As a very green writer, advanced in age and with no academic credibility, I recently asked a professor if he could write an article about what poetry is, what it isn’t anymore, what it has become and, most importantly, what it shouldn’t be. My questions were born out of a deep frustration with the different signals I feel I get from especially the South African literary community. Also, teaching myself writing without an academic support structure means that I’m constantly groping about: a play by Sophocles here, a modern poet there, and a haiku over yonder. I grab what few books on poetry I can find in our local library or in bookstores. Both lack quantity and variety in the poetry department, so my options are limited.
When Prof. replied that there were no answers to the questions I posed, but that he considered them important and felt I should write about my dilemma with SA poetry and my own sense of poetry, I thought, “Aikôna, Sir, you’ll be throwing me to the wolves.” I’ve witnessed ferocious exchanges between seasoned writers and I have no desire to be at the receiving end. I don’t speak Academic and at this stage of my self-imposed learning I don’t know enough to argue.
On reflection I realised that I asked these questions because I want to understand the essence of poetry in the hope of becoming a better writer, and, from what I’ve read so far, agonizing over ‘what is poetry’ is part of every writer’s journey. I’ve been waiting for a ping moment that would indicate that I’ve come to a deep understanding of poetry, maybe in the form of a sign from the gods of poetry.
I looked up the word “essence” in my Collins Concise English Dictionary and found the following definitions:
1. a perfect or complete form of something
2. Philosophy. the unchanging and unchangeable inward nature of something
The immutability of this definition exposed my faulty thinking about something that in fact is never static, but always changing because human thought and language are forever adapting. There can therefore be no fixed form of poetry.
Perhaps even more importantly, poetry must happen in the context of on-going human development and achievement, else it would become predictable; and isn’t one characteristic of a poem that it makes something unexpected of the familiar? The word poetry itself is based on the Greek word for doer or creator, and creators keep on finding inspiration in the old and the new to produce something different or improved. Also, by now there must be as many definitions of poetry as there are published poets and critics.
Subjectivity and Context
I may feel that some poetry reads like prose, that it is not distilled or compressed enough, that it looks like a laundry list of emotions, or that it isn’t “turning from the literal” as Harold Bloom would say, but in the context of the information age it may be an effective way of communicating poetic thoughts to readers who don’t have the time to decipher mysteries or open a dictionary.
In a way we’ve come full circle: performance poetry is on the rise, and it relies on sound and gestures, punchiness and catchiness, which must be similar to the way the ancient poets recited poems from memory. This from the Wikipedia on the history of poetry:
In preliterate societies, these forms of poetry were composed for, and sometimes during, performance. There was a certain degree of fluidity to the exact wording of poems. The introduction of writing fixed the content of a poem to the version that happened to be written down and survive. Written composition meant poets began to compose for an absent reader. The invention of printing accelerated these trends. Poets were now writing more for the eye than for the ear.
This reminded me that poetry is meant to be spoken, not just read. In The Art of Reading Poetry, I learnt that Harold Bloom, American writer and literary critic, memorised Ulysses by Alfred, Lord Tennyson and that he still recites it on those days when he has to “battle depression or adversity, or just the consequences of old age.” (Harold Bloom, The Best Poems of the English Language: From Chaucer through Robert Frost (New York: HarperCollins Publishers), p. 19).
Because I can barely remember two lines of my own writing, I saw this as a challenge: if he at his age (80+) can remember the whole poem, then surely I can memorise it. I left one of my anthologies open on Ulysses and every morning I would try to retain an extra line. At some stage I managed one third of the poem without checking the book, but this quickly regressed into choppy lines once I gave up the discipline and allowed life to interfere.
Reciting bits of Ulysses out loud gave me a deeper understanding of that yearning for youthful endeavour, that stubborn clinging to ideas of adventure, courage and lively companionship, that urge to keep advancing, no matter what, and how miserable a life it is, in the end, to be confined in any way. But more than that, I became aware of how quiet and graceful the lines are even while describing strong feelings like despair:
How dull it is to pause, to make an end,
To rush unburnished, not to shine in use!
