On the Nature of Poetry
Had poetry no nature,
How would you know
You had written one?
And yes, the title of today's post is a pun on Cicero's famous epigram, "O tempora, o mores."
TOF once heard a member of a writers group explain that she did not wish to be confined by rules, and so her poem fell into no particular pattern, But then how do we know it was a poem rather than some perhaps pithy prose lopped into lines? That is called Advertising Copy, in which "Eat at Joe's. Open all night.: becomes
Eat(Which actually does have a pattern. It is a doubling of syllables: 1-2-4.)
Open all night.
The Art of poetry consists not of gushing thoughts -- nothing gushy about Beowulf -- but of patterns of sounds. It is the ability of the artisan to express those thoughts, gushy or not, within constraints. Poetry without the form is like tennis without the net.The oomph depends on the thought rather than on how it is expressed. And most of our thoughts,,, Well, Faithful Reader may complete that thought.
If poetry is patterned sound, what are the patterns?
That depends on the sounds. Each language has its own grace and beauty, and the best forms take advantage of this. That is why haiku are so prototypically Japanese and come awkwardly to English-speaking lips. In Japanese, there is no strong stress and the pattern emerges from the rhythm of the syllables, English OTOH has very strong stresses, and the poetry come from the "beat." Think of Robert Browning's poem "How They Brought the Good News from Ghent to Aix."
I sprang to the stirrup, and Joris, and he;
I galloped, Dirck galloped, we galloped all three;
in which the beat invokes galloping horses. Or Kipling's "In the Neolithic Age"
In the Neolithic Age savage warfare did I wage
For food and fame and woolly horses' pelt.
I was singer to my clan in that dim, red Dawn of Man,
And I sang of all we fought and feared and felt.
in which the rollicking, singing beat evokes the music hall, building tothe famous last lines
Here's my wisdom for your use, as I learned it when the moose
And the reindeer roamed where Paris roars to-night:—
"There are nine and sixty ways of constructing tribal lays,
which is to say that there is no one pattern for poetry. A version sung by the great Leslie Fish skips a verse or two and changes a now-obscure reference, but indicates how poetry should be sung aloud.
Different languages find patterns differently. Ancient Greek found its groove in patterns of long and short syllables, as in the opening of the Iliad:
μῆνιν ἄειδε θεὰ Πηληϊάδεω Ἀχιλῆος
οὐλομένην, ἣ μυρί᾽ Ἀχαιοῖς ἄλγε᾽ ἔθηκε,
πολλὰς δ᾽ ἰφθίμους ψυχὰς Ἄϊδι προΐαψεν
ἡρώων, αὐτοὺς δὲ ἑλώρια τεῦχε κύνεσσιν
5οἰωνοῖσί τε πᾶσι,
which translates as
Sing, goddess, the anger of Achilles, son of Peleus,
destructive as it was, which gave the Achaeans much grief;
and it hurled down to Hades many strong souls
of heroes, and made them spoils for the dogs
and every bird;
It's hard to see the poetry there, because it is not the bumpity-bump of English, but the aa-a-aa of ancient Greek. The translation looks like free verse1
I modified this as a template for the opening of In the Lion's Mouth
Sing, O harper, the anger of Donovan buigh,
That graced us all with boundless grief,
And left brave men a prey to dogs and kites
As we foresaw upon that fateful day
When Donovan buigh and Those of Name
First fell out.
but it incorporates elements of English poetry -- note the alliterations and rhythm.
Greek 'quantitative; poetry' was prestigious enough that when the Romans wrote their own epic, they tried the same gimmick, even though the native lilt of Latin lay elsewhere. Virgil famously opens the Aeneid with these lines
Arma virumque canō, Trōiae quī prīmus ab ōrīs
Ītaliam, fātō profugus, Lāvīniaque vēnit
lītora, multum ille et terrīs iactātus et altō
vī superum saevae memorem Iūnōnis ob īram;
I sing of arms and the man, he who, exiled by fate,
first came from the coast of Troy to Italy, and to
Lavinian shores – hurled about endlessly by land and sea,
by the will of the gods, by cruel Juno’s remorseless anger,
Latin has the property that the endings of words tell us what English tells us with prepositions and word order. Hence, Latin words can be arranged almost any order for poetic effect. The first line literally reads
arms-(of) man-(and) sing-(I), Troy-(of) who first from coast,
We know ab ōrīs (from coast) applies to Troy, not Italy, because Trōiae is in the genitive and Ītaliam is in the accusative. Not until we get to qui do we get the subject of the subordinate clause, which we recognize because it is in the nominative case, (The subject of the main clause =I= lurks in the suffix of cano.)
