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The art of poetry 01.VIII.2004 23:42
Writing is inhibiting. Sighing, I sit, scribbling in ink
this pidgin script. I sing with nihilistic witticism
disciplining signs with trifling gimmicks – impish
hijinks which highlight stick sigils. Isn’t it glib?
Isn’t it chic? I fit childish insights within rigid limits,
writing shtick which might instill priggish misgiv-
ings in critics blind with hindsight. I dismiss nit-
picking criticism which flirts with philistinism. I
bitch; I kibitz – griping whilst criticizing dimwits,
sniping whilst indicting nitwits, dismissing simplis-
tic thinking, in which philippic wit is still illicit.

Poetry must be metred. I say this not merely to incense – if there remains anyone who can be incensed by a statement about poetry, and if anyone actually reads these essays, which is highly dubious – but because it is to be the central theme of this entire work, and is one which runs squarely counter to modern poetic tradition. It will be the overarching theme of this essay, and although numerous exceptions, redefinitions, and ambiguities will be appended to the statement, its spirit will remain throughout. Thus, even when the argument seems to veer toward a contradictory conclusion, it will always be no more than an elaboration of the meaning of this first point.

Poetry, like prose, must conform to language, because poetry is a linguistic art. All proper poetry can be written as prose, in single lines and paragraphs, without loss of meaning. That which distinguishes poetry from prose is this: poetry is more than prose. Poetry adds to prose other elements, beyond the mere meanings of words. Most often, this is the property of rhythm, or metre, although other phonetic elements, such as alliteration or rhyme, are often superimposed. Poetry is greater than prose because it utilises language to express its meaning at both a linguistic and phonetic level. Poetry which lacks the phonetic level is mere prose; it can be brilliant prose, but it is prose nonetheless, and the insertion of line-breaks is little more than the author’s admission that either the words or the reader will be inadequate to glean the proper emphases from the passage.

It seems that, today, most poetry is little more than prose with liberally applied line-breaks, the sole purpose of which seems to be to delineate the author’s wish to distinguish himself from the – well, more prosaic – works of those who elect to write simple prose. This is little more than a pretence, a lack of faith in the audience to correctly interpret the work unless they approach it in the guise of modern Poetry. The fallacy here is that in true poetry, the lines and stanzas served to facilitate the amateur’s recognition of the phonetic elements; they did not change or elucidate the poem’s meaning or interpretation. A scholar of poetry could recognise poetry just as well were a poem written in the format of a paragraph, as the metre would be naturally apparent to him. It was for the inexperienced, as we are, that the line breaks were used. This is not to take away from the works themselves; they can be brilliant, exquisite and singularly expressive. However, they are brilliant, exquisite, and expressive prose, not poetry. They would (or should, if they are properly written) lose none of their effect were they written as paragraphs in a novel. However, they pretend to be more than prose simply by way of their setting in print, and this is fallacious to the extreme. Blank space adds little meaning to writing.

Poetry, as mentioned above, adds to prose certain phonetic elements which enhance the language in which they are written, and add to it a mood that increases the power of the poem’s words: the urgency and gravitas of the trochee or dactyl, or the steady, consistent progress of the iamb. The effect of this element of poetry is the same as that of music, in that it adds phonetic elements to words which would, as prose, be confined to their meanings. This is not to say that poetry is necessarily ‘better’ than prose: its very nature makes it both more restrictive and more challenging, simultaneously more and less expressive. However, the added phonetics add a dimension of expression to poetry which has an unavoidable effect on the reader.

A wonderful example of this sort of poetry are the works of Tennyson. It is virtually impossible to read The Lady of Shalott without sensing some of the sing-song rhythm and melody with which the poet has imbued the poem. It is this element that gives the poem, its lasting and lyrical nature. Yes, the poem can be interpreted properly when simply read in silence, but it is when one reads it aloud that its power can truly be appreciated. When reading it one cannot help but sense the flow of the poem, its rhythm and its melody, that any interruption to the flow is immediately apparent and a source of much consternation. This is why it is important, when reading poetry, to preserve the intended stress and pronunciation; without them, the very poetry of the poem is reduced. In a poem such as The Lady of Shalott – as, indeed, in much of Tennyson’s poetry – the rhythm is so apparent that one cannot help but instinctively grasp the intended pronunciations. This is, in fact, the poem that got me interested in poetry in the first place – due to the dubious honour of its inclusion in an Agatha Christie title – and a mispronunciation such as the emphasis of the first syllable in Shalott cannot help but grate on the ears and take away from the poem’s lyricism.

