Poetry is primarily concerned with emotion, as is proved by its being written in rhythm.
“Nothing is more transient than our feelings, and nothing more enduring” – Thomas Hardy.
Poetry is defined by poetry and judged by poetry. In Whitman, his first readers recognised the marks of poetry.
“Everything has to change so that everything can stay the same” – Lampedusa.
What we seek in a work of art is reassurance about the nature of human beings.
The content is not the poem, except where it is.
“Practical experience is the criterion of truth” – Engels.
In the world, we encounter only physical objects and the properties of objects.
“Sensuous qualities are what is most precious to us” – Dewey.
A materialist understanding of life finds its appropriate expression in an imagist style – a style that presents only physical things, out of which something “spiritual” occurs.
A great poem is a remark the world can’t forget.
In poetry, one sees also with the ear. “The horses’ lumpy hooves clump on the planks . . .”
Poetry is the mimetic use of language. Although mimesis is fundamental, it is best when it is not overdone (as is readily seen with alliteration, one of its forms).
Poetry uses the non-semantic elements of language – rhythm, texture, enjambment, spacing, tone, rhyme – to intensify the semantic.
Metaphors easily become symbols, and devalue the independent nature of their parts; or they imply an idealist point of view (that of “the fundamental Oneness of things”), again devaluing the particular. They muddy the image: “He is a lion.” One sees something grotesque and imprecise.
Simile, in the act of evoking an object, by showing its surprising similarity to an aspect of something else, at the same time insists on its difference from that thing, and thus both terms are illuminated. We have an intuition of the actual, wordless object; the thing steps through the words.
Keeping separate the things it relates, a simile acknowledges that each has a unique nature.
“A thing is itself and not another thing” – Butler.
At the same time a simile shows things as being experienced relatively: they are seen in the light they throw upon each other.
The simile is Classical; the metaphor Romantic. The great exponent of simile is Homer. Everything stands forth clearly, in Greek light. Metaphor lends itself to Christian doctrine. One term, which might be called the “earthly”, is subsumed in the other.
Metaphor, simile: universal, particular.
Similes don’t have to use “like” and “as”. Ezra Pound’s Haiku-like poem “In a Station of the Metro” functions as a simile by separating its terms onto different lines. A simile has space.
Poetry occurs when a poem has ended. It is an emanation of the words.
Language, which carries knowledge, is one of our senses – it helps us to see. But this doesn’t mean we only experience within language. The world often contradicts our hypotheses.
The poet has to be aware of all in the world against which language fails, if he is to find something original to say. Language is made fresh by struggling with what is not language. Intractable material is our luckiest gift.
Art’s function, since the time of the cave artists, has been to provide vicarious experience.
Ultimately, it is the technique of a poem that sanctifies its content – only technique can keep the content fresh.
The form chosen for a poem is an allusion to other poetry, and is part of its meaning.
Order in poetry isn’t a matter of following rules, but arises from within the writer, as a river creates its own banks.
The line in free verse is a gesture for the voice. It is like a free line-drawing.
A sense of the limitations of lyric poetry can give rise to an interest in aphorism. The aphorism is an attempt to speak more directly, with more of intellect, than the lyric allows. Like a poem, an aphorism presents, it doesn’t argue; it strives for maximum compression; it is highly worked; it has a rhythmic balance in its expression.
The sense of all things being physical will by no means devalue the mystery of their existence.
The morality of a poem is in its tone.
The stricture against sentimentality is not a formalist judgment, and neither is that against sadism, its obverse, which ought to be equally condemned.
The formalist believes we must bring none of the emotions of everyday life to the contemplation of art. He would have us check our humanity at the cloakroom.
The reductive rage is also found in philosophy and in science – it is an irritable tidy-mindedness.
Symbolist poetry favours an elusive, ungraspable content as a means of representing, of asserting, the numinous. It is indicative of 19th century intellectuals’ panic in the face of science.
The individual is the moral agent. A poem need only affect one person to be humanly significant.
Exponents of “New Criticism” devalue the poet’s intentions, when all of the formal decisions in his work were based on these.
