The Great Conversation: Poetry

By Matt McKeown

Poetry has earned its reputation as a subtle, complicated art, but should equally be recognized as a hedonistic pursuit.

Poetry is difficult to define, and with good reason. The Greek word ποίησις simply means “creation, making”; when the book of Genesis was translated into Greek, God’s creation of the word was thus called poetry. But when we talk about poetry, we normally mean words, said or written in some sort of pattern—always a pattern defined by rhythm, and usually rhyme. Some advanced forms of poetry dispense with rhyme and make the rhythm extremely complex, requiring an attentive ear that can pick up on subtle qualities of sound; but this sound-rooted, rhythmical characteristic is the attribute that distinguishes poetry from prose.

Poetry comes in a number of different genres, which tell us what to expect from the poetic work in question. Epic poetry is grandiose, running to several thousand lines at least, and narrates some legendary or historical episode: the wrath of Achilles during the siege of Troy, or Dante’s journey through the three realms of the afterlife. Dramatic poetry signifies plays written in verse—as all plays originally were, taking shape under the genius of Æschylus and coming down almost to the modern period, when prose plays began to come into fashion. Songs are always poems, from the hymns of ancient authors like Prudentius and Venantius Fortunatus, to ballads like The Unquiet Grave, all the way to modern pop songs. And finally, there are lyric poems: expressions of some simple theme, usually personal and often brief, as in the sonnets of William Wordsworth or the confessional poems of Anne Sexton.

The Roman writer Horace stated that the proper aim of the poet is “to please and instruct”. We first meet most poets as schoolwork (with exceptions like Edward Lear or Dr. Seuss), and many poets are difficult to understand, which leaves some people thinking edification is the main purpose of poetry; a vague, often unexpressed sense of “You’re not supposed to like it” hovers about it, as if poetry were a nutritious vegetable. C. S. Lewis states, on the contrary, that “every book should be entertaining. A good book will be more; it must not be less. Entertainment, in this sense, is like a qualifying examination. If a fiction can’t even provide that, we may be excused from inquiry into its higher qualities.”

It begins in delight and ends in wisdom.

Robert Frost

Because it depends not only on the meaning of words but on the sounds and rhythms of speech, poetry is the most language-dependent of the arts; translations are rarely satisfying. Nonetheless, people who are not only good translators, but good poets in their own right, sometimes manage it. And some forms of poetry are more amenable to translation than others: Hebrew poetry features a lot of parallelism (similar concepts, expressed in two or more ways in as many lines), so that the Psalms tolerate translation much more gracefully than, say, Shakespeare’s sonnets.

One of the interesting features of English verse is how much it relies on emphasis to establish rhythm. Almost every language has accented versus unaccented syllables, but in the classical languages (Greek and Latin), it is length rather than accent which quite strictly determines a syllable’s role in the rhythm of a line. Anglo-Saxon poetry was much more flexible about length, relying on the rougher pulse of recurring emphases to establish a beat. This “barbarian” feel has survived not only the massive changes in pronunciation, vocabulary, and grammar that eventually turned Anglo-Saxon into modern English, but also the influence of classical poetry itself upon English verse. Gerard Manley Hopkins reasserted these Anglo-Saxon roots in his invention of “sprung rhythm,” which practically ignored all considerations except those of the number of accents per line.

Poetic criticism is another subject again. The modern student might be surprised, on opening Aristotle’s famous Poetics, to find himself reading a book about plays! And not even about the way to write verse for a play, but about things like how to write a compelling plot. One of the difficulties of criticizing poetry is that it’s such a broad topic, just as criticizing “prose” would be. It is far better to get a taste for poetry in the beginning, and analyze it later—and take the word taste here almost literally. The first principle of enjoying poetry to is pay attention to it with one’s senses, to hear it with your ear and feel it with your tongue and lips. Read it aloud to yourself, not too fast.

Suggested reading:

Psalm XVIII
Sappho, Ode to Aphrodite
Virgil, The Æneid
Sir Gawayn and the Grene Knyght
William Shakespeare, The Tempest
John Donne, Loves Exchange
Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Kubla Khan
Lewis Carroll, Jabberwocky
T. S. Eliot, The Waste Land
Kahlil Gibran, The Prophet

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