Donations are essential to keep Write Out Loud going    

New Bearings in Poetry

entry picture

In terms of mere merit, all written or spoken poetry requires a reader or listener, without which it is impossible to comprehend, understand or define absolutely how poetry works. Poetry requires or even necessitates an audience, to be heard or known to exist. Poet and audience are interdependent and related factors. Without these factors there would be no need for poetry or poets to exists. In actual fact many poets have a natural contempt for any type of audience-fearing it might disturb their personal journey into some semantic hinterland. Silent, unread or unwritten poetry will ultimately remain an enigma to the world-a type of Pandora’s box awaiting release like an embryo awaiting fertilisation in the mind of the reader. There are as yet many poets who have not been, and do not wish to be exposed to a living audience. There are indeed poems that have never seen the light of day. As absurd as this may appear, I believe the poet’s silence, or for that matter his presence is just as powerful and articulate as his written or spoken work.

“....Speech is a river of breath bent into hisses and hums by the soft flesh of the mouth and throat...”

However, W. H. Auden’s definition of poetry as “memorable speech” was redefined by Donald Davie as “considered speech”. Others might add “elevated or configurated speech”. In my view none of these definitions suffice to define or capture some of the rare or the indefinable aspects of living poetry-those which are visceral or audible and those which are invisible or metaphysical. Poetry exists everywhere, it has always existed and continues to exist even when we are not immediately conscious of it. The poetic mind merely “taps” into it. However, the work or business of a poet is an instinctive compulsion as much as it is a considered or conscious action although some believe it relies merely on talent, learning or technique. Artists may be instinctive, intuitive or highly conscious in response to their environment and consequently their flow of “work”. However, what a poet does (whenever he has the occasion or motivation) is to convey this personal presence, this sublime silence, this depth of comprehension and perception via a semantic and phonetic medium; and we call this phenomenon poetry. In many respects poetry is often confused with charisma, although the two are usually inseparable. Poetry can be accidentally, unconsciously or consciously created. But poetry cannot exist without a poet and neither can it exist as a reality without a voluntary audience. Poetry, at least in this sense, is a conveyance, or vehicle for a particular form of mental and emotional perambulance in the being or mind of the poet. Although its’ impact or meaning can be altered by the mind of the listener or reader. In fact poets often play with ambiguity or introduce it into their work for reasons best known to themselves. If a poet is vague or cryptic they challenge the audience to obtain meaning or solve their “word puzzle”. Therefore, the words or thoughts of the reader or listener are never akin to, nor automatically resonate identically with those of the poet or author. The thoughts or words of the poet’s readership or audience are merely a distorted echo or flickering shadow of the original creation intended by the poet. The poet is the drum-stick and the audience are the drum-skin that reverberates to that “impact”. Moreover there is often a psychological gulf between an audience and the poet and that might extend into several semantic or linguistic chasms as they proceed. We might call this space mysterious, unknown but awaiting discovery by the readership or audience. In reality we have to “know” people before we can readily “listen” to them, just as we need to feel secure in places before we can relax in them. That is why some people idolise a poet while others simply despise them. Some poets may possess a natural or instinctive intelligence, an acquired mental capacity and an emotional field of experience accessible to only a few. A reader or listener, of which there are many, does not necessarily possess the same degree of aesthetic sensibility or level of perception as does the poet themselves. Unless of course the reader is also a poet. Unfortunately, there are no parthenogenic poets out there who are insulated or self-created; their poetry resembles what they have read in the past and understood in their past as being “poetry”. The reader, of necessity, must be acquainted with a broader spectrum of poetic utterances if they are to approach readily the work of a new poet completely unknown to them. The gullibility of the audience and their susceptibility to glamorise a poet is a danger to literature. When the poet has become known to them, they can just as easily be rejected; that is as soon as the source of their style is detected, their readers condemn and abandon them. But we must bear in mind that the majority of poets are also subject to unconscious parody, pastiche, or vague imitation of other poets, usually from their past. It may be their syntax, their rhythm, their vocabulary or tone which have left a residue in the memory of many contemporary poets that is being borrowed or cloned in their own work. Hence  a large number of poets are imitators of what they have perceived or understood as poetic expression from other poets. For example their laconic air, their sonorous tones, their bombastic overtones or their soft whispers etc.

