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What Is Poetry
Poetry is a form of literature, spoken or written, that emphasizes rhythm, other intricate patterns of sound and imagery, and the many possible ways that words can suggest meaning. The word itself derives from a Greek word, poesis, meaning “making” or “creating.” Whereas ordinary speech and writing, called prose, are organized in sentences and paragraphs, poetry in its simplest definition is organized in units called lines as well as in sentences, and often in stanzas, which are the paragraphs of poetry. The way a line of poetry is structured can be considered a kind of garment that shapes and clothes the thought within it. The oldest and most longstanding genres for classifying poetry are , a long narrative poem centered around a national hero, and , a short poem expressing intense emotion.
Throughout its long history poetry has relied on evolving rules about what a poem is, with new kinds of poetry building on earlier kinds to create greater possibilities of expression. In the 20th century poets have increasingly used the language of everyday speech and created new forms that break the usual rules of poetry, such as its organization in line units. Yet to surprise a reader and evoke a response, the new has to be seen in contrast to the old, and so poetry still depends upon a reader's depth of knowledge about the poetic practices of the past for its effectiveness. Though much poetry is in written form, it usually represents a speaking voice that is not the same as the poet's. In some lyric poems, this voice seems to speak about individual feelings; in epic poems, the voice seems to speak on behalf of a nation or community. Poetic voices of all kinds confront the unspeakable and push the limits of language and experience. The 20th-century American poet Michael Palmer characterizes this aspect of poetry when he writes playfully, “How lovely the unspeakable must be. You have only to say it and it tells a story.” At its deepest level, poetry attempts to communicate unspeakable aspects of human experience, through the still evolving traditions of an ancient and passionate art.
Poets throughout the ages have defined their art, devised rules for its creation, and written manifestos announcing their radical changes, only to have another poet alter their definition, if not declare just the opposite. “Poetry is the purification of the language of the tribe,” wrote French poet Stéphane Mallarmé at the end of the 19th century. But 20th-century American poet William Carlos Williams, just 50 years later, would call for poems written in a language so natural “that cats and dogs can understand.” Increasingly during the 20th century, poetic language has reflected a response to severe and agonizing circumstances. Romanian-born poet Paul Celan, whose parents were killed in a concentration camp during World War II (1939-1945) and who was himself imprisoned in a work camp, wrote in German, which he viewed as the language of his Nazi tormentors. Much of the difficulty of Celan's complex, mysterious poems comes from the tension he felt between poetry as a source of beauty and order, and the meaninglessness and violence of his experience. Writing in the language of his oppressors, he dramatized this tension by using fragments, invented words and puzzling statements.
While most poets face circumstances far less extreme than Celan's, other 20th-century writers have also struggled with the many associations language already carries with it. One experimental group, well represented among American and Canadian poets, known as Language poets, seeks to free the word from what they consider to be the constraints of the grammatical sentence, a task they view as a political action against Western culture. While most poets do not criticize language to this extent, many face new challenges in attempting to make the language of poetry reflect the speed, complexity, and confusion of late 20th-century life.
II. Extraordinary Language
One characteristic that makes poetry different from ordinary language is that it uses many kinds of repetition. One kind, called poetic meter, is essentially the repetition of a regular pattern of beats. In poems organized by lines of syllabic meters—in which each syllable has a beat—the number of beats and the number of syllables are both repeated. Accentual poetry refers to poems organized by the recurrence of a set number of accents or stronger beats per line. In poetry written in accentual-syllabic meters, both the number of beats and number of syllables recur in a set pattern. The most commonly used accentual-syllabic meter in English language poetry is iambic pentameter, in which unaccented and accented syllables alternate in lines of ten syllables. Other kinds of repetition in poetry include rhyme, the recurrence of sound clusters; assonance, the echoing of vowels; and consonance, the echoing of consonants. Many early poems included refrains, the repetition of lines or whole phrases. Other older forms of poetry, such as the French villanelle and the Malay pantoum, have prescribed intricate patterns that are formed by the repetition of certain lines and the rhyming of certain lines. The Provençal sestina features a set of six words that end lines (end-words), repeated in a dizzyingly complex pattern.
