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LONGFELLOW VERSE JUST LANGUISHING ON THE SHELF

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There's a shelf in Sam Weller's bookstore holding 20 volumes of Longfellow's poetry. They're fine old books, reasonably priced. And they've been there for as long as I can remember.

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, the American poet who was touched by grace, has fallen from grace."The Oxford Companion to American Literature" claims being "benign" and "sweet" did him in. Poet Robert Lowell muses on the man's gentleness but says, in the end, he was "Tennyson without gin."

I see something else at work here, however.

As I read Longfellow's most popular poems - "The Children's Hour," "My Lost Youth," "I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day" - I get the same tone and sentiment I find in modern popular blockbusters like "What I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten" by Robert Fulghum or the more heartfelt newspaper columns of Erma Bombeck and Dave Barry.

Longfellow's failing wasn't in writing dated poems. It was choosing to write poetry in the first place.

Poetry has become lofty and elitist over the years, leaving common-man poets like Robert Service, Longfellow and Stephen Benet behind.

If Longfellow had written popular essays, or gone in for newspaper work, he'd still be selling. Put Longfellow's verse in paragraph form and it reads like softhearted, popular commentary:

Those who enjoy Longfellow - as I do - not only regret the fact he didn't abandon poetry. We also lament the fact poetry abandoned him.

There's a myth surrounding poetry today. In the hierarchy of writers, poets often play the role of kings and queens of language. We tend to assume they could choose to write best sellers a la Stephen King if they wished, but they choose to give us high-minded, difficult, personal visions of life instead.

That's the myth. The truth is 90 percent of the poets I meet are as locked into their own narrow field of expression as the souls who churn out promotional copy for General Electric.

Most poets today could not write a popular book for love nor money. They're too concerned with proper taste and proper politics. They flee sentimentality and tend to ridicule those who indulge in it.

Cloistered in colleges, traveling, keeping company with their peers, most poets are incapable of writing an honest poem that touches the soul of America - or of any other country for that matter.

Japanese businessmen have a better sense of what makes us tick than our modern poets do.

They've written themselves into a corner.

When told that few people read poetry today, for instance, Mark Strand of the University of Utah replies, "I think too many people do read it."

Self-righteousness has replaced righteousness. Self-interest has replaced interest.

The turtle never wasted more time than when he took eagle lessons, says high-flying Chilean poet Nicanor Parra.

But then, soaring, visionary eagles live a lonely life. They can't imagine life at ground level.

Steady, kind, large, tender and lovable, Longfellow was the turtle of his times.

And I'll take him over most eagle-eyed visionaries I read today.