Remarks on Poetry

Posted Aug 24, 2007
Last Updated Mar 19, 2008

Some years ago, a science fiction convention asked me to serve on a poetry workshop.  My qualifications were (and are) limited, but I've had poetry published, and have views you might not find elsewhere, so I agreed to do it.  I haven't checked out the historical elements — I've written them as I remember them — but they should be close to right.  Hopefully you'll find them interesting.
    There's nothing wrong with writing poetry strictly for yourself,  but it adds satisfaction to see your poems published.  So these comments are directed mainly at poetry written to be shared by others.  Which means COMMUNICATING!  Stimulating responses, cognitions, images, the funnybone...
    Now, let's back up a step and try to define poetry.  The very concept of defining poetry may feel — anti-poetic to some people, but let's give it a try.  It rhymes, right?  Sometimes.  It has meter, or cadence, or at least a degree of rhythm — well, most of the time.  Sometimes it has seventeen syllables, and is called haiku.  If it's good poetry, chances are it'll be condensed, communicating a lot in relatively few, well-chosen words.  Often it's vivid, but it can also be deliberately understated.

    Writers sometimes speak of themselves as working in solitude.  Okay.  But for  many of us, its creation hasn't been completed until it's been experienced by an audience — a reader, or listener.  With poetry preferably a reader-listener.  Do you ever speed-read poetry?  A weird thought, for me at least.  I generally read poetry aloud.  But aloud or in silence, poetry involves an interaction between poet and audience.
    What defines a dog as a dog?  Ask an expert and he's likely to discuss dentition, number of vertebrae, chromosome numbers etc.  But I'll bet you can't define a dog technically.  On the other hand, you'll know what you're looking at if I show you good old Rover, or White Fang of the North, or a Pommie.  You'd hardly get any of them confused with a Siamese or tabby or Mato Grosso  jaguar.  That's sort of the way poetry is.
    Poetry has fads.  One was and maybe is that poetry should be incomprehensible and ugly.  Really!  I read in my encyclopedia that there was a movement like that.  The emperor had no clothes, and some poets have no talent, except perhaps for humbug.   
    There is also snobbery in poetry.  Rooted in fear, I suspect, fear that their poems are poor, or that they “don't know how to do it right.”  It may grow out of a felt need to degrade the competition, and no doubt sometimes from truly superior talent accompanied by a nasty attitude.  
    In ancient Ireland, a land of numerous small kingdoms, there was a school of court poets retained and paid and protected by the native Irish nobility and royalty.  It was a neat situation to be a court poet; you had it made!  To keep it exclusive, they made it hard to do, by requiring difficult forms and rules.  If you didn't abide by them, you were excrement.
    Some court poets were reputedly brilliant.  But in time the old Irish royalty and nobility became obsolete, replaced by English lords and their vassals.  Mainly wretched peasant poets were left to create Ireland's native poetry.  Some of them may have been brilliant, too, but not much of their poetry survived.  Peasants didn't compile libraries.
    At one time, poetry was composed to be recited, or recited-performed, perhaps accompanied by harp or lyre.  (Some was composed by illiterates with good memories.)  As an eighth-grader (we're talking 1939 here) I once composed a lengthy piece of alliterative doggerel while lying on a church pew watching workmen paint the ceiling.  I never did write it down, but the next day I recited it to a couple of pals.  In 1991, at a class reunion, an old classmate I hadn't seen since 1944 recited the whole thing to me, leaving out only one line!  And knew it was missing!  I was astonished!  But it demonstrates that some poetry is easily remembered because of meter or rhyme or alliteration, or a combination thereof.  Think of it as synapses interweaving.
    Nowadays we don't need to memorize poetry (though we can), and the value of rhyme, alliteration and meter is accordingly less.  But still...did you ever memorize a short story?  Verbatim?  I have, in thirty verses, with meter and rhyme.  It seemed the best way to fully enjoy it.   
    A lot of poetry can't be fully enjoyed without hearing it.  But some poetry is written for visual impact as well.  You can find poetry resembling a dismembered crossword puzzle.  Heard only, you miss the visual effect.
    Poems have their own purposes.  Some are written simply for the pleasure of writing them.  Sometimes writing a poem explores some troubled aspect of the personality, or the soul, and expresses what shows up.  Some poems tell a story, and there are professors, I'm told, who scorn them, putting down the writer as a clod.      The haiku form, with its 17 syllables, exercises the poet, hopefully refining her thinking on the topic of the poem.  Not that form is the bottom line —content trumps form — but form can enhance content.

An old friend, Judy Burrowes, wrote
        At tea one morning the tao flitted by, clear as day.
        Another cup?
The haiku form was perfect for the content.
A poem can be written to amuse.  My daughter wrote an "almost haiku" for an English class:
        Something in the cat sand resembling
        breaded tootsie rolls
which is trivial but nonetheless pleasing, amusing, in this case using simile and imagery.  She jockeyed around, trying to add three syllables, but it didn't work as well, so she settled for 14.  Good on her.

