Monday, September 17, 2012

What IS This Thing Called Poetry, Anyway?

       Max Cairnduff, on his literary website Pechorin's Journal (which I strongly recommend, by the way), recently posted a review of the novel "Leaving the Atocha Station" by Ben Lerner.  The book deals with the nature of poetry and this has induced me to make some remarks of my own on that topic. It's about to turn into a double post.  Today I'm going to discuss the qualities that make poetry effective.  In the next post I'll analyze some examples that show how that effectiveness is achieved.
       Sometimes in my rambles through other blogs I come upon a person who writes verse and posts it.  Occasionally some of it is passably good, but unfortunately most of it is awful.  I won't give specific examples because I really don't want to hurt people's feelings.  I understand that these people are immensely proud of what they've done -- they've written poetry -- isn't that wonderful?  But they can't see that what they've written isn't really poetry: first, they are too close to it; second, they are totally unfamiliar with any of the basics of poetic composition; and third, they have no sense of rhythm or metaphorical construction. 
       Their "poetry" is about as good as my figure drawing -- that is, embarrassingly bad.  I 've said before that my friend who is a trained artist informed me of that fact, and after she pointed out things that were wrong, like the proportion of the human body, I agreed with her.  But my point is, I couldn't really see it at first; I was proud of what I'd done because it was something I'd never tried before, but I was too close to it and I didn't have any technique.  I'm sure these blog versifiers can't see their flaws, either.  I'm not condemning them for that, but I do have to say, some of the stuff just makes me squirm.
     To make poetry, it takes more than simply adding some rhyme and limping meter to a sequence of words. So what does turn versification into poetry?  I'm going to quote a paragraph from Max Cairnduff's review.  The character in the novel, Adam, is living in Spain but he doesn't speak Spanish well at all.  Therefore: "For much of the book then the bulk of Adam’s conversations are notional. Things are said to him, but whether what he understands is what was meant is far from clear. That sounds potentially annoying but instead it’s very funny, and something more than that – it’s a metaphor for poetry itself. Adam understands Spanish as a reader understands a poem. Sensed meanings, which may or may not be intended. Multiplicities of interpretations, those chosen coming as much from what Adam brings to the conversation as to what was actually said. Adam’s conversations exist in the space between him and the words he understands, like poetry exists in the gap between the reader and the words on the page."  [My boldface in both cases] 
       With writers of doggerel, there is no such gap.  The sentiments expressed might just as well be rendered directly in prose, and probably better done so, because there wouldn't be all those distracting misapplications of rhythm and rhyme.
       I wrote that kind of poetry when I was in high school.  Some of it wasn't too bad -- I had a little poems included in a college anthology as the prefatory piece and one of my profs said it reminded him of Emily Dickinson.  However, my balloon was quickly popped when as an English major in my sophomore year I took the requisite Introduction to Poetry course.  I discovered what good poetry really is and I immediately said, "I can't do anything like this," and I quit writing the form.  I haven't written anything since except a few poems for one of the later Ki'shto'ba volumes, which were absolutely essential to the story.  Whether they are considered any good, only time will tell.  I can always use the excuse that they were actually written by a giant termite in an alien language and translated by Prf. Kaitrin Oliva in the 30th century, so I'm merely channeling them from the future! (LOL)
       What poetry does is to take words and put them together in special ways that suggest far more than the sense of the words themselves.   How this is accomplished I'll discuss in that later post, where I'll give examples.  Poetry is not easy and can't be understood with one superficial skimming -- to be appreciated properly, a poem requires strenuous attention.  In illustration I want to conclude with another experience of my own. 
       At one point during my college days, the Head Librarian Dr. Ellsworth Mason, who was a Joyce scholar and also taught in the English Department from time to time, asked a few students over to his house to talk about poetry.  One of the poems was the very simple and familiar "Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening" by Robert Frost.  I'll print it here:
Whose woods these are I think I know,
His house is in the village, though;
He will not see me stopping here
To watch his woods fill up with snow.
My little horse must think it queer
To stop without a farmhouse near
Between the woods and frozen lake
The darkest evening of the year.
He gives his harness bells a shake
To ask if there is some mistake.
The only other sound's the sweep
Of easy wind and downy flake.
The woods are lovely, dark, and deep,
But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep.
       We all read the poem and Dr. Mason asked us to interpret it and we sat there and read it over and pondered, and the silence grew and everybody got embarrassed, or at least I did.  It's just a few words describing a momentary event in the day of a particular man, right?  And yet there is a shift of tone in that last stanza.  I'm happy to note that I'm the one who finally had the breakthrough.  I said something like this: the poem is about the allure of death, but the poet's sense of duty and responsibility wins the battle.  He rejects the escape that death would provide and recognizes that he must carry on to the natural end of the road before he can rest.  And Dr. Mason said that was exactly right.  I was so pleased! 
       That changed my view of poetry forever.  I never looked at a true poem as something superficial again.  The poetry of "Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening" exists in that "gap between the reader and the words on the page."