The range of effects created by the poetic line varies tremendously depending on its length, its patterns of repetition, and whether the sentence stops at the end of the line (end-stopped) or carries over the end of the line (enjambed). Many of the earliest examples of Old English poetry feature an accentual line with four equally strong beats, with three of the four stressed words linked by the repetition of sounds, called alliteration, and a strong pause, called a caesura, in the middle of the line. In the following lines from the Old English epic poem Beowulf (8th century), the words with a strong accent connected by similar sounds are in boldface type. The caesuras are marked with a double slash (//).
. . . on the last of his harryings, // Hygelac the Great,
as he stood before the standard// astride his plunder,
defending his war-haul: //Weird struck him down;
in his superb pride //he provoked disaster
in the Frisian feud.// This fabled collar
the great war-king wore //when he crossed
the foaming water.
(Beowulf, trans. Michael Alexander)
A. Rhythm and Meter
Iambic pentameter, the most common metrical pattern in poetry written in English, alternates weak unstressed and strong stressed syllables to make a ten-syllable line (weak strong/weak strong/weak strong/weak strong/weak strong). With its resemblance to the rhythmic pattern of the English language, even a fairly strict iambic pentameter line can result in surprisingly natural rhythm.
Not all lines of poetry make a metrical pattern. Taking his cue from the long, looping flow of the poetry of the King James Bible, 19th-century American poet often crafted his lines to go longer than ten syllables, sometimes creating sentence patterns by repeating word order with slight variation rather than repeating the pattern of syllabic stress or the number of words.
Whitman's breaks in regular meter, his repetition of sentence parts, and his longer lines greatly influenced North American poets, as well as Latin Americans, including Chilean and Peruvian poets .
In addition to creating balanced rhythms or cadence through the use of meter, poets give richness to their language through shadings of sound, orchestrating the musical quality of vowel and consonants through the words they use. Perhaps the most familiar form of sound patterning is end-rhyme, a similarity of sound carried by word endings. It began as an aspect of oral poetry (poetry composed, transmitted, or performed orally rather than through writing), and was probably intended to help people memorize poems. Over centuries written verse forms developed using rhyme in set patterns known as rhyme schemes.
In some cases, rather than making use of a full end-rhyme such as “me” and “sea,” poets instead employ off-rhyme or slant rhyme for a strange unsettling effect.
Wilfred Owen, a 20th-century English poet, expresses the senselessness of war through the use of slant rhymes.
Although end-rhyme is the most common form of rhyme, some poets intricately crafted their work by embedding additional internal rhymes, full or slant, at various points.
D. Repetition of Words and Refrains
Repetition of lines and phrases is a common aspect of oral tradition.Later written forms also repeat lines for a hypnotic, deeply musical effect. A 20th-century American poet known for his poems that seem to keep from explaining themselves or coming to a decisive ending, uses the circular form of the pantoum, from Malay folk poetry, to express confusion.
E. Metaphor and Simile
Among the most important figurative (as opposed to literal or factual) uses of language, metaphor and simile make comparisons as a way of illuminating or developing meaning. Metaphor equates two things that are not the same, while simile says two unlike things are like each other. At their simplest, these may be used in a descriptive way to emphasize qualities.
A classical Greek philosopher in his Poetics (about 330 BC) declared metaphor one of the highest achievements of poetic style: “it is the token of genius. For the right use of metaphor means an eye for resemblances.” In the following examples, however, metaphor and simile go beyond physical resemblances to compare complex states of feeling. The metaphors in the first example are not even stated. The speaker compares a time in her life to a baby bird's life inside an egg, and then compares the egg to the oval of an ellipse.
Still at the Egg-life–
Chafing the Shell–
Till you troubled the Ellipse–
And the Bird fell—
(Emily Dickinson, Poem #728, 1935)
In the following example both metaphors and similes are used, although sometimes the words for the comparison are implied rather than stated. The use of both stated and unstated metaphors and similes helps communicate unexpressed feelings.
