An approach to poetry: “0ne person talking to another.” ~ T S Eliot
“What every poet starts from is his own emotions.” ~ T S Eliot
“…the credibility of this honoured but hard to define category of human achievement called poetry.” ~ Seamus Heaney
Full disclosure: I have not been, consciously anyway, overly obsessed with the question “What is poetry?” I have tended to avoid a certain wrestling angst, contemplation of my poet-navel, a raising of Romantic anxiety, where this is concerned. While I suspect I can find certain subconscious reflections in myself on “the poetic”, “Poetry” and related queries, I have just gone about the business of writing poems. The proof that I have not been as complacent as I might sound is that often, at poetry readings, I have remarked to friends nearby, “Where is the poetry?” Behind that complaint lies some formulation of what poetry ought to be.
I have also tended to use “poetry”, “the poetic”, to describe other kinds of art. For example, when I have been moved by a really fine dance performance, the best way I can describe it, is as “poetry.” In my poem ‘elemental’, I have written of “those sexy dancers/barrelling through space,/arching, escalating over breath,” my attempt to capture a certain breath-stopping moment of the poetry of dance.
If I have any kind of philosophy that guides my approach to understanding and writing of poetry, it can be summed up as “Truth, Beauty and Harmony.” From the ancient Greeks to Rabindranath Tagore, Eastern philosophers to more recent critics, these have been discussed and debated and discarded in their various permutations. My adoption of “Truth, Beauty and Harmony” has more to do with a certain technical achievement than a philosophical view. Usually included are “Order” and “Moral goodness,” but these are absorbed, I think, in Harmony and Truth.
Anyway, for me, poetry should speak “Truth.” The reader should put down the poem with the response, “Yes, this is true. It is a true recording, reflection of an emotion or experience or insight that I recognise.” Or the sense (even if the full meaning escapes the reader) that the poem carries the “ring of truth.” If the poet is posturing, if they have not fully explored the reality of the experience, emotion or insight, the poem will come over as false, will be sentimental sham. Eliot says, “What every poet starts from is his own emotions.” But those emotions ought to be searched most deeply, and via the right words, images, rhythms, as the poet seeks to capture the truth of his feelings, linked closely to experience and insight. And capturing this truth is very much a technical matter, since it is word and image and sound that will hold in a delicate vase the truth the poet desires to share. Eliot brings it right down to basic fundamentals: after all the hype, “poetry remains…one person talking to another.” Here, echoes of Wordsworth and Coleridge. Related to this he says: “the poem comes before the form, in the sense that a form grows out of the attempt of somebody to say something.” How we say, how we speak, is the craft and crafting of poetry.
The poet should struggle to this point of a kind of revelatory truth. Even when (s)he does not want to go there! To write truth will involve a self-exposure that can be uncomfortable and many writers stop short before the deep implications of truth dug for, found in all its nakedness, and brought up like a blood-soaked, squealing baby, from the womb of the suffering entailed in such searching of one’s innards. If one has been honest, and has desired to write true, and to present it as unambiguously as possible, one has begun to write poems that will last beyond the first flush of creative endeavour.
But to be complete, the poem must proceed.
Secondly, Beauty. One can find beautifully written prose and beautiful drama. Beauty shows forth in those forms. But poetry, even more, should carry a beauty about it. And that beauty is bottled, as it were, distilled, sharp-edged. It is the beauty of the line, its rhythm, its image, that will hold the attention. That will stay in the mind long after — even when one is writing about grim matters, death, depression, brutality, infidelities, heartbreak, etc. The poet must speak of these with a beauty that carries the emotion powerfully to the heart and mind of the reader or hearer. The emotion of sadness or horror at some evil written of, or the heart-lifting joy evoked by love, or nostalgia or whatever, must be written in beauty, or it will not fully succeed. I don’t see a contradiction here. Is this not the secret of the catharsis of Shakespearean and other great dramatic tragedy?
Poets more than prose writers speak of “the line.” It is “the line” that must hold the beauty of the expression of emotion, experience, insight. It is the beauty of expression that packages the truth and makes it hold our attention. As with holding, containing truth, beauty is of course captured in the line and stanza by the very practical and mundane matters of technical skill. Again, it comes down to speech, i.e. diction: the use of language, the variety of vocabulary; image, symbol, metaphor which carry the weight of beauty in poetry — one remembers the image the writer has used, and one is moved to memorise a beautiful phrasing.
But the beauty is also held by rhythmic devices. And here we come to the music of poetry, where the beauty of the line is not only in the eye, but in the ear. The master Eliot again puts it well: “The music of poetry is not something which exists apart from the meaning.” It is well known that music and poetry have ancient common ancestors, and our more recent forays into performance poetry have tried to return poetry to its musical roots.