Some, if not all of these literary elements, would have been “acquired” but that is not to say that the poets subject to these influences lack an individual style or characteristic charisma. It may seem at first glance that a poet possesses a unique or individual style, but on closer examination we will undoubtedly detect slight echoes or flickering shadows of their original inspiration, either from arcane or contemporary sources. And yet what we should understand as “poetic style” is really how a poet is literally “fixed” or metaphysically located in their own time and space. Each poet therefore has their own time and their own space from which they take bearings in order to reach out to new dimensions or horizons. How their individual approach differs, to be distinguished from the qualities of their personal character, is a key factor to understanding the subtle process of “osmosis” which circumscribes their literary landscape and synchronises with their own poetic time. But poets who are recognised as geniuses by the public or literati are rarely separated from their personal circumstances, merely elevated or detached from them. From this elevation and their wisdom they can see for thousands of miles into the past, the present and into the future. Their moral character or personal integrity, nobility and status is something else. Indeed many biographers struggle to separate the facts of a poet’s life from the value of their work to the public. The facts of their life, their patrons, their family, lovers and friends may be influences but not sole determinants in style. Poets often write best when out of context to their character and lifestyle, when they are immersed in something which momentarily distracts them from personal afflictions or worries. We should remember that poets are often subject to poverty, struggle, pain, madness, infirmity, ridicule and so forth but they can also be the temporary recipients of indescribable love and inspired joy. A poet is never permanently in vogue, they may fluctuate, during the whole of their career, between attainment, rejection, exile or resurrection. All these stages or phases are important factors in their personal development or evolution as human beings. In many cases we can track this development.

In poetry, as it is in all other literary forms, modernity means simply that times have changed and with it our mode of language or communication, which in turn affects the nature of our aesthetic sensibilities. Yes, sensibilities change, otherwise we’d still be wearing bones in our noses. It is the same with popular fashions within any generation but with artistic language it is a rather long, drawn out organic metamorphosis or the molecular exchange of distillation that takes place; similar to the manner in which disparate groups or individuals struggle to communicate with each other for meaning and empathy. It takes a long time and a lot of effort for them to reach a state of mutual agreement.

But fashions or customs are often resurrected. The liturgical, ritualistic and ceremonial quality of 15th and 16th century verse has, over a long period of time, gradually given way to an underlying if not in some instances overt “play” with words within a more secular society. That is not to say that faith or spiritual ideas do not play a part in modern poetry. Whereas previously the poet revered a God or “gods”, made votive offerings, recited prayers and sung hymns to a supernatural entity. Now, these forms have been substituted by modern odes to energy, nature, supraconscious awareness, technological change, or the ineffable presence of an invisible power pervading the universe. So, what is modern poetry, supposedly free of the conventions of the past? Is it merely a geological strata of literary work which has been deposited over a much older poetic strata-wholly discernible yet wrought or derived from the same inimitable source? Some critics would say that for poetry to be considered “modern” it must owe nothing in structure, style or character to that of the past. A tall order I would have thought, which leaves modern poetry, at least in definition, as owing everything to the present or the future?


But we know that not all modern poets have wholly or categorically abandoned archaic poetic forms or structures for very special reasons. In fact they have often renovated or transformed them into something modern and innovative. As a poet develops they may need a supporting structure, one might say “scaffold” in order to lock their conscious mind on a particular subject or aim. Heroic couplets, 14-line sonnet forms, terza rimas and such like perform this task quite adequately. They prevent the poet’s mind from wandering too far from the process of concentration. A great number of artists know that the limitations of a particular medium and the obstacles it creates can be harnessed to great effect and serve to elevate their accomplishment. These arcane forms are “mental mandalas” or secure enclosures within which a particular form of contemplation and deep-level meditations occur. Like the hero of the Odyssey, Dionysus was tied to the mast of his ship so that he would not be distracted by temptations, many poets are happy to undertake a voyage that embraces restriction or one might say “resistance of material” in order to function at a particular level. It helps to focus and concentrate their mind. Conversely, at other times some poets need the freedom and space to develop their originality and adopt new bearings.

Performance PoetryReading PoetryUnderstanding PoetryWriting PoetryGood and Bad Poetry

◄ Shakespeare's Almanack

New Definitions in Poetry ►


No comments posted yet.

If you wish to post a comment you must login.

This site uses cookies. By continuing to browse, you are agreeing to our use of cookies.

Find out more Hide this message