Tum-diddyumtum-tumtum. Yes, a simple pattern of taps. But it has a significance. Try it out with your fingers. The neurologists tell us that our brains respond to such rhythms and form corresponding patterns in our neurons. This is why marching and dancing are not only synchronised but the participants become consciously aware of the group who are sharing that rhythm in their brains. Watch a squad drilling on Horse Guards Parade and you see one unit and one purpose. The evolutionists suggest that this is how poetry started. The chants and songs used by primitive societies brought them together, built up their courage and, when necessary, created a collective force to face the enemy. Change ‘pattern’ to ‘metre’ and the connection is obvious.
Early great poetry used metre alone to raise the grandeur of the account and to support memorability. Homer’s works were probably not written down for hundreds of years. Milton provides a more recent example in Paradise Lost. I have marked the five feet (pentameter) in the second line,
“I may assert eternal providence,
And just–ify–the ways–of God–to men “
Sometimes people complain about the lack of rhyme in much modern poetry. Is it really poetry at all? But Milton would have disagreed; he referred to “The troublesome and modern bondage of rhyming” And so did Dryden. Some argue that rhyme can interfere with meaning, others claim that rhyme forces the poet’s mind to explore. Who would be without Chaucer’s 14th century poetry:
“Whan that Aprille with his shoures soote
The droghte of Marche hath perced to the roote”
I have remembered much of that for 70 years. It tells me that rhyme plays a big part in memorability.
There are conventional forms for poetry. Perhaps the best known is the Shakespearean sonnet (“Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?”) with its 14 pentameter lines and rhyming pattern. Another is the villanelle: think of Dylan Thomas’s “Do not go gentle into that good night.” Or the Japanese haiku: three lines of five seven and five syllables. Such characteristics as metre, rhyme and form in effect frame poetry – presenting it to us for deeper response than we would ordinarily give to prose. Length is not relevant: think of Kipling’s World War 1 poem: “If they ask you why they died, tell them because their fathers lied.” Try and improve on that.
Poetry is allowed by convention to use higher flown language than prose. Metaphor is much used. Herbert’s “Love bade me welcome” uses metaphor with power, you can read it simply as a prayer. Think of Wilfred Owens’ Anthem for Doomed Youth: “The shrill demented choirs of wailing shells”. That line challenges our imagination to grasp its impact. He also uses onomatopoeia: “the stuttering rifles rapid rattle”. Can you hear them? Alliteration also plays its part: “The weal which warned the way which once we went” That might have looked overdone in prose.
Poetry is open ended in the sense that the poet presents to us his emotions and his insights in a way which invites us to respond in terms of our own emotions and insights. Since the experience is different for every reader, each encounter is a new work of art. But be careful: Macaulay’s remark that “Perhaps no person can be a poet, or even enjoy poetry, without a certain unsoundness of mind.” tells us that the sound mind – confined to the literal and rational – will get little from it. This may explain the great tradition of English Catholic poetry. Names such as Chesterton, Manley Hopkins, Francis Thompson, and many others, show us that poetry is a fitting medium for bringing us face to face with mystery.
It is an art which needs only a scrap of paper and a pencil stump. So Audre Lord (described in my source as African-American, lesbian, socialist, feminist) called it the only politically correct art form. It is always satisfying Cicero tells us: “I have never yet known a poet who did not think himself super-excellent.” But not always rewarding according to the writer de Vere Stacpoole: “A publisher of today would as soon see a burglar in his office as a poet.