Another poet who can be cited as an excellent example of the use of metre in the English language is one of my personal favourites, A.E. Housman. He is termed as very prosaic by many critics, as his poems do not seek to give sweeping pronouncements about universal absolutes, but rather with minute, insignificant, and often cynically interpreted details of contemporary life. However, his poems invariably conform rather rigidly to the Classical concept of metre and, to me, it is herein that lies his greatness. It is a hallmark of Housman’s poetry to begin as though writing a sweeping lyrical ode in the Classical style then to switch tone, countermand the romanticism of much poetry, as in my personal favourite poem, Stars, I have seen them fall, or to write a poem in a traditional style but in apposition to classical subject matter, as in the anti-war mimicry of a heroic epic in From Clee to heaven the beacon burns. Such effects would be relatively impossible without the addition of metre poetry: the metre points to a proud tradition whereas the words seek to ground the subjects of Classical poetry in reality. A poem such as Oh see how thick the goldcup flowers has two opening verses which could well form the beginning of a traditional ode to the purity and idealism of love, but it instead proceeds to counter such opinions while nonetheless maintaining the rhythm of an autonomous ballad. Housman uses phonetics and words to express opposing sentiments, and as such his poetry is elevated above the possibilities prose would have offered.

Poets such as Blake, Milton, Shakespeare and Frost, to name a desperately inadequate few, also brilliantly utilise the phonetic possibilities intrinsic capabilities of the English language. However, though all the poets discussed above used Classical metres in their works – who can forget the endless high school mentions of iambic pentameter lacking adequate explanation – it is not at all my intention to claim that all poetry consists of only iambs, dactyls, and trochees. There are multifarious other ways to add phonetics to mere prose, and I do not even pretend that they have all been conceived of already. There are many devices of poetry beyond the simple repetition of syllabic pattern. One of this is native to traditional Anglo-Saxon poetry (it was used in Beowulf) and is extremely effective: that of ignoring unstressed syllables, but maintaining a pattern of stressed ones. This is a technique which is, in fact, used in much modern music to create rhythm where the singers’ lyrical abilities were inadequate to craft the songs; however, it has also been in many truly great poems, and it is a rhythm that seems quite natural to speakers of the English language, as opposed to Classical metres, which are more suitable to the more diversely accented languages of Latin and Greek. For example, Gerald Manley Hopkins, who has been cited by many modern poets, including T.S. Eliot, as a major influence, used it in nearly all his poems, as he desired to return English poetry to its pre-Norman roots. The effectiveness of this is evident in his masterpiece, Spring and Fall, or perhaps more familiarly, in George Bowering’s Bones Along Her Body, possibly the only good poem ever featured on the TTC’s Poetry on the Way. This is great poetry even though it does not confirm to the Classical definition of metre because it conforms to the rules of prose, but adds to them considerably. Let it not be said of me that I wish to confine the definition of poetry merely to the manner of Ovid.

