Poetry Today

(I make no apology for repeating a blog from some years ago. It led to a fascinating discussion and exchange of our reactions to poetry. With one or two exceptions (important ones) current commentators were not then active. So we should get some new important views. The strange world in which we live at the moment invites us to think about our more fundamental truths.)

“Perhaps no person can be a poet, or can even enjoy poetry, without a certain unsoundness of mind.” said Lord Macaulay. He was right. The sound mind is concerned with common-sense, logic, empirical facts and calculated probabilities. It has no truck with wandering imagination, insights, feelings and the perception of truths which are glimpsed but not captured. The essential quality of poetry is to take us through the physical into the metaphysical by the use of the word.

We might make the same claim mutatis mutandis of all the arts – which are often the only contact with the spiritual that the modern man can bear. But poetry is the most immediate and the most accessible; it does not need an orchestra or an easel – a scrap of paper and a pencil stub will do.

Ultimately poetry has no rules. It stretches the use of language to its limits. Rhyme, half rhyme, rhythm and metre, neologism; alliteration, onomatopoeia, and line shape can all play their part. Of course there are fads. Some will claim that blank verse, often seen today, is not poetry, but both Milton and Dryden cursed the “modern bondage of rhyming” which interfered with purity of expression. In the end the test lies in the effect. Arguably, only the poet can judge how perfectly his poem expresses his meaning.

We do indeed look for patterns in a poem if only because our poor brains need pattern for understanding, completeness and memorability. But the forms of pattern can be achieved in manifold ways. And there are conventional verse forms, such as sonnet, haiku or villanelle (“Do not go gentle into that good night”, Dylan Thomas) which a poet may choose as a framework for his expression, finding that this discipline forces him to explore his thoughts more widely and deeply.

Three powerful characteristics stand out: metre, simile and metaphor. Metre reminds us that poetry and song are cousins. It can establish the whole thrust of the poem. Compare “Thou hast conquered, O pale Galilean; the world has grown grey from thy breath.” (Swinburne) with “Half a league, half a league, half a league onward” (Tennyson), and with “Do you remember an inn, Miranda?/Do you remember an inn? (Belloc). And if some contemporary poetry eschews obvious metre, it can often be found in another balance, like this little poem about the Bible:

I doubt if King James wrote it,
But the one who did
Knew the force of short, brute, words;
And did not, if there were no clear need,
Write polysyllabically.

The Highwayman (Noyes) presents us with metaphor and simile within a line: “His eyes were hollows of madness, his hair like mouldy hay “. The simile is vivid, but it is the metaphor which carries the power. No eye is actually a hollow of madness, but the phrase leads beyond itself. And we must travel alone to find our understanding. We should be accustomed to metaphor because much of Scripture is extended metaphor, and so is theology – though often stifled by the cold hand of use. What does time in Purgatory mean where time does not exist and the conditions in Purgatory mere speculation?

Shakespeare gives us a powerful example: “Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player/That struts and frets his hour upon the stage/And then is heard no more.” Two strong metaphors there – and the whole is wrapped in metaphor for the speaker himself is a “poor player” and a metaphor for Macbeth. Most of us know those lines by heart, and have thought upon them.

Which brings me to the memorable line. Poetry can get away with words which would be pretentious in prose. We each have our favourites, but surely all lists must include “A rose red city half as old as time”. John Burgon’s poem about Petra is indifferent, but that line won him the Newdigate Prize and put him among the immortals. I shall resist the temptation to give a longer list – you will know them all.

I say that confidently because a philosophy group I attend on a fortnightly basis finishes the term with a meeting in which each member reads a piece of poetry, and then tells us why. It is a great treat, and it often leads to the best discussions of the term. We are very ordinary people from different backgrounds, and yet all have poetry which has accompanied us through life. And important enough that, for some, reading their choice can move them too deeply to continue.

All of us who have poetry threaded into our lives share Macaulay’s unsound mind. And why not? We believe in a God whose name is a metaphor for his nature and a son who offers himself as a metaphor for his father. Before the altar we are all poets.

About Quentin

Science Editor, Catholic Herald. Portrait © Jacqueline Alma
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24 Responses to Poetry Today

  1. G.D says:

    The opening paragraph of the original post was indeed ‘poetry’ to my ears.
    ‘ ….. The sound mind is concerned with common sense …… It has no truck with … perception of truths which are glimpsed … to take us through the physical into the metaphysical ….