As though to breathe were life. Life piled on life
Were all too little, and of one to me
Little remains: but every hour is saved
From that eternal silence, something more,
A bringer of new things; and vile it were
For some three suns to store and hoard myself,
And this grey spirit yearning in desire
To follow knowledge like a sinking star,
Beyond the utmost bound of human thought.
The Quality of Inevitable Phrasing
In The Best Poems of the English Language, Harold Bloom states that “Intuitively, Tennyson understood what poetry was: argument that could not be separated from song, gesture, dance, and the rhythms of a unique but representative individual’s breath-soul.” (Harold Bloom, The Best Poems of the English Language: From Chaucer through Robert Frost (New York: HarperCollins Publishers), p. 593). Having said that, he also talks about the “quality of the inevitable that is central to great poetry.” (p. 19).
I think I recognize what he means by “unavoidable wording rather than merely predictable diction” (p. 20): to exercise control over expression to such an extent that lines which are powerful and memorable seem effortless and natural. I’ll quote from the poets I’m getting to know better; first from Sunday Morning by Wallace Stevens:
Complacencies of the peignoir, and late
Coffee and oranges in a sunny chair,
And the green freedom of a cockatoo
Upon a rug mingle to dissipate
The holy hush of ancient sacrifice.
I never tire of reading the above. I’m in awe of the simplicity of a first line that contains so much. I feel the soft folds of the dressing-gown, the sedateness of the sun, and it makes me long for the smell of oranges and coffee. I imagine the cockatoo depicted on the rug in full flight in a far-off jungle. And then my thoughts darken on the concept of religion, that “ancient sacrifice”, and I think of those awful Sunday mornings when my sister and I had to walk kilometres to church, not because our parents were devout, but because it was the social norm. Easter weekends were especially depressing.
My next example of what I consider magical phrasing is from Repose of Rivers by Hart Crane:
… There beyond the dykes
I heard wind flaking sapphire, like this summer,
And willows could not hold more steady sound.
The “wind flaking sapphire” cuts me every time, and I wonder if the poet is referring to a perverse sense of companionship that he finds in a steady stream of pain. I think many of us have a familiar named Sorrow warming our necks.
The following is from The Listener by John Burnside:
… Summer now: an older mode of sleep;
and this, the running dream that follows stone
and fence wire, digging in
for what remains of snow-melt and the last
good rain, the low road
peopled with bone-white figures: not
the living, in this aftermath of grass,
and not the dead we mourn, in empty kirks
or quiet kitchens, halfway through the day,
but something like the absence of ourselves
from our own lives,
some other luck
that would not lead
(The Listener by John Burnside, The Paris Review, July 12, 2011)
These lines appeal to me because I see a universal truth in “not the dead we mourn … but something like the absence of ourselves from our own lives …” and I can think of no better way to say it.
Below is an example of a keenly observed moment captured in the amber of a haiku:
a heron pulls away
to the stars
(British Haiku Society)
There is effort in the pulling away from what is in all probability yet another beautiful sunset over a river. The heron might be pulling away from the mundane in order to discover the unknown.
The following haiku made me smile. There is humour in the disgust and self-disgust at being alone in a sushi bar in the middle of winter when one yearns for warmth and company.
alone at the sushi bar—
just me and this eel
(Modern Haiku, Volume 35.3, Autumn 2004)
The few poems above represent what I feel is inevitable phrasing. I have many more to discover, especially in South Africa where we have so many languages and other forms of poetry, for example praise poetry.
Some poets write only for fellow academics and poets, others believe that poetry should be accessible to all. I’m grateful to the latter, but the Internet does make understanding difficult poetry easier.
We have podcasts and YouTube now, and maybe in the near future we will have HoloVID projections of poetry readings and performances in our living rooms and schools; and with it I have no doubt that a new kind of poem will emerge.
My conclusion is that I will wait forever for signs to descend from the gods. In the meantime I can work at crafting an inevitable phrase.
© Sara P. Dias (October 2011)