Many great poets have defied the traditions of metre with considerable success, and I do not pretend that anything which trespasses out from their rules is not poetry. Dante, for example, is commonly held to have written his Divine Comedy in three-line stanzas with lines of eleven syllables each, but often this rule was stretched through the addition or omission of a syllable or two. However, one of the foremost poets to not use traditional metrics is T.S. Eliot. At first glance, his poetry seems relatively devoid of form in the traditional sense – and yet, his poems have an undeniable rhythm, a flow of language that is extremely subtle and yet is detectable, if not definable, without study, as is true of all great poetry. In a poem such as The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock the metrics are fairly easy to detect, the verses are pattern and rhymes abound throughout the poem, and the same is true of his magnum opus, The Waste Land. However, a poem such as Gerontion, which is in my opinion one of his very best, and is quoted in the essay preceding this one, has no obviously detectable metre. Yet, one cannot escape the feeling that the words of the poem do flow phonetically along some undetected rule, intended by the poem but not perceived by myself, the reader. I have neither the poetic experience nor a sufficient knowledge of Eliot to be able to interpret the poem properly – and this was no doubt his intention, as he was famous for wanting to keep poetry out of the hands of undercommitted, undereducated, vulgar plebeians such as myself – but the feeling of poetry remains. It seems to me unavoidable, when reading Eliot, to gain an acute sense of one’s own ignorance, and an irresistible desire to read the literature of the world until every bit of his supremely educated incidental symbolism is understood. Perhaps the coming years will allow me a greater understanding of the poem's syntactic constructs, but for the moment it remains for me a wonderful example of proper poetry in the rejection of Classical metre, despite my poor understanding of it.

So far, I have merely discussed the rule of poetry, and poets whom I consider great within poetry, but have not mentioned a poet whom I reject, to one of whom we now come. E.E. Cummings is famous in his utter rejection of traditionalist poetic structure, grammar, and spatial configuration. I will focus here on one very famous poem, Cummings’ r-p-o-p-h-e-s-s-a-g-r, more commonly known as Grasshopper. The premise of the poem is that the letters and words of it, read in the only available logical sequence (largely left-to-right) result in the image of a grasshopper, facing right. This poem is considered a breakthrough in the poetics of spatial configuration and iconography, and all this may well be true with the exception of the use of the word ‘poetics.’ There may be much to be said for the art of visual symbolism, or even of the graphical representation of language, but such a poem has little to do with poetry. It lacks the intrinsic aspiration to beauty by use of language that all true literature represents, and it lacks both the linguistic elements of prose and any additional elements that might serve to elevate it to poetry. It can only be appreciated by its technical nature, and has all the beauty and subtlety of a technical manual. E.E. Cummings’ is hailed often as a pioneer in poetry, but he is more accurately a pioneer of typography, an art which is also related to language, but has not the expressiveness of poetry. A ‘poem’ such as r-p-o-p-h-e-s-s-a-g-r is exactly the sort of thing that undermines poetic tradition: visual gimmickry masquerading as proper poetry. It is considered poetry simply because modern society divides all writing into poetry and prose, and anything which is not the latter must also be the former. This is a ridiculous point of view: poetry is more exclusive than prose, and mere graphic wordplay is not an example of it. Is a word search, or a crossword, poetry simply by virtue of it not being prose? This seems a ludicrous proposition.

Gimmickry, however, has perhaps some place within poetry. Though most of my essays read as definitive pronouncements, I would like to spend a few paragraphs discussing a book on which I cannot divine my own opinion, this being Christian Bök’s Eunoia. Continuing in the tradition of Georges Perec, the book is divided into five chapters, each different in tone, and each utilising one vowel only in all its words. I have included one verse from this book at the beginning of this essay, partly because it is an effective discussion on literature and criticism, but partly also because it highlights my own ambivalence on the book’s subject. I have to admit, I was very impressed in reading the book, most of all by the narrative continuity of all the passages. Rarely does the reading feel like meaning is subordinate to the gimmick, except in the final chapter. ‘Chapter E’, a retelling of the Iliad, is particularly effective, and has a continuous flow that surprised and delighted me. However, I must ask myself whether this is true poetry. I am impressed, yes, but am I impressed as one who sees an astounding work of art, or as a child whose attention has been seized by a suddenly shiny trinket? How can I even tell?

Eunoia is an exercise in prose under the strictest of limitations. It is, in a way, an extension of the Classical concepts of strict metre, extended to even more rigid phonetic and topical limitations. Where Hellenistic and Latinate writers had specified metres which to use for certain kinds of literature, Bök imposes on himself much more extreme guidelines, the aforementioned use of only one vowel per passage, and the necessity for each chapter to describe certain scenes, such as a banquet and a nautical voyage. The question, however, is this: are the limitation placed so strict and contrived that they limit the expression of the writing to the point where it is no longer poetry? I do not, alas, have an answer to this. Eunoia is a fascinating exercise in the limits and possibilities of language, but where metrics enhance expression, the devices used here limit it instead. I admire the achievement of Eunoia, but I could not confidently put it in the pantheon of great poetry, nor even in that of all poetry. It is an enigma – as, I suppose, its author intended it to be – but it is not one for which I have an explanation. It is a wonderful highlight of the difficulty in defining poetry even if one has a guideline definition which one has adopted, as I do. Some works clearly lend themselves towards either inclusion or exclusion, acceptance or dismissal, but this one, I must say, confounds me. Perhaps, in several years, these paragraphs will be, to me, a source of considerable embarrassment.