    Seems to me a lot of the ‘words’ in the Bible are of the same ‘ilk’ (from the same ‘source’?) as poetic utterances. If only they had been read with a poets ‘imagination’.

    i wonder what the catechism would have been like!? And how different the institutional churches teachings would be?

    i would like to offer a ‘poetic assumption’ toward an answer (somewhat edited to fit the purpose) ….

    Poet within! Where are you?
    Give emotions voice
    To play my inner chords,
    Utter the music that embraces
    creations force.

    Teller of truth fill my breath
    With sounds of reality,

    Awake my sight to partake
    Of the ages past delights.

    Awake my sight!
    That i may partake
    Of the facts of myth & lore.

    Awake my sight!
    To rekindle subtle truths
    of Wonder and Awe.

    I mourn for you poet within,
    tell us, teach us, play us, enlighten us
    – Childlike Wisdom – free us anew.
    Reforge the bonds
    (so long asunder)
    Of ancestral creativity.

  2. David Smith says:

    Quentin writes:

    // Ultimately poetry has no rules. It stretches the use of language to its limits. //

    Well, of course one can define any word however one likes. For me, however, good poetry must be comprehensible without erudition, easily accessible to all.

  3. ignatius says:

    The story of Abraham

    To this blue altar you have come
    Alone, my helpless saviour
    Here in the bone womb of your flesh
    Your wetted cheek is turned
    to kiss the tears that fall so fresh.

    For what is willed yet not begun
    For what is planned yet not been done.

    One hand held cupped with blazing fire
    The other grasps a cruel knife,
    “See my son, how the eagle wheels on high”
    And you, stretched upon the line of life;
    A singing heart a sobbing cry.

    From above comes that which should not be spoken
    From below a child’s trust laying broken.

    Come then my love,my helpless one
    Spread out your pale limbs
    Come now my love before we die,
    Your black hair lies loose from its azure pins
    And an aged ram passes quietly by.

    Maria Wright

    Personally I enjoy poetry when it is not being easily graspable or comprehensible. I prefer the many faceted approach which uses language in a similar manner as the abstract painter.

  4. David Smith says:

    ignatius writes:

    // Personally I enjoy poetry when it is not being easily graspable or comprehensible. //

    Personally – exactly. De gustibus non est disputandum.

    But the “modern” move to make everything in the arts either propagandistic or accessible only to initiates among the “educated classes” offends me.

    • ignatius says:

      “But the “modern” move to make everything in the arts either propagandistic or accessible only to initiates among the “educated classes” offends me.”

      Couldn’t agree more. There is something revolting about the peddling of an ideologically driven shallowness. In junior education now, Instead of the raw power and passion of genuine encounter, particularly in the mystery of poetry/art, schoolkids are encouraged to ‘see’ paintings as ‘in the style of Matisse’ or some such drivel. It is indeed deeply offensive.

  5. John Nolan says:

    ‘Hail, holy Queen, Mother of mercy; hail our life, our sweetness and our hope. To thee do we cry, poor banished children of Eve; to thee do we send up our sighs, mourning and weeping in this vale of tears.’

    That, to me, is poetry. Written by Adrian Fortescue in 1913, it replaced an earlier translation by Edward Caswall who was no slouch as a translator and hymn-writer, but whose Salve Regina is prosaic by comparison.

    On Pentecost Sunday I wish a priest (or deacon) would step into the pulpit and simply recite Gerard Manley Hopkins’s ‘God’s Grandeur’. It says more than a thousand homilies can.

  6. Iona says:

    Thank you for that, Quentin. I don’t remember seeing it first time round.
    And yes, another vote here for Gerard Manley Hopkins. Not only ‘God’s Grandeur’, but many others of his.

  7. ignatius says:

    I’m not a great fan of Hopkins though his ‘Grandeur of God’ is marvellous. I used to recite his poem flying back, constantly just ahead of the dawn, from China. I like his dappled things too, always reminds me of the retreat centre where he lived and where I often visit.. I do love George Herbert though, he strikes me as a man who knew God well. For understanding of the life of prayer I am very grateful to RS Thomas. For the wildness of God I sometimes turn to Rilke. Though Rilke was definitely in a bit of a state at times his poetry has a power to penetrate which is almost unbearable. I guess it depends on our own personal make up and life experience. Mustn’t finish without mentioning TS Elliot though who again has the gift of portraying insight in the midst of perplexity.

