Old & New Definitions of Poetry
Critical analysis of poetry may be useful for identifying what makes poetry work or what universal or subjective meaning we might construe from reading it. Aside from that constructive criticism and in-depth analysis should enable us to enjoy and appreciate the value of poetry in our lives even more and develop our intuitive and discriminative mind in terms of understanding what it means, or why we take such great pleasure in it.
Nevertheless literary criticism is prone to highlight paradoxes and arouse endless controversies so that very little can be said about poetry without awakening some animosity from both writers and readers alike. In my view a large proportion of “modern poetry”, having freed itself of the straight-jacket of a variety of conventions, is now in need of some new definitions coupled with new appraisals of its efficacy and worth whether that be social, political, creative or psychological. If we do not understand or appreciate the need in a multi-dimensional literary world of making subtle distinctions, then anyone who ever spoke and anyone who ever wrote could be identified by those remaining (the silent minority?) as an accomplished poet! With the recent onslaughts, particularly in popular media, of what masquerades as “modern poetry” many traditionalists have argued that this modern genre or style is simply symptomatic of the period in history through which we have evolved. In particular the period from post-industrialism right up to the modern digital age swamped with spam, cyber-babble and twittering. But we also live in an age when egalitarian Puritans have attempted to dissuade us from using certain words which might be discriminatory or offend while we are constantly bombarded and assaulted daily by a torrent of offensive words and unreliable information in books, newspapers and on the internet. This virtual literary deluge has discernible consequences on natural human cognition and our overall comprehension of what is and what is not acceptable. Not only has everyone become famous for fifteen minutes but they have also been recognised as a literary tour de force by many who have chosen to follow them. The populism of the internet has positive and negative ramifications on our values and standards. The response from aspiring poets has been two-fold, firstly to “dumb-down” so that they are easily accessible or conversely to become extremely cryptic and elusive. One might easily argue that left to its own devices poetry has always had a modernising influence or gradual inclination towards creative evolution because contemporary English language evolves or changes and does not in any sense remain static. Poetic forms using texting is a typical example of the impact on language of some verbal innovations. Many other European languages, for example French are by nature conservative, striving to maintain the status quo by eliminating or excluding the influence or “borrowing” of other idiosyncratic languages (in particular Americanisms), colloquialisms, popular slang and so forth unless it is indigenous to their own culture and traditions. The French language is a typical example of a top/down nationally imposed linguistic stasis from which historically very little has developed randomly in an organic sense. English is not like that it adopts and changes to meet the needs of its users.
Nevertheless, in some instances a great deal of archaic and modern poetry is little more than a compositors’ art because it is largely involved with not only the selection or choice of words but the somewhat random or creative rearrangement of those words or sentences on a 2-dimensional page. Whether they are chopped off, absurdly assembled or re-packaged and then customised like many other consumer products on a conveyor belt which are finally intended for mass consumption. Conversely, modern poetry some would argue reflects the elasticity and modernity of our everyday language, that is the selection and re-arrangement of specific words that is considered a creative act. But one is inclined to ask are we simply endorsing the practice of “wholesale conceptual propaganda” in the same sense that the visual arts have done in the latter part of the 20th century? For example, in the same way that artists like Damien Hirst and Tracy Emin have liberally exploited the “Shock of the New” on mass culture? These methods and approaches in marketing aesthetic taste may temporarily alleviate our current boredom with the status quo but not necessarily lead us further into any new conventions and deeper understanding of art in a personal and universal sense.
However, by ignoring the conventions of metre, rhyme or structure they do not require any literary appreciation in any ordinary sense. Essentially, these techniques vie for temporal predominance, are often quirky, loud and defy common sense or sensibility towards the spoken word. In this sense they attempt to redefine or destroy our rationale and comprehensions about the acceptable function of everyday language. In some instances they are little more than irascible, dramatic snapshots or banal narrative descriptions being often enigmatic, elusive, or cryptic to the point of absurdity (ie: psychobabble). This overwhelming anarchic inclination to instantly break all the rules, either through naivety or being ignorant of them and then not having understood their relevance or importance would put the ranting psychotic repertoire of the modern “traumatist” on a par with the seriously trained or talented poet.
