What poetry?

I have spent some time recently thinking about the nature and effects of poetry — as compared with normal prose. I had a sense that I had written something about it. Then I remembered: I had discussed this with you a number of years ago. Re-reading it, I was happy and what I had said — and delighted by the comments and favourite poems you have valued. So I thought we might have another look:

“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

Portrait © Jacqueline Alma
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10 Responses to What poetry?

  1. David Smith says:

    Quentin writes ( https://secondsightblog.net/2022/01/19/what-poetry/ ) :

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

    Ah, language. No rules and yet nothing but rules. It’s the way the human brain seems designed to make sense of sensory perceptions and to allow communities to cohere. It’s a Procrustean Bed into which we force reality. You might say that poetry is the name we give one sub-type of language which we use to try to free language from that torture. But when you throw away all rules, you end up creating rules of your own, to please yourself, and those rules are unlikely to please anyone else as much as they do you, which is probably why so much “modern” poetry is, at least to my ear, ugly: it’s pure self-indulgence. When the would-be poet concocts something according to his rules alone, inviting or daring the reader to decipher his meaning, he’s being deliberately anti-social. When the “poet” writes without rules that have been agreed upon by a community, he does not write poetry, he concocts a puzzle. Bah, humbug.

  2. pnyikos says:

    While rhyme is optional in poetry, it does have one inestimable advantage: is a tremendous aid to memorization. I can still recall many lines from two long poems, The Rime of the Ancient Mariner and The Pied Piper of Hamelin, because recollection of one line leads to recollection of many subsequent lines. I had both poems memorized by the age of 12, just as a challenge to my ability to memorize; this would have been almost impossible without the rhyme; and if I had tried to recall them once every month, I believe I could still recite them without a mistake. [However, I haven’t gone over either one more than twice since I turned 13, and then only years after, when I could no longer recollect the majority of either one.]

    All this leads me to trust the memories of the ancient Greeks for the recollection of Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey despite the centuries between their composition and written records.

  3. galerimo says:

    A great Irish writer and lover of Guinness, Brendan Behan,

    Was once invited to Oxford to take part in a discussion on

    “The difference between prose and poetry”

    After the first speaker had gone on for two hours

    Behan rose to his feet, promising to be brief and quoted the Dublin rhyme,

    “there was a young fella named Rollocks
    Who worked for Ferrier Pollocks
    As he walked on the strand
    With his girl by the hand
    The water came up to his ankles”.

    “That”, declared Behan, “was prose,

    but if the tide had been in, it would have been poetry”.

  4. John Thomas says:

    The old idea that poets are dreamers I once saw refuted by the suggestion that poets don’t dream, and their poetry is a substitute for it.
    Do you know of what I call “the Australian defence”? An Australian poetry critic wrote an account of a poem in which he saw all sorts of meanings below the surface. The poet wrote to him saying that his work contained none of those things. The embarrassed critic wrote that his work did, but he didn’t know about it, it was all very subconscious.
    I wish I could write a line that immortalised me, just one, like the Burgon example.

  5. ignatius says:

    ” An Australian poetry critic wrote an account of a poem in which he saw all sorts of meanings below the surface.The poet wrote to him saying that his work contained none of those things. The embarrassed critic wrote that his work did, but he didn’t know about it, it was all very subconscious.”

    Actually there was no need for the critic to be embarrassed. It takes some time to understand that, with poetry the author surrenders ownership of meaning once the poem is offered up to the reader. Unless we are reacting to simple instruction then words strung together as poetry have great flexibility and the meaning is in the heart and mind of the reader not of the writer.The same is true in a different way for painting.

  6. David Smith says:

    Poetry, it seems to me, is about language at the level of words and sound, unlike everyday language which is concerned mainly with articulating immediate needs.

    Everyday language: This is how to make an apple pie. Clean your room. Vote for me.

    Poetry: Strong Son of God, immortal love / whom we that have not seen thy face / by faith and faith alone embrace / believing where we cannot prove

    pnyikos writes ( https://secondsightblog.net/2022/01/19/what-poetry/#comment-65467 ) :

    // While rhyme is optional in poetry, it does have one inestimable advantage: is a tremendous aid to memorization. //

    Indeed. Likewise, meter. They help one to remember what comes next when memory stumbles.

    https http://www.masterclass.com articles poetry-101-learn-about-poetry-different-types-of-poems-and-poetic-devices-with-examples

  7. David Smith says:

    ignatius writes ( https://secondsightblog.net/2022/01/19/what-poetry/#comment-65474 ) :

    // Unless we are reacting to simple instruction then words strung together as poetry have great flexibility and the meaning is in the heart and mind of the reader not of the writer.The same is true in a different way for painting. //

    ignatius, I want to take issue with that, but I don’t know where to start. There seems to be something of the dictatorship of relativity about it, something Freudian.

  8. ignatius says:

    David Smith writes:
    “ignatius, I want to take issue with that, but I don’t know where to start. There seems to be something of the dictatorship of relativity about it, something Freudian”

    Yes I thought you might not like it. To others the statement is unremarkable..

    • David Smith says:

      // Yes I thought you might not like it. //

      It seemed a bit of an overreach. Literally, theoretically, hypothetically, everything is what we think and feel it is, to us individually. No one’s to stop me calling a cat a dog, or a dog an oyster, but if I start doing that sort of thing aloud, in the community, I’m likely to get myself into trouble.

      Common standards make good neighbors. Of course, like everything else, common standards can be carried too far. We’ve been experiencing a horrible outbreak of despotically imposed common standards over the past two years. Common sense is likely the best guide, but that will fail when there no longer exists a shared definition of common sense. Take this:

      He thought he saw an elephant that practised on a fife. / He looked again and found it was a letter from his wife. / “At length I realise”, he said, “the bitterness of life”.

      My common sense says this a delightful bit of fancy, but a feminist might insist that it proves that Lewis Carroll was sexist and that, therefore, he should be universally condemned and his poetry and his memory should be blotted out. My take is obvious to me, but so is hers to her.

  9. David Smith says:

    There’s an intriguing book review in today’s Telegraph that touches on poetry, politics, and history. I’m going to risk a URL:

    https://www.dropbox.com/s/vt00edp25l54xd8/Untitled%201%2021.pdf?dl=0

    Happy Sunday.

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