  8. ignatius says:

    So, for example here is some Rilke:

    I am, you anxious one. Do you not hear me

    I am, you anxious one. Do you not hear me
    rush to claim you with each eager sense?
    Now my feelings have found wings, and, circling,
    whitely fly about your countenance.
    Here my spirit in its dress of stillness
    stands before you, — oh, do you not see?
    In your glance does not my Maytime prayer
    grow to ripeness as upon a tree?

    Dreamer, it is I who am your dream.
    But would you awake, I am your will,
    and master of all splendor, and I grow
    to a sphere, like stars poised high and still,
    with time’s singular city stretched below.

  9. ignatius says:

    Contrast with this by RSThomas

    The Empty Church

    They laid this stone trap
    for him, enticing him with candles,
    as though he would come like some huge moth
    out of the darkness to beat there.
    Ah, he had burned himself
    before in the human flame
    and escaped, leaving the reason
    torn. He will not come any more
    to our lure. Why, then, do I kneel still
    striking my prayers on a stone
    heart? Is it in hope one
    of them will ignite yet and throw
    on its illuminated walls the shadow
    of someone greater than I can understand?

    Just from a couple of examples we can see how poetry, and probably poetry alone, has the beauty the complexity, the nuance and the force required to express in words the human encounter with the Divine.

  10. ignatius says:

    And especially, from George Herbert, an encounter with grace and the humility it engenders. Form is kept very tight here. I don’t know if there is a name for this particular shape, perhaps Quentin can enlighten us.

    Aaron

    Holiness on the head,
    Light and perfections on the breast,
    Harmonious bells below, raising the dead
    To lead them unto life and rest:
    Thus are true Aarons drest.

    Profaneness in my head,
    Defects and darkness in my breast,
    A noise of passions ringing me for dead
    Unto a place where is no rest:
    Poor priest, thus am I drest.

    Only another head
    I have, another heart and breast,
    Another music, making live, not dead,
    Without whom I could have no rest:
    In him I am well drest.

    Christ is my only head,
    My alone-only heart and breast,
    My only music, striking me ev’n dead,
    That to the old man I may rest,
    And be in him new-drest.

    So, holy in my head,
    Perfect and light in my dear breast,
    My doctrine tun’d by Christ (who is not dead,
    But lives in me while I do rest),
    Come people; Aaron’s drest.

  11. John Nolan says:

    Ignatius

    Thanks for this. I find it interesting that Rainer Maria Rilke can be rendered in English whereas most English poetry is untranslatable. An example of one of GMH’s simpler lines:
    ‘And though the last lights off the black West went / Oh, morning at the brown brink eastward springs’. Put that into German – the monosyllabic and alliterative first line could not be replicated.

    Or Keats:
    ‘While barrèd clouds bloom the soft-dying day’. Doesn’t work in French.

    I remember an attempt at translation of Francis Thompson’s ‘At Lord’s’ into French.
    ‘As the run-stealers flicker to and fro, to and fro – O my Hornby and my Barlow long ago!’
    To say it was not poetic is an understatement. Perhaps English, with its rich vocabulary drawn on Teutonic and Latinate sources is the ideal language for poetry.

    • ignatius says:

      Hello John, if you get his book: Rainer Maria Rilke: Duino elegies, The sonnets to Orpheus most of it is printed in both English and German versions, side by side. Sounds as if you may already have a copy though.

  12. milliganp says:

    I would not claim any facility with poetry but decided to spend a few hours reading “The Wreck of the Deutschland” JMH’s poetry obviously embodies the Jesuit idea of “God in all things”; to read a description of nun’s drowning described with the phrase “Are sisterly sealed in wild waters, To bathe in his fall-gold mercies, to breathe in his all-fire glances.” leaves me ashamed of my poor, barely adequate faith.

    • ignatius says:

      //To bathe in his fall-gold mercies, to breathe in his all-fire glances.” leaves me ashamed of my poor, barely adequate faith.//

      I just think he goes on a bit!! We are all, by the way, ashamed of our “poor, barely adequate faith”…it kind of goes with the turf…

      Have a bit more Rilke:

      Let everything happen to you: beauty and terror.
      Just keep going. No feeling is final.
      Don’t let yourself lose me.
      Nearby is the country they call life.
      You will know it by its seriousness.

      Give me your hand.