In my previous blog I have argued that Poetry is not just about individuality or originality but about the expression of universal ideas that reflect upon the human condition. It is about those ideas or conceits as well as the techniques employed that good poetry is concerned with and not about how outrageous or “way out” you can be! That is a comical or challenging speaker today is not necessarily a poet for all time. There has been in the past the recognition that there were “sub-categories” of poetic indulgence in popular performance for an audience to be entertained or amused by. They were known in Shakespeare’s time as rhymesters, gleemen, jesters, joculators, railers and ranters who performed along with other popular wordsmiths, minstrels and clowns in travelling shows and in a few established theatres. It would appear therefore that very little has actually changed over 500 years. Today we have spawned a whole new genre with the increasing demand for stand-up poets, performance poets, slammers, rap artists and comedy performers who have assembled themselves in popular media under the umbrella term “poet”. It is true of course that some people simply want to be “amused or entertained” by, if not totally distracted from, the human condition. On top of which we also have numerous talk show commentators, satirists, comedians, actors, speakers, and adherents of pure psychotic gibberish all vying for narcissistic self-indulgence on reality TV and “chat” shows.
These cultural definitions in literary definition may have changed over time but none of the actual standards or properties of enduring poetic quality. In my view there remains a rich vein awaiting to be mined. In order to distinguish the qualities of prose from that of poetry we need to be acquainted with the vast compendium of poetic structures, patterns and forms that already exist and of course certain aspects of linguistic theory. As in architecture, it would be foolish to build on unstable or weak foundations without incurring serious hazards. In purely simple terms we will find interesting examples of mediocre prose within many newspapers, magazines, textbooks and the majority of fiction and non-fiction, thanks largely to the influence of poets from the past. This might not have been the case previously, as some novelists felt compelled to excel themselves even when writing prose (eg: Sir Walter Scott-Ivanoe and Edgar Allen Poe). Although initially something of a generalisation we might say that poetry largely employs metaphorical devices because it is associated with the use of metonymy and other techniques particularly in romantic symbolism, while prose relies largely on rhetorical devices such as contiguity or synecdoche usually found in works of realism or fiction as well as abstraction.
Semantics and linguistic theory suggests that within the whole evolutionary maelstrom of the poet’s choice, synchronous arrangement (ie; syntax) and use of words, certain almost invisible yet innate laws operate to induce overall contiguity and meaning. Without them the use of language becomes pointless, confusing and meaningless.
The English language, like many other European tongues derived its essence from what is known as euphuism, (originally from Greek and Latin literature) which in Elizabethan England became a rather ornate, structured form of literary expression designed to impress and satisfy a largely educated and aristocratic audience and give the poor illiterates of the kingdom something to aspire to. Although it owes much to the Yorkshire born Roger Ascham (1515-1568) whose voluminous tome “The Schoolmaster” was based on Ciceronian models borrowed from Plato, which helped define a comprehensive teaching method for grammar in England’s newfound schools and universities. The 7 basic principles included goodness of wit (euphues), memory (mnemon), love of learning (philomathes), diligent application (philoponos), ability to learn from others (philekos), unbounded curiosity (zetetikos), and the love of praise and reward (philepainos). Performance of poetry, or drama, song or even dance, according to the ancient Greeks, should also have three essential qualities; Mania (madness, genius, frenzy), Logos (reason, logic) and Ecstasis (inspired rhetoric). While in the delivery of important speeches the ancient Greeks advocated that ethos (moral stance), logos (reason) and pathos (empathy) were considered the essential ingredients. It may also be worth bearing in mind that the art of oratory depends heavily on its deliverance to an audience and this delivery often relies on natural rhythms or patterns of assimilation through vocal emphasis or tone, mood and precise articulation and pronunciation. Therefore utterances of prose can be as equally powerful and moving as some poetry.