  1. A very instructional piece nicely illustrated via Frost's "Stopping by Woods...". You provide a useful guide for assessing verse -- and a reminder to writers as to why their limited abilities may be better suited to prose ('though, I expect there are plenty of us who'll fail to heed your prompting! LOL). I was satisfied, though, to have confirmed my conclusion that the magic of Frost's poem lies in the final stanza, and even more specifically, the last two lines.

    1. Thanks for commenting, Jack! I'm going to start my follow-up piece with a little technical analysis of Frost's poem, and then move on to analyze some other poems of completely different styles. Heck, this may turn into another series of posts.

  2. I used to write poetry when I was in high school and somehow I have forgotten how. This will definitely bring back and teach me to be one again. Thank you, Lorinda.

    And I have passed on an award that I have received from others, would you mind taking a look at it then decide whether to join in or not :-)

    1. I'm glad I could be helpful! And I hope you'll benefit from my follow-up posts as well! And thanks for passing on the award, although I don't understand which award it is. See my comment on your blog.

  3. Excellent post! Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening is one of my favorite poems.

    1. I'm happy you like the post, Sherry! We need to keep people thinking about good poetry!

  4. That's an excellent piece Lorinda, and I'm glad I helped prompt the thought. I'll be interested in your follow-up.

    Poetry is tricky. It looks so easy, throw in some rhymes, bit of imagery, bit of emotion, pop it in the oven at 180 degrees for 20 minutes and it's done. It's nothing like that though.

    It's often only when one pushes into a poem, as you did in that class, that it starts to reveal itself. In fact, if it doesn't require effort it's probably not that good a poem. I recall when I was around 14 a similar experience. I don't now recall the poem, but it was read out and we were asked our opinions on it. Suddenly as I thought about it I realised the imagery was partly about menstruation, and timidly suggested that.

    Naturally the whole class laughed, particularly the girls (which was, of course, particularly humiliating). I was right though, the poem was in part about just that (to the extent any poem is about anything). It was pushing into it (which at this point is an awkard metaphor, but let's move past that) which revealed it to me even though there were obviously a lot of people there to whom the themes were perhaps more relevant.

    Similarly one of my favourite poems, The Love Song of J Alfred Prufrock, I've found has revealed more to me as I've thought harder about it.

    Anyway, great post, thanks. And thanks for the kind words too!

    1. And I thank you for the kind reply! I actually had a somewhat similar experience in my Introduction to Poetry class in college. Each of us was assigned a poem to interpret and I drew "Cherry Robbers" by D.H. Lawrence. I started giving this openly sexual interpretation (I'm looking at the poem right now and I think that was totally justified), but our professor was a rather elderly gentleman of the old school (Chairman of the English Dept.) and he obviously got embarrassed, giving a rather startled little laugh. Then I got embarrassed - I was only 18 years old after all, and this was 1958. I remember saying something like "I thought all of D.H. Lawrence's poems were supposed to have this sort of theme." :)
      As for Prufrock, yes, it bears much re-reading. Dylan Thomas' "Especially When the October Wind," which I used for three different chapter epigraphs in "Termite Queen" v.2, also yields more with each pass.

  5. Lovely post--and a nice reminder of Robert Frost's work. He's such a master of juxtaposing the simplicity of the everyday with dark and resonant metaphor. A companion piece to "Stopping by the Woods..." (at least in my mind) is "Acquainted with the Night". Also seemingly simple--a poem about someone who goes on solitary, nocturnal walks. But under that is the narrative of one who has known deep sadness, a restless loneliness, and the experience of being an outsider. What I love about Frost is that there's such a lightness of touch to these deeper, darker sentiments--melancholy, wistful yearning, solitude and exclusion. And he somehow makes that sadness beautiful (just as he so simply yet masterfully conveys the appeal of the "lovely, dark and deep" woods).

    Lovely post--looking forward to the next one!

    1. And lovely analysis on your part, Kat! I always associate this poem with "The Road Not Taken," which is probably even better known. I wasn't familiar with "Acquainted with the Night," so I'm just now reading it. What struck me in that poem is the form - it's a variant sonnet form, written in terza rima (Dante's poetic form) with a couplet at the end. I just looked up "terza rima" in Wikipedia and by golly they give this poem as an example! I wonder if Frost may have associated his night ramblings with a descent into the Underworld of darkness and so deliberately chose to use Dante's form.

    2. That's a great connection--between the terza rima/Dante form and the work--so appropriate, particularly given the imagery of the piece. It makes so much sense, and the form is sufficiently unusual, that it really does suggest intention on Frost's part, to create an implied link between the works. I love that added resonance.

      I agree, re "The Road Not Taken" as well. They're kind of a trio (triptych?) in my mind, but I also recall writing a paper back in the day, which involved analyzing, comparing, and contrasting "Acquainted" and "Stopping by...". No doubt that strengthened my association between the two.

    3. It's so nice to find somebody else who enjoys analyzing poetry! I always loved it - not sure everybody did! ;) What was your undergrad major, Kat?

    4. Heh--English (I know--big surprise, right?!). I also studied some History, and loved it.

    5. Well, I thought it might have been pre-law or political science or history or something that led into that law degree. I took my English degree in a much easier direction - librarianship (although I started out working for a Ph.D. in English, with idea of teaching in college).