Browbeating English Submit ye Saxons
The Latinate grammarians of post-Renaissance England kept trying to shoehorn the feet of English into the boot of Latin. They couldn't manage it with the long and short syllables because English lengthens her vowels by ablauting, not by holding the sound for two beats [morae] instead of one as Greek and Latin did. So the classical meters were reinterpreted as heavy and light stress instead. An iamb was originally a-aa, short-long. In English, this became ba-BOOM, light stress-heavy stress.
But when we look at Old English, we see that Anglo-Saxon poetry used alliteration for its pattern-making. The line is broken in two with a pause between and the same consonants are repeated. In Beowulf, for example:
Hwæt. We Gardena in geardagum,
þeodcyninga, þrym gefrunon,
hu ða æþelingas ellen fremedon.
Seamus Heaney tried to keep much of this in his English translation. [It takes an Irishman to properly translate Anglo-Saxon poetry into English!]
So. The Spear-Danes in days gone by
And the kings who ruled them had courage and greatness.
We have heard of those princes’ heroic campaigns.
It's Time to Rhyme
Late Latin poetry turned to rhyme and therefore classicists insisted that English poetry ought to rhyme as well. This is easy to do in Latin, since standardized case endings provided ready-made rhymes.
Tantum ergo sacramentum
et antiquum documentum
novo cedat ritui
praestet fides supplementum
Rhyming is much harder in English than in Latin, which is why it requires greater art to pull it off in English. Done poorly, unless for humorous effect, it becomes doggerel, especially if dome in a thumping beat. Hence, many would-be poets resort to blank verse ir even free verse, It seems easier; but it isn't. We can do those poorly as well.
Gerard Manley Hopkins used a pattern he called 'sprung rhythm'. In the following poem, addressed to a child crying because the lovely golden leaves are falling from a tree, one almost fails to notice the rhymes in the face of invented words like 'unleaving' [shedding leaves], 'wanwood' [barren trees] or 'leafmeal' [leaves scattered about]
Spring and Fall
to a young child
Márgarét, áre you gríeving
Over Goldengrove unleaving?
Leáves like the things of man, you
With your fresh thoughts care for, can you?
Ah! ás the heart grows older
It will come to such sights colder
By and by, nor spare a sigh
Though worlds of wanwood leafmeal lie;
And yet you wíll weep and know why.
Now no matter, child, the name:
Sórrow’s spríngs áre the same.
Nor mouth had, no nor mind, expressed
What heart heard of, ghost guessed:
It ís the blight man was born for,
It is Margaret you mourn for.
The confluence of rhyme, rhythm, and alliteration provides a rich bouillabaisse, with a variety of rhyme schemes and rhythm meters. Larger forms, like ballads, sonnets, epics, and the like are also available, Then there are forms that use patterns of repeated words (sestina) or whole repeated sentences (villanelle), such as Dylan Thomas' "Do not go gentle into that good night."
.TOF once attempted a sestina and wrestled with it until it had defeated him. He failed to alter the meanings of the repeated words each time they appeared. Presented for your horror and disgust:
Though finer points of their philosophy may prove obscure
Alas we seem alone; no other mind takes form
On this fair Earth – nor any other place
That eye can see or instruments appraise.
From distant stars no missives we receive.
As if in that vast vacuum no soul
Abides save only those we call our own.
Such life, we’re told, will be unlike our own;
That’s true for trivia: species, body, form,
Appetites and senses foreign to our soul.
(What lusts do bats endure when squeaks they place,
What pleasures due to echoes they receive?
Our minds cannot conceive what bats appraise.)
But not unlike entire, for kinship we appraise
Beneath those accidents they call their own:
They too preserve, perfect what they receive.
(The struggle to survive is higher form
Of that by which a boulder holds its place.
Inertia is but life deprived of soul.)
They will pursue the good known to their soul,
Whatever good it is that they appraise
In foreign far-flung interstellar place.
Survival’s urge is much alike our own,
Though executed through some other form:
Those powers and appetites that they receive.
Do bats admire the echoes they receive?
Do certain sounds enrich their very soul?
What drives impel the unfamiliar form
On distant stars we do not yet appraise?
Far from and yet alike unto our own
They are, no matter where their outré place.
And what awaits, would we fare to their place
Or they to ours? What welcome to receive?
A sister mind? A tasty snack? A pet to own?
It all depends on what completes their soul
And how both good and ill they do appraise.
When seeing us, what image do they form?
A place within each soul
Receives and does appraise
Its own and other’s form.