    Bardic poems tell tales of heroism, adventure, and often treachery.  Some Norse sagas were written for hire, to make a powerful family look good.  All of the sagas still being read (and memorized!  Imagine memorizing a novel!) were and remain entertaining — exciting, vivid, intensely human, even perceptive — whether or not they flattered anyone.  
    I write poems mostly for inclusion in novels.  They've included gothic and nature poetry, but most have been bardic, to introduce prose chapters in the four-novel Ynglinga Saga, and served three purposes.  They provided an ethnic point of view about something in the chapter — a point of view markedly different from the my own contemporary cultural take.  And in the process provided insight into the culture of the poet, while adding color.
    To say that poetry shouldn't have such purposes, that it must be written just for itself, is like saying that applied mathematics is nasty, that only pure mathematics is honorable or noble or whatever.  That, plainly stated, is arrogance.  Or more plainly, BS.
    Also there is the reverse snobbery that poetry (or math) done just for itself is effete and useless.

    Poetry has been written for government PR.  In the 1500s, Gustav Eriksson Vasa led the Swedish war of liberation from Denmark.  Became king, and formed a nation out of a loose confederation of provinces.  He was intensely greedy, and a free-wheeling liar.  He chopped off scores of heads, inspired several revolts (the Nils Dacke revolt very nearly toppled him), and brutalized an entire province in arrogant vengefulness.  He also hired poets to tell what a great fellow he was — and how utterly evil his enemies were.  And it worked!  Hack work, but effective.  Not so much in his own time as with later generations who didn't know him first hand.  What nobility!  What royalty!
    But Gustav Vasa was effective.  For a king, he was a prolific writer, mainly of letters, orders, and works on administration.  More than a thousand exist today in archives, to illustrate what a brilliant scoundrel he was.  But he didn't publish his letters and orders; that was left for 20th century historians.)
    There is also poetry as social commentary.  Some of this is parochial as hell, but within its parochial limits it can have a powerful impact.  In 19th century Sweden, quite a bit of poetry was written which I think of as "poor poor thing" poetry.  It pities (or celebrates!) the downtrodden peasant in the cloyingly sentimental terms. 
    Today, much of it reads like drivel, but a hundred and fifty years ago it was novel and thought-provoking — and helped create a social conscience that resulted in gradual but sweeping reforms.   
There is pleasant poetry written for fun:
        Hippity hoppity,
        there goes the wapiti.

(Thank you, Ogden Nash.)
        There was an old hermit named Dave,
        who kept a dead hoor in his cave....
Minor?  Sure, but playful.  Delightful.
    History has been portrayed in verse.  Some of the most honored poetry in the Swedish language depicts the war of 1808-09, in which Russia conquered Finland.  It is Tales of Ensign Stål, by Johan Ludvig Runeberg, a whole book of short stories in verse, rhymed and with meter, each a sketch of some event or character.  Patriotic poems of Finland, about peasant soldiers and their officers, they have long been admired in Sweden as well.  Why?  For one thing they tell something lasting about being human.    The soldiers they honor aren't glorified as heroes, though many were, or as pitiful objects, or anything but tough practical people with points of view, prejudices, and values of their own, caught in a bloody dilemma.
    What keeps them popular, these Tales of Ensign Stål, seems to be their insights, and how well they read.  Any lit'ry critics who scorned them have been outvoted.           Meanwhile, snobs masquerading as experts have helped to make of poetry a literary ghetto.  A small literary ghetto.  It needn't be.
    Incidentally, in Finland, Swedish is a minority language.  Runeberg's poems had to be translated into Finnish for the large Finnish speaking majority (who have an even greater poetic legacy in the Kalevala).  Nonetheless, the Finns set one of Runeberg's patriotic Tales to music for their national anthem.
    You complain that it takes weeks of sweat to produce a poem?  Runeberg spent 12 years on his Tales.
And speaking of tales in verse -- there is Chaucer's Canterbury Tales, a marvelous assemblage of short stories in verse, written primarily to amuse.  Penned six centuries ago, in a language now dead (Middle English), it's still great reading.  (Some translations are more successful than others.)  And they do more than amuse.  They provide a glimpse of Middle English culture, life, and humor, and an entertaining source book for students learning the Middle-English language.  
    As a poet, you don't have to be profound.  Aesthetic is also good.  So is insightful, or simply evocative.  But it's enough to be amusing or otherwise entertaining.  Between 1916 and 1942, Edgar Guest published several books of poems — which sold very well.  That was before TV, the internet etc. At least some experts Guest's poems, but millions loved them.  Things like (approximately; it's been more than 60 years since I read them):
        I got a cowlick and it stands
        up straight, and I got dirty hands,
        but I ain't ever really neat
        all on account of having feet....
and on through however many verses.  Today they're seriously dated; then they were fresh.  They haven't worn like Chaucer, but little has.  
I'd be slack if I didn't sneak a poem of my own into this.  (Go ahead, John, don't be shy.)  So—  
        Primal mountain bursting long ago,
        rupturing the darkness with your might.  
        shrouded with clouds of ash and fumes
        that glowed and flashed and shuddered in the night,
        your shoulders flowing red with molten rock,
        blast furnace heat and sullen light —
        Is that you?
        Is that you
        so calm beneath the sky,
        slopes serene in snow,
        your forest frosted white?
        Ah, I know you in many moods,
        green, with branches dripping rain,  
        yellow with aspen
        and blind with blizzard.
        I know you now!
(That primal mountain, incidentally, is now the San Francisco Peaks, just north of Flagstaff, Arizona, a whole ring of peaks, the eroded rim of a great crater.  Once some 19,000 feet high, a long time ago the mountain blew her top off.  The highest peak of the rim now is 12,633 feet high.)  
And those are some thoughts on poetry.