  13. galerimo says:

    A thoroughly enjoyable post this one – thank you Quentin.

    As a living and dynamic reality, poetry reminds me of the Church.

    We often try to force only one mode of expression on these ways of sharing the truth.

    If it doesn’t rhyme, it’s not poetry. If it’s not the bedrock of unalterable principle with granite solid dogma unquestionably accepted and fearlessly practised – it’s not the Church.

    Or any other hard and fast precondition of acceptance.

    As the living, breathing connection between the physical and spiritual, poetry, like the Church shares the same mode of expression – they both bring the word alive within us.

    And both modes of expression go far deeper than the words they use.

    There is poetry in numbers. Economists and mathematicians talk about a beautiful set of numbers or find an expression of harmony in an equation. Scientists can be awed looking at the periodic table.

    All can be transported beyond the hard data when significance and meaning takes them to a greater framework of appreciation.

    Poetry in motion too is a very valid experience of the same mysterious vehicle.

    A visual impact that speaks words not formed by language but given shape in the very act of communicating something, deep and full of impact.

    I think if I was in your Philosophy class, I would challenge your request to “read a piece of poetry and tell us why”.

    Instead I would pick a frangipani flower from my front garden and when it came to my turn, I would pass it around the class and my comment would be –

    This is poetry at its best, no explanation is possible, and as you can see no explanation is necessary.

    Would I pass?

  14. ignatius says:

    Well, after all that, why not just post a poem and tell us why you like it?

  15. John Nolan says:

    Galerimo’s reference to the flower recalls Hopkins’s observation in May 1870:

    ‘I do not think I have ever seen anything more beautiful than the bluebell I have been looking at. I know the beauty of our Lord by it.’

    There is infinite beauty in nature. It can be expressed in painting, music and words. But expression is the key. Internalized emotion is not art, music or poetry.

  16. ignatius says:

    //There is infinite beauty in nature. It can be expressed in painting, music and words. But expression is the key. Internalized emotion is not art, music or poetry//

    yes, a poem is not a flower and a flower is not a poem.

  17. ignatius says:

    //There is infinite beauty in nature. It can be expressed in painting, music and words. But expression is the key. Internalized emotion is not art, music or poetry.//
    That’s correct,
    A flower is not a poem,
    a poem is not a flower.
    Though both may please the senses,
    for a minute or an hour.

  18. John Nolan says:

    Ignatius

    Thanks for reminding me about Rilke. We touched on him when I was doing A-Level German (fifty years ago!) but since then my only acquaintance with his poetry has been ‘das Marienleben’ – fifteen short poems on the life of Our Lady set to music by Paul Hindemith.

    I’ve sent away for the parallel text anthology you recommended. During this period of enforced idleness one needs intellectual stimulation. Among other things I am teaching myself the basics of Greek, the lack of which has long irked me. If I can get up to GCSE standard I shall be quite happy.

  19. Alasdair says:

    Yeats’ The Lake Isle of Innisfree invokes images which you can only realise if you share his experience of spending time in solitary wild places. And he could only have created these images from personal experience.
    “I hear lake water lapping with low sounds by the shore”;
    Indeed lake water does sound quite different from water in any other form. Such a subtle image but so brilliantly recalled from the deep recesses of childhood memory.

  20. galerimo says:

    The power and beauty of our scriptures owe much to the poetry through which they are mediated.

    First there were the words of Jesus, then there was the recalling of those words and finally came the writing down.

    The considerable time span between these stages from words to writing would be the equivalent of today sitting down to write about the events of World War II

    The oral traditions not only of the Second Testament but of the First too were made available to us through many diverse forms of speech, including poetry.

    How else could memory have been served. And such oral traditions abound throughout history.

    Reading the psalms of old and the hymns often used in the Gospels and writings of the early church, it is easy to be swept along in the poetry that must have made it all possible to recall.

    Even the way we are told the parables of Jesus, as they were recalled in the days and decades after his time become embedded deep within us.

    Poetic form too is the kindling of the Holy Spirit shedding truth within us

    And when you consider how form must follow function it is clear that the abundant truth and beauty of nature even by itself truly and deeply inspires divine truth in a never-ending way.

    God’s own creation says all to us. Always.

    No wonder Jesus could point to the beauty of a flower to demonstrate how all our constructs pale to insignificance in the awesome presence of God’s wordless works. God’s poetry.

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