Hume, many are yet to acknowledge, is the last philosopher, in pointing out how we are “constrained” to accept the commonsense world.
The fact that has to be allowed for, by formalist critics, is that the content of a poem is often moving. This can’t be merely ignored.
If we demand of our writers that they have virtuous lives, we will not find much to read. But the human being is very complex.
We do not want a poetry of humanistic platitudes.
It is a mistake to meet writers one admires: if they are more interesting than their work, they have failed as artists; if the work is more interesting than they are, we have wasted our time.
Language tells us what we are feeling. The finer discriminations of language are the poet’s specialty.
One writes poetry to experience a revelation.
It is a requirement of common sense that the rhythm of poetry be appropriate to its content. To take an obvious example, the tripping rhythm of Hood’s “The Bridge of Sighs” is distasteful; it doesn’t show the feeling it claims to have for its subject, but rather expresses something like a perversion:
One more Unfortunate,
Weary of breath,
Gone to her death!
Take her up tenderly,
Lift her with care;
Fashioned so slenderly,
Young, and so fair!
. . .
Contrast this with the folk song, “St James Infirmary” (given here in one of its many versions):
I went down St James Infirmary
And I found my baby there
She was stretched on a long white table
So cold so lean so fair.
. . .
In its pace, in its sombre steps, there is here the dignity of sadness.
“The music of the word is never just a matter of sound . . . it results from the relation between the sound and its meaning. And meaning, content, must always lead” – Pasternak
Poetry is the spirit that is generated out of matter.
Line-breaks in free verse are the meaningful pauses or emphases of speech. “The lingering of the voice according to feeling,” as DH Lawrence says (yet he does not explore this: he uses almost always an end-stopped line).
Like Hegelians, we must both affirm and negate the content in the poem. As are all true things, this is a paradox.
Human beings are catalysts of the possibilities of the Earth. By means of the wind to sail against the wind. By means of words to see around language.
Civilisation is to do all things artistically – to pursue them for their own sake.
What cannot be said can be shown, through images, and the juxtaposition of images.
“No argument can transcend experience” – Hume.
Chinese poetry, as it is known in translation, has become a genre of 20th century English-language poetry. This is a form that never existed before, in East or West. Such poetry is restrained to the maximum extent, in thought and feeling. Its technical pleasure is a rhythmical precision, and the calm strength of its end-stopped lines. It has a new tone of voice, a murmuring voice. It has a down-to-earth location. Arthur Waley’s are the paradigmatic versions, wherein we find his own voice abetted by that of a particular figure, Po Chu-i. The voice of his poems is more original than that of Ezra Pound, which, by comparison, has a slight vulgarity, a brashness. Such “Chinese poetry” confounds all arguments against content in verse – this poetry survives almost entirely on its content.
Art exists for the improvement of the senses.
The “pathetic fallacy” must have greatly intensified the early human experience of nature. We can preserve something of such feeling now, if we treat it as similitude.
As observers, matter exceeds our expectations.
Hume’s answer – that nature compels us to live by commonsense beliefs – means intellectuals count for little. The rage of the intellectual is that of Caliban “at not seeing his face in the glass”.
Nature forces on us belief in the external world, other minds, inference, the communicative possibilities of language, causation, a possible accuracy in memory, and the compatibility of choice with determinism.
Political protest in poetry is self-righteousness.
“You need to create the poet while you write the poem” – Machado.
The most obvious trait of real poetry is that you want to read it again.
“The romantic is deficient or under-developed in his ability to distinguish between fact and fantasy, whereas the classicist, or adult mind, is thoroughly realist, without illusions, without daydreams, without hope, without bitterness, and with abundant resignation” – TS Eliot, The Criterion, October 1923.
Under the regime of Modernism, rhyme only survived in popular song. We found song-writers are able to hear subtleties – they love imperfect rhymes. “I know I laughed when you left/ but I only hurt myself . . .”
Content in poetry, or the subtlety of emotion, which is “to airy lightness beat,” is caught out of the corner of the eye and allowed to cling in the words. It is the outcome of the endeavour of style.
Poetry itself has been for many “La Belle Dame Sans Merci”.
© Copyright Robert Gray 2012