Euphuism, as it was applied to the Anglo-Saxon world was first popularised by the playwright John Lyly in his two-part prose romance Euphues (1578-80) and maintained an elaborate balance of thesis and antithesis whilst simultaneously being self-conscious and conceited. Euphuism required the multi-layered application in verse or drama of alliteration, labyrinthine similes and subtle metaphors, complex allusions, extraordinary syntax, as well as dynamic forms of rhetorical speech. It might be said that the euphuistic style, although it was only really popular for a decade, set a bench mark for the capacity of the English language to evolve further than it had ever done before. William Shakespeare assimilated and espoused the techniques of euphuism in his play Love’s Labours Lost. However, one cannot discuss or appreciate the impact of euphuism in England without first understanding something of Greek and Latin prosody, especially the former with all its special diacritic marks which define how a word should be pronounced. Because spoken English lacked the sophistication and exacting properties of Latin or Greek it seemed expedient to imbue some classical principles into its everyday use and application, especially where public recitation, drama or widespread publication would expose most if not all of its fundamental linguistic crudities. Some writers and poets would argue of course that its essential crudities in the right hands which makes for creative assembly and reconstruction.
Rather than rely on the complex distinctions of ancient Greece or Rome by defining stressed or unstressed syllables in poetry many poetic forms, especially lyrical styles would benefit from new definitions or the use of those hieroglyphs employed by musicians. It would also define more accurately the delivery and not rely on the vagaries of dramatic rendition. Although clearly some poetry has only a visual or tonal impact on the listener or reader. Nevertheless, the ordering, selection and general arrangement of words, and their ongoing sequential characteristics or style are often associated with the unique creative potential a poet possesses. In Donald Davies’ book “Articulate Energy” he writes;
“We are at the stage in the development of our language when word order and idiom are becoming increasingly decisive in communication...but it may be questioned whether we yet sufficiently recognise how sensitive is the complex series of anticipations which is set up at each point in a sequence of words or phrases, and which enables a reader to select the appropriate elements of connotation from the words following.”
In other words sometimes the sheer anticipation of what we are about to hear next in poetry sets up a chain of semantic causality which often reinforces our perceptions, challenges our mindset or in an intellectual or emotive sense enlightens us. The alternative, innovative and creative use of syntax suggests a rearrangement of personal expectation and improves our personal experience and understanding. Some would say; takes us out of our “comfort zone” or frees us from our rhetorical or prosaic world for a brief moment. The management of words and their articulation animates them and gives power and creative energy to the theme and makes communications generally more mysterious, exciting and sublime. Largely it is what and how something is said that identifies it as poetic.
I have crossed an Ocean,
I have lost my tongue,
From the root of the old one
A new one has sprung.
The individual or personal timbre of the spoken word by a poet is of great importance for poetry that is intended for performance. In many instances the poet’s dialect is part of and contributes to the poem’s aesthetic properties. It could be argued therefore that some poetry is intended to be read and other poetry to be performed. While there may be many elements to be adjusted or defined within poetic expression the majority of them are identified by the aural patterns or structures underlying the arrangement or use of words. These are more clearly discernible when poetry is spoken or recited out loud. Patterns or rhythms may be created by the hard or soft/long/short stresses applied, by the arrangement or number of stanzas, by the rhyming or repetitive patterns themselves (metrical, phonetic or syllabic). We should bear in mind that when poetry is read aloud a series of physiological functions occur:
- Inhalation (nasal & oral)
- Breath retention-(diaphragm) usually pause
- Vibration (muscular constriction of the larynx)
- Manipulation (internal or external correction of teeth/mouth/tongue etc.)
- Explosion (exhalation) recitation.
