid AWP, tote bags, Anne Carson.
Thou shalt not shun nor mob nor pulp nor cancel.
Thou shalt not burn offending books. (That’s arson.)
Thou shalt not tag a well-known poet’s handle
Nor drop the word “conceptual.” (That’s jargon.)
Turn off alerts: thy smartphone’s singing sirens.
Thou shalt read only timeless hot takes—Byron’s.