I like hearing poetry read aloud. Because it is there, in the spoken word, the sung word (again the heightened voice in poetry reading) that one often hears the beauty of the verse, which returns one to the written line on the page. I first began to enjoy Eliot and Larkin and Lowell and Kamau Brathwaite by hearing them read their work on old vinyl discs. Kamau, I was fortunate to hear read live in the seventies.(He can be heard and seen today on YouTube.) The poet is essentially, as with the old minstrels and griots and Homers, a singer, a kaisonian, a reggae and blues artisan. And no song works without the beauty, the catchiness of the line’s rhythms, the chorus, which bring you, willing, dancing captive, to the truth discovered and revealed in some adulterous escapade, some pleasure, some political betrayal, some grief, some prophecy, some metaphysical conceit etc.
As a gloss on this, here is Eliot again. Speaking of Shakespeare, he says: “Shakespeare too was occupied with the struggle — which alone constitutes life for a poet — to transmute his personal and private agonies into something rich and strange, something universal and impersonal.” If the “something universal and impersonal” can be taken as a reference to the truth captured, I take the “something rich and strange” to refer to what I am describing as “beauty.” And no one doubts that Shakespeare, poet and dramatist, was the great writer of human truth-reality which continues to resound today and he did so in great beauty of lines, ‘rich and strange,’ that fill our memories still.
Beauty and its definitions can prove problematic and contentious. Does it reside only in the eye and ear of the beholder and listener? Are definitions of beauty too culture-bound and so an absolute value of beauty is impossible? Or do the Truth and Harmony of art-shaping, well-placed together, create the Beauty of the art object – dance, painting, sculpture, song, poem?
And so to the third platform to accompany Truth and Beauty, that of Harmony.
Harmony is the requisite of all art. Harmony of composition, of structure. Whether art, sculpture, dance, drama and (certainly) writing, we look for a harmonising of the elements of content and form. If there is no harmony of composition, the truth will not be clear and the narrative will come over as false, posturing, self indulgent emoting; and the beauty is lost if the composition is skewed. How has it all been brought together? Or not? Where is the poetry?
And that is where the writing gets tough. Most poetry, no matter how well intentioned, will not survive, or will consist of interesting failures. (I remember Walcott agonising as he worked on his Collected Poems, wondering what of his poetry would survive. He hoped a few poems would.) Eliot again: “The mystic of verse is not a line by line matter, but a question of the whole poem.” After the attempt to capture the Truth of the emotion, experience or insight; after the effort to speak in Beauty by image and rhythm, has the poet brought all into a Harmony of Content and Form, with a fine balance?
Because it is the final Harmony of Content and Form, of Truth and Beauty, that will lead the Reader into the higher regions of Meaning. What does the poem all mean? Truth, Beauty and Harmony are the guides that lead us from the Inferno through the Purgatorio to the Paradiso of Revelation. To the “Aha” moment, to the “I see!” The achievement of Harmony, the finish of a well-composed work, will lead to more correct interpretations of the work, and avoid, hopefully, spurious speculation. A well-harmonised work will lend itself to close, accurate, critical reading, with all the needed markers in place, well fitted together.
As to this matter of interpretation and finding of meaning, hear how Eliot opens this up even further, and takes us beyond the basics I have dealt with to the ultimate achievement and purpose, of the poem: “A poem may appear to mean very different things to different readers, and all of these meanings may be different from what the author thought he meant….the reader’s interpretation may differ from the author’s and be equally valid – it may even be better. There may be much more in a poem than the author was aware of. The different interpretations may all be partial formulations of one thing; the ambiguities may be due to the fact that the poem means more, not less, than ordinary speech can communicate.” (Welcome to Pandora’s box of the thriving industry of post-modern literary criticism!)
As an expert master, after we have looked at fundamentals, at basics of poem composition, which I have summarised as Truth, Beauty and Harmony, after we have done that and hope we have succeeded to some extent, Eliot then points us to the further regions of Meaning and Interpretation, with all their complexities, and to the role of the Reader to whom we were always heading. Which Reader will then make application to themselves, and raise all the questions of the ultimate purpose of poetry. What is it for?
Poetry finds its completion, and further new life, in the Reader and the Reading of it.
Eliot, in his time, was an innovator and led the modernist literatures of the 20th century which turned from the 19th century and earlier forms which had become worn. On this matter of experimentation, he said the following: “the true experimenter is not impelled by restless curiosity, or by desire for novelty, or the wish to surprise and astonish, but by the compulsion to find, in every new poem as in his earliest, the right form for feelings over the development of which he has, as a poet, no control.”
And for me, whether traditional forms or experimental forms are used, whether the language be the so-called established or national language, whether book-read or platform-spoken, the fundamentals of Truth, Beauty and Harmony remain a necessary framework within which the poem finds life. And, if successful, long life.
I do not know whether I have answered the question, “what is poetry?” It seems to me that I have been speaking more about the firming and shaping of poetry. The well-springs of poetry remain — in the words of master Eliot, and of Wordsworth — in the emotions of the poet. Which proves the words of Seamus Heaney, who spoke of “this honoured but hard to define category of human achievement called poetry.”