Speech is a river of breath that forms vibrations in the mouth, larynx and lungs. Or as described by Orpinak, a 20th century Eskimo shaman, who is a poet as well as a hunter:
'Songs are thoughts, sung out with the breath when people are moved by great forces and ordinary speech no longer suffices. Man is moved just like an ice floe sailing here and there in the current. His thoughts are driven by a flowing force when he feels joy, when he feels fear, when he feels sorrow. Thoughts can wash over him like a flood, making his breath come in gasps and his heart throb. Something like an abatement in the weather will keep him thawed up. And then it will happen that we, who always think we are small, will feel still smaller. And we will fear to use words. But it will happen that the words we need will come of themselves. When the words we want to use shoot up of themselves - we get a new song.'
Or they may be identified by the choice, sequence and arrangement of words in line or verse, that is it may have a particular syntactic style or signature peculiar to that poet or orator (the Scottish artist/poet Ivor Cutler is a good character example). Words that rhyme create aural patterns or structures that the human brain can identify but may not consciously know what it is or why they enjoy it so much. Patterned verses with rhymes can be an invaluable aid to learning and developing memory, as in for example in the use of Nursery Rhymes in early education. Many other forms of aural patterns and structures borrow from the world of music and dance because there is an underlying rhythmic connection between the words in a poem and ballads or dance steps. However, there are several other rhythms that are duplicated or simulated in poetry, the movement of a horse, the clanging of the blacksmith’s hammer, the rush of the waves at high tide or litter being blown on the pavement and so forth.
Although elusive, hard to define or clearly analyse a woven fabric of verbal abstraction, metrical pattern or phonetic variance emerges in the mind of the reader or listener causing them to reflect on their own subjective appreciation as well as their objective understanding of the role of language as a shared reality in common use. Poetry can it seems be ambiguous, ambivalent, enigmatic, cryptic and mysterious. But when language is used in an inarticulate, clumsy or crude manner it often creates misunderstandings, but when employed in a poetic form it may confound or extend its original meaning and expression. When discrepancies or anomalies in meaning are clarified by further mental questioning or challenging evaluations then a truer picture of what was said emerges in the mind of the audience. The “up and down-ness” of words by their variety of meanings, by phonetic resonance or by their syntactic arrangement create an underlying graphic impression interspersed with audible patterns that distinguishes a great deal of poetry from common prose.
The majority of poets are inclined therefore to “speak” or write in their own personal code or one unconsciously borrowed from other poets. However, the majority of people have of course already agreed on, and being adequately educated in, the basic logical and rational distinctions or inferences that are commonly decreed and utilised in speech or writing. Unfortunately, the vast majority of people have no knowledge of these “codes”, have learned their own everyday language quite instinctively, often with the help of their parents or teachers. They may use the language without really understanding how it actually works, in the same way that we buy and use computers without understanding operating systems, programming languages or electronic engineering.
To summarise briefly, in linguistic communication a concept is simply substituted for a sound-image, the sound image then has universal and personal meaning due largely to subjective and objective psychological imprinting in our minds. Semiotics further states that there exists a series of “links” within “causal chains” operating on these signs, signifiers, and the relevant concepts being signified. Then some personal or universal value or worth is attached to any or all of these concepts or sound images in our mind. There are numerous elements that help us identify the subtle factors that we are often unaware of but nevertheless we employ on a daily basis. For example, contiguity is the close relationships of certain ideas and the positioning of words that are at our first encounter apparently different, such as for example; “brother/sister” or “uncle and niece” or “aunt and nephew”. All are members of the same family, brother and sister the offspring of the same parents and nephew and niece bear similar relationship to uncle and aunt. Metonymy is the colloquial substitution of one word for another, as for example in the use of the word “crown” to denote the royal household or its representatives. Synecdoche is identified whenever a smaller part is inferred from a greater whole. An antonym is derived purely from sharp contrast as in “hut” and “palace”, while using a synonym denotes similarities as in the “lip of the mouth” and “lip of a jug”, whereby jugs, like lips have mouths. Then there are anachronisms which are elements or ideas that have absolutely nothing in common or are peculiarly out of context. Finally, there are synchronous features that appear to take place almost simultaneously in the same linguistic or semantic framework.
