July 25, 2010

Getting Inside Poetry

Poetry may seem difficult at first.  Some readers feel frustrated or shut out by poems that seem obscure.   It takes awhile to learn its dimensions.    I think of poetry as a language within our language.   It is figurative instead of literal.   It uses metaphor and some devices in order to gain access to things that cannot be said.

I find it useful to describe poetry as "pattern language."  This phrase from architecture describes common forms: entrances, transitional spaces, roofs, particular uses for rooms, etc.    In fact, the word 'stanza' comes from the Italian and means 'room.'   Poetry is built; it does have structure.  This structure contains images, sounds, and creates meaning.    When you start to understand these elements, a gate opens and poetry becomes essential.   For me, poetry houses the spirit.    

Poetry's history is in the oral tradition.  It has been used in spiritual or religious ritual.  Prayers are memorized and spoken.   Blessings are given.   Spells are cast.   Traveling minstrels or storytellers instructed and entertained people.  Poetry's patterns allowed for easier memorization. 

"Voice" is key to understanding the poem.  Who is speaking and to whom?  Some poems are public and some very intimate.  Three basic types of poems are 1) narrative, 2) dramatic, and 3) lyric.   I consider the intention of the poet to determine the type of a poem.    The narrative is essentially a story.  A dramatic poem tends to sound like a speech delivered to many. It often engages with important figures and historical events; it might be epic.  The lyric type is similar to song.  

Some poems are 'formal,' meaning that they use a form with prescribed meter, syllables in a line, stanzas, and rhyme.  Sonnets are forms, some are Shakespearean and some Petrarchan. Other forms are the sestina, villanelle, and pantoum.   Individual poets adapt forms to suit their work.  Then there are 'free verse' poems that do not follow a formula.  These might have 'blank verse,' meaning iambic rhythm.  The author of a free verse poem usually establishes his or her own pattern.

The purpose of the poem is also an interesting consideration.   The poet Paul Valery said that prose language is meant to disappear once the meaning is conveyed, but poetry is different.  The particular arrangement of words and rhythm physically affects the reader.   It resists disappearing.  The form itself is compelling and acts as a device that continues to create meaning each time we read it.       

Helen Vendler, an astute literary critic, writes:  "Both John Stuart Mill and T.S. Eliot...thought that the reader 'overhears' the speaker of the lyric, as the audience overhears the soliloquies of Hamlet.  Others...have preferred, as I do myself, to see the reader as the true speaker of the lyric.  In this view, the lyric is a script written for performance by the reader--who, as soon as he enters the lyric, is no longer a reader but rather an utterer, saying the words of the poem in propria persona, internally and with proprietary feeling.  For poems that are overheard, I prefer to keep the name 'dramatic monologue'; in such a poem the reader is genuinely placed in the position of overhearing someone else, clearly not himself, speak aloud to yet another person. I reserve the name 'lyric' for poems that make their reader their solitary speaker."  (from the Introduction of her book, The Given and the Made: Strategies of Poetic Redefinition)

Poetry does have a strong connection to the body, and the breath of the writer affects that of the reader.    In this way, we breath in and out the images and language, the vision of the poets.

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