Light, like a defect, cut the rain.
The legal daylight held
Its star-shaped umbrella over me.
(Medbh McGuckian, “The Cutting-Out Room,”1992)
The comparison between “light” and “defect” is explicit in the word “like”. There is also an implicit comparison between “daylight” and something “legal” (a legal act?) in the second line. In the poem below, a woman is compared to a “shot glass of vodka,” and “a field of poppies,” with the word “like”. But there are also underlying metaphors that are unstated: vodka burns (like fire) in the throat and poppies burn (like fire) because of their red color. Both are intoxicating drugs (like the woman in the poem) that distort reality.
She burns like a shot glass of vodka.
She burns like a field of poppies
at the edge of a rainforest.
(Yusef Komunyakaa, “You and I Are Disappearing,” 1993)
Unstated metaphors can have a surprising emotional effect on readers when the poet uses an implied comparison to invent an image, as is the case with these lines by a 20th-century Canadian poet and novelist :
dust covered granite hills
suddenly the Nile is flesh
an arm on a bed
(“The Hour of Cowdust,” 1979)
In the 17th century, metaphysical poets, who are called this for their intellectual poetry about truths beyond the physical world, favored extended metaphors, or conceits, that act as links in a descriptive chain. For example, American poet Anne Bradstreet's conceit below makes many comparisons between a book and a child.
Thou ill-formed offspring of my feeble brain,
Who after birth didst by my side remain,
Till snatched from thence by friends, less wise than true,
Who thee abroad, exposed to public view,
Made thee in rags, halting to th' press to trudge,
Where errors were not lessened (all may judge),
At thy return my blushing was not small,
My rambling brat (in print) should mother call,
I cast thee by as one unfit for light.
The visage was so irksome in my sight;
Yet being mine own, at length affection would
Thy blemishes amend, if so I could.
(“The Author to Her Book,”1678)
Metaphor tends to encompass other poetic devices as well, in particular imagery, the use of descriptive language to create pictures in the reader's mind.
III. The First Poetry
Poetry is an ancient art, with its origins well before those of recorded history (about 3000 BC). The oldest surviving remnants come from the Near East, dating as far back as 2600 BC. The Assyro-Babylonian, Sumerian, and Egyptian cultures all contributed to this fascinating and fragmentary store of work. The remnants are preserved in cuneiform, an ancient wedge-shaped writing on clay tablets, or on papyrus paper stenciled with hieroglyphs, characters used in picture writing. These early poems included praises of gods and heroes, chants (songs that repeat the same note or words), wisdom literature (lists of advice and truths from elders or other authorities), magic charms, and laments to mourn or inspire pity. All these poems were for the most part religious in nature. One of the chief structural characteristics was the use of recurrent phrases or refrains:
Your spirit–do I not know how to please it?
Bridegroom, sleep in our house till dawn.
Your heart–do I not know how to warm it?
Lion, sleep in our house till dawn.
(Sumerian, about 2000 BC; trans. Jane Hirshfield, 1994)
Evidence suggests that much early poetry was intended to be sung, at times with musical accompaniment. Longer works existed as well. With its earliest portions dating as far back as 1200 BC, the , known to Christians as the Old Testament, stands as one of the world's oldest and most influential poetic works. The even older Sumerian (about 2000 BC), contains an account of a flood strikingly similar to that of Genesis in the Bible. The oldest poem attributed to a specific author is the “Hymn to Inanna” (about 2300 BC) by Enheduanna, a high priestess and daughter of Sumerian king Sargon I. Here she describes the destructive-creative fury of the fertility goddess Inanna in protecting her worshipers:
Like a dragon,
you poisoned the land–
When you roared at the earth
In your thunder,
Nothing green could live.
A flood fell from the mountain:
Foremost in Heaven and Earth.
Lady riding a beast,
You rained fire on the heads of men.
These traces suggest the presence of a widespread oral poetry tradition aimed at providing pleasure and offering prayer, as well as fulfilling the important social function of