Grammar is the underlying logic/framework or systematic inference implied in speech although clearly any system of grammar can be inferior or superior from one language to another. Therefore, corporeal “signifiers” (words) function not solely through their pre-determined or intrinsic values or meanings at all but by their relative position or arrangement to other factors in any speech or literary work. The accidental or random arrangement of words given over entirely to chance selection can still retain some apparent meaning. Even though no such meaning was intended. That is their value and meanings are variable and co-dependent on a whole chain of other relative signs and modifiers that are employed in speech or writing.
Furthermore, it has been a general rule that written prose tends to begin and end as a continuous sentence, while poetry tends to be arranged in a numbered series of lines. However, even this need not in some cases be absolutely true. Often the lines or "sentences" in poetry may be carried over to the next in mid-sentence so to speak. Similarly, as a rule punctuation in poetry is really a matter for the poet although traditionally each line is identified by beginning with a capital letter. However, some poets have abandoned this practice too and favour the practice of using only lower case throughout. Indeed, in many examples of modern poetry the emphasis or importance placed on these “rules” is quite arbitrary, sometimes involuntary or variable. One should bear in mind that poetry is both spoken and written and as a result one particular rule may apply in one context but not in another. Furthermore, poets can be by nature, though not always, somewhat irascible and tend to make up their own rules as they go along. A clear definition in the difference between poetry and prose is often disrupted by unacceptable conventions and contemporary practices that abandon all rules, definitions or categories.
The whole of Shakespeare's plays generally contain a mixture of prose and poetry, often using these literary contradistinctions to dramatic effect just as the ancient Greeks and Romans had done for generations. However, early in his career he rarely employed prose, tending more towards "elevated" poetry. The play Richard III for example contains only 50 lines of prose, the remainder being wholly writ in poetic verses. Later in his career Shakespeare artfully combined the use of common slang, prose and poetry to great advantage and therefore drew audiences from a much broader spectrum of the population. In this sense he managed to bridge the gap between the literate and so-called illiterate classes in Elizabethan England. He seems to have synthesised or combined aspects of prose, blank verse, song and poetry into one complex holistic format - the Elizabethan play. Today his plays are performed all over the world. But no one then or even today would call him a modern or experimental poet or playwright. Dramatic poetry, and its counterpart poetic melodrama, are really more akin to some forms of opera, which, excluding the songs, melodies and singers themselves, is the conjuring of images or ideas through words that are interwoven within each scene or act with the support of characterisation, dramatic action and narrative plot.
From a purely formalist perspective the practice of poetry is a form of linguistic deviation, if not occasionally violation of common prose. A recognition of an eternal paradox in meaning, a subtle exploration of ambiguity, ambivalence, equivalence, absurdity and contradiction. Or as T. S. Eliot remarked:
“That perpetual slight alteration of the language, words perpetually juxtaposed in new and sudden combinations”
In many respects it is easy to illustrate how poetry works but often difficult to ascertain in which way and on whom or when it would work without direct reference to the particular and the universal ideas and images it conjures up as well as the thoughts or feelings it evokes in the listener. It may be that in the final analysis poetry is indefinable but not indistinguishable from inferior forms. Advertising, although somewhat diluted and crude by comparison, uses phrases and jingles to similar effect from which the layman can ultimately make distinctions. A poem can do something, it can be something and very often mean something but the manner of doing, the quality of being and its essential meaning may still elude us on a purely rational or intuitive level. Its ineffable and sublime nature still eludes our reason or conscious mind and remains an enigma even to the poet themselves.