A crucial example of modern non-poetry that get labelled as ‘poetry’ because of society’s ignorance is so-called ‘anagrammatic poetry’, which is to say poetry which rejects the rules of grammar. An example of this is rather pathetically appended to Eunoia to represent the semi-vowel ‘y’, and if any one considers this poetry, I am bemused and bewildered. It is little more (and this is true of much ‘poetry’ today) than a list of words which are somehow interrelated. This is all well and good, and it can, in fact, even be quite expressive. It is not, however, poetry. It is like much of modern art, a series of disjoint symbols, and it is left to the reader to link them to determine their meaning. They are the linguistic equivalent of a Rorschach test, and just as no one would argue that the inkblots themselves are works of art, so I would argue that such wordlists are not poetry either. They serve, perhaps, to illuminate the relative linguistics of the reader’s cognitive processes, but they have no beauty of their own, and they do not further the art of the language, and add nothing to what expressiveness could be achieved by prose and are, thus, not poetry.

The problem, as I see it, with poetry, and in fact with much of art as a whole, is that society no longer regards it as self-contained, but rather regards it, more than anything, in terms of its creator. Most amateur poets write poetry as a form of catharsis, which is all well and good, but it can only lead to true art by coincidence. Truly great poetry is written in service of the craft of poetry, not of the emotions of the author. However, this perception is not common throughout society: the best poetry is seen as that which best expresses the author’s ‘soul’ or emotional state. I think this view is fallacious; I consider poetry an art form, and as art, it must aspire to be beautiful. Contrary to Keats’ famous proposition, truth and beauty are not one and the same – in fact more often than not they are wildly disparate; the most beautiful things we have are our fantasies – and as such, the mere honest expression of emotion, however accurate, does not great poetry make.

Beautiful poetry must be crafted with the intended beauty in mind. Sometimes, yes, this beauty occurs from honest expression, but this is rare; truly great poetry has almost always been the result of an effort to create a beautiful work of art, not simply to express one’s emotions or make oneself feel better. Perhaps Catullus’ poems would not have been as great were it not for his consuming and unrequited love, but without his poetic training and instincts, they would have been no better than the laments of a lonely teenager. Most people now write poetry expecting greatness to come from only their honesty, but poetry, as painting or sculpture, is a carefully honed craft. When I write poetry – all of which is, incidentally, absolutely dreadful – I always aspire to create a thing of beauty, a work of art. I invariably fail, but without that attempt and that intention, the point of writing poetry would be missed. It may be valuable to oneself to write for the sake of catharsis, but it is not valuable to art, and as such I never write thus. Poetry should be beautiful independent of the emotional state of its author, and its words should be able to convey, properly read, the entirety of the message.

Modern poetry, it seems, is largely mired in a bog of avant-garde expression and rejection of traditionalism. When Housman wrote, the situation was somewhat similar, with his work dismissed as prosaic and unoriginal despite his status as Poet Laureate. I maintain that poetry must add to prose other elements beyond meaning; prose may be wonderfully expressive, but there is a magic to poetry, which can be perceived by being studied but shows hints of itself even to the uninitiated, which, to me makes it far more enjoyable, fascinating, and challenging forms. To me, poetry is the highest of art forms, taking language craft to its highest attainable levels and creating expressions of such singular beauty that it truly seems that they could not be expressed any other way. It is unfortunate that is such a widely ignored and maligned art form today, the domain mostly of amateurs with little appreciation or care for poetic tradition, and I can only hope it will one day regain its status as the most respected of all artistic professions.
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