This short essay tries to get at what poetry is all about and what it can do for us. Your comments on this (or on anything else on this Web site, of course) are welcome:
An Essay on Poetry
Steven C. Scheer
According to the Judeo-Christian Bible, God created the world by means of words, by divine fiat. He said "Let there be," and there was. So it was words that brought the world into existence in the first place, and it is words (by means of human fiat, if you will) that create our own worlds as well. For it is by means of words that we apprehend, categorize, and even think and feel and know our world. We even interpret our most important experiences (like falling in love) in terms of the words our culture uses to talk about them.
When I taught my composition courses in college, I presented my classes with two theories about the relationship between language and reality. I called the one most people assume to be true the Expressive Theory, and I called the one I still think is true the Creative Theory. According to both, of course, "things are what we say they are." But in the case of the Expressive Theory the emphasis is on "are" ("things are what we say they are"), whereas in the case of the Creative Theory the emphasis is on "say" ("things are what we say they are"). What this simple scheme tells us is that words come before meaning, words give rise to meaning. But once words have given rise to meaning, it seems to most of us that meaning came before words. That's just how "creative" of our realities words actually are.
Poetry is art by means of words. The word itself is of Greek origin and its etymological meaning is "making" (to say that someone is a poet is to call him or her a "maker"). This oldest of the human arts was born in song (and dance). Rhythm and rhyme (and reason) go hand-in-hand when it comes to poetry. Though the language of poetry is the language of emotions, it is not devoid of rationality either. In a good poem the head is the head of the heart, even as it is the heart that gives life to the head. And this is true even if we accept Pascal's famous dictum about the heart having reasons that reason will not understand.
Trying to define poetry is probably a useless enterprise. The literature on it is vast. Most famous poets have written about it. For Alexander Pope, for example, the essence of it came from what "oft was thought but never so well expressed," for Wordsworth it was a matter of the "overflow of powerful feelings . . . emotions recollected in tranquility," whereas for Shelley poets were the "unacknowledged legislators of the world." Coleridge was perhaps the most ambitious in asserting that in writing poetry the human mind imitates the divine mind in a god-like act of creation (by a kind of human fiat, which is thus an imitative repetition of its original counterpart).
My own attempt at getting at the essence of poetry will be more humble: poetry is the creation of meaningful beauty (or beautiful meaning) by means of words, which thus both create and express who or what we are. There are no limits as to the subject matter of poetry (today's poets even use so-called obscene language in their poems). Whatever our human hearts and minds can contemplate or brood over or entertain (pun intended?) is fair game. Love & death & sex & marriage - even the price of tea in China.
Poetry used to enjoy great popular appeal. This was especially evident in the nineteenth century. In the second half of the twentieth century things began to change. Poetry seems to have gone to colleges and universities where it is nowadays only read in literature courses and, of course, in creative writing courses. It seems that today's readers of poetry are other poets. (And if "hell is other people" - as Sartre would have it - how could other poets be the salvation of poetry?) There is, of course, another way of looking at this: poets (of the academic sort) are alive and well in academia (as well as in coffeehouses here and there), and still have their fans, limited as they may be, whereas the popular appeal that poetry once enjoyed has by now shifted over to popular music. It is through popular music that most people still enjoy "poetry," even if they don't think of it in those terms.
One problem that lots of people have with poetry is that poets don't "tell it like it is," they use strange and incomprehensible language, full of "quaint and curious" metaphors (not to mention metonymies and synecdoches). There is, of course, a good reason for this. But it has a circuitous history. Once what we now call clichés were indispensable. In an oral culture repetitious and formulaic phrases aided and abetted memory. After the invention of writing, repetition and formulaic prose came slowly to be seen as hackneyed, as not truly responsive to realities (thus, as even perhaps distortive of them). The same old same old deadens our senses and our perceptions, so that using the same old words for new feelings would render the new feelings prematurely old.
Poets use new metaphors (or put things in new perspectives) in an attempt to make us see and feel things as if for the first time. They renew the old so that we may, like children, have that sense of wonder again about what's around us or in us, for that matter. Of course, famous poems, poems that we love and perhaps even know by heart ("knowing by heart" is an interesting phrase, is it not?), seem to bear up under repeated readings or recitations. Here repetition of what is fixed ("formulaic") does not diminish our perceptions. This may be a paradox. Or perhaps just the old-fashioned "test of time." Certain poems pass this test with flying colors (if I may be permitted a cliché here).
Actually, this problem of poets not "telling it like it is" is intricately related to common phrases and expressions, too. There are innumerable common phrases and expressions in our languages that were once fresh as daisies but have become overused and worn out by time. So we no longer think of the mental feat it takes to understand them. We seem to understand them instantly (even automatically), as if they were all so clear that they needed no interpretation at all (like "passing a test with flying colors"). The difference between such commonplaces and "difficult" poetry is a difference in degree and not in kind.
One way I used to illustrate this in beginning literature classes was by means of a comparison between a popular song and a poem that students might have found too difficult to understand. Here's an example:
Love in the First Degree
I once thought of love as a prison,
Like many a poem, this song also sustains a metaphor. It talks of love as if it were a crime for which the lover can be imprisoned. But how and by whom? Clearly the imprisonment in question is not an imprisonment at all in a literal sense. The speaker wants to be locked away inside of his beloved's "love," so that prison here emerges as, in some sense, a commitment, even a marriage (of happily ever-aftering fame to boot). Note, too, that these connotations are not at all negative. The speaker is more than willing to become his beloved's "prisoner." In any case, people (young as well as old) have no problem with a song like this. Yet they might have difficulty understanding the following:
somewhere i have never travelled,gladly beyond
somewhere i have never travelled,gladly beyond
I have copied this poem here with all the idiosyncrasies that e.e. cummings is famous for (like the liberties he takes with punctuation, for example), but (of course) there is much more that's idiosyncratic here than meets the eye. Yet "irrational" as the words of the poem may seem when taken literally, they amount to a beautifully intense expression of a man's love for a woman (in this case, of e.e. cummings's love for his wife). What the reader (who stops resisting what at first may look like strange and unfamiliar metaphors) can quickly see is just how wondrously and uniquely love is described here, so that the reader may actually experience it with the speaker of the poem in such as way as if it were the first time ever anyone ever fell in love.
Such is the power of poetry. The trick is to stop resisting it. The trick is to recognize, implicitly, that the language of poetry is simply our ordinary language renewed and intensified. It is as if something were being said (and thus created and brought into reality) for the first time. When it comes to a good poem, each time is the first time. The words become ours. We become the words. So that only after things are what we say they are, can they really be what they are to begin with.
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