Poetry and Poets: August 2007 Archives

Another Theory About Poetry


Sometimes I wonder if any great work of poetry actually sprang from a poet who wrote with intention rather that wrote from his or her own experience. That is not to say that there is no meaning in poetry, but those poems most fraught with meaning, most bound up in intention may be only secondarily so. That is, the poet in the composition of them followed the muse (inspiration, the Holy Spirit--you name the mysterious element that gives birth to art).

I ask because when I look around at all the earnest young artists today whose intent is to jolt, shock, and pull us out of our blase day-to-day plumbing of reality, their work is mostly of a moment. The shock wears off and the work becomes an artifact--a remnant of an era.

I look at some of the great poetry of the past and I see story telling, and yes, some kernel of a notion, some idea that gave birth to the whole--but I don't necessarily buy that the whole poem was constructed toward the end represented by the kernel. It may have been refined and perfected with the end in mind--but as I think about my poetry, I realize I don't think, "I'm going to bring this symbol and that symbol into conjunction and by their juxtaposition undermine this linguistic element. I think instead of a moment--real or imagined--a moment that means something--not in the sense of universal meaning, but in the sense of having importance in my understanding of how the world works. And thinking of that moment, I attempt to convey that understanding as best I can. There is no intent for this or that meaning. The words lead, I follow them.

And because that is the pattern, I often wonder whether all that is made of Eliot is purposive, or if rather he composed what made sense to him in all the complexity that is Eliot and we are left to divine purpose and intent where indeed the only purpose may have been to expel the irritant. When it happens we sometimes have pearls--but mostly we have dross--even in the works of the greatest poets--the discards more than likely greatly outnumber the poems that are worked to completion.

Just some thoughts, with no proof behind them.

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Some time back I reviewed Break, Blow, Burn by Camille Paglia and remember being put off by some of her idiosyncratic choices for modern poetry. Perhaps I focused too much attention on that.

Ms. Paglia has a distinct voice, self-assured, self-assertive, urbane, and elegant. Her personal opinions have the solidity of the throne of God and she expresses them as though they were edicts passed down from the time of Moses. She triumphs the artistry of Stevie Nix while decrying the depredations of the European post-structuralists.

What she says deserves attention, not because she says it does, but because her voice has an authority that comes from deep engagement with the materials she studies. Agree or disagree as you will, one thing will be certain--you will be perfectly clear on what you are agreeing or disagreeing with. Ms. Paglia's prose is bereft of the academic apparatus of most critics. And for good reason, "Good writing comes from good reading. Humanists must set an example: all literary criticism should be accessible to the general reader. Criticism at its best is re-creative, not spirit-killing." And so the criticism she tenders in this book fits that pattern she assumes for criticism in general.

One might argue with some of the re-creations--for example, the excessive rhapsodic waxings on William Carlos Williams and on Joni Mitchell's "Woodstock," can strike one as overwrought and grasping at straws. But then, her passionate enthusiasm for these works deserves our attention. Perhaps we overlook something that might well be worth consideration. Perhaps there is something here that we must learn from an enthusiast disguised as a critic.

But I picked up the book , once again charmed into reading by the beautifully fashioned introduction in which Ms. Paglia sets herself up as pedant and tour-guide in a whirlwind cruise through English poetry from Shakespeare to Joni Mitchell. And her first stop is what gave me pause and begged for a more gentle reconsideration of the book:

Sonnet 73
William Shakespeare

That time of year thou mayst in me behold
When yellow leaves, or none, or few, do hang
Upon those boughs which shake against the cold,
Bare ruin'd choirs, where late the sweet birds sang.
In me thou seest the twilight of such day
As after sunset fadeth in the west,
Which by and by black night doth take away,
Death's second self, that seals up all in rest.
In me thou see'st the glowing of such fire
That on the ashes of his youth doth lie,
As the death-bed whereon it must expire
Consumed with that which it was nourish'd by.
This thou perceivest, which makes thy love more strong,
To love that well which thou must leave ere long.

Of the great bard's sonnets, one of the more melancholy and searching--bleak as a desert and therefore refreshing in a way that only truth and emptiness can be.

Ms. Paglia goes on to point out matters structural: The three quatrains are single sentence-metaphors each applied to is subject and accumulating into the final couplet. Matters linguistic: you can identify each by the presence of the phrase "in me." And matters symbolic--"bare ruined choirs" being both the life of the poet and the destruction of Henry VIII. Here, perhaps because of her own attempt at making a secular scripture, she may not have as full a reading as might be possible were she to plumb the depths of Shakespeare's faith. She asserts that, "There is no reference to God or an afterlife. Consciousness itself is elemental, an effect of light and heat that dissipates when our bodies are reabsorbed by nature." Here she follows the fatal flaw of her mentor Harold Bloom, who cannot seem to see that Shakespeare, far from being a secularist, was deeply spiritual, and the threads of this poem speak both to the fate of the human person, but also to the fate of that subject to the human person. "Bare ruined choirs where late the sweet birds sang," is indeed the work of man--the attempt to drive out God and replace Him with what man hath wrought--the Reformation religion.

But enough. The point here was two-fold--to present a kind of apology for the first review and to present this lovely sonnet. And it was slanted more to the second. When I opened the book and saw it there I read it. Then I read it again. Then I read it aloud. Then I read it again. Then I read Ms. Paglia's enlightening gloss of it. And then I read it again, recognize the partial truth of Ms. Paglia's interpretation. But also realizing that in three pages she could hardly do justice to the tight compression of this gem of the English language.

So do yourself a favor. Go back up to the poem and read it. Really read it. Don't let your eyes cascade down it. Stop at each word. Say it out loud. Say it slowly. Then read it quickly. Then force it into it's iambic pentameter and see where the stresses fall (this indeed is part of the amazing genius of Shakespeare--not only did he use Iambic pentameter, he also used the meter to undercut or enhance the message and meaning of the words resting upon that base. And if you don't think this is any big deal, try it yourself.)

Shakespeare is a place to start. But as I thought about it, what if one were to approach scripture in the same way. Read it, read it again. Read it out loud. If it's poetry try singing it, or letting it roll in a rhythm of poetry. Try rephrasing it. Listen to it in all those ways and you will be astonished at what may come through for you. Words you've heard more times than you can count come alive--they breathe and make new strong-fashioned art. No wonder Shakespeare so easily confuses atheist academics who wish to make of him a secular scripture. He had himself internalized these rhythms of the language and used them in a way that at that crossroads of time and art turned him into an archetype. No wonder George Bernard Shaw spent all of his time despising Shakespeare, always concerned that he would never escape the Bard's long shadow. And indeed, he did not.

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For the Poets Among Us

| | Comments (3)

Perhaps you all can advise.

When I write and let the words flow as they naturally flow and follow carefully their internal rhythms and mechanics, I almost always wind up with lines of 9 or 11 syllables.

For example, this line,

and richly has delivered on that promise.

I can change it and make it conform to "standard" prosody, and yet to do so changes the meaning, rhythm, and meter to such an extent that the poem, while it may be technically perfect thuds and limps.

Some poetic voices conform nicely to iambic pentameter, but I'll be honest, I've never thought it the rhythm of English speech, though many will swear that it is the "natural rhythm of English." To me it always sounds a little stilted, a little forced, a little off. Not badly so, but enough so that you can tell you're hearing a line of poetry--and while that isn't bad, it seems rather like letting the audience know how you made the penny vanish.

Any opinions, ideas, suggestions, notions, or . . . I don't know. I'd love to hear any feedback.

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This page is a archive of entries in the Poetry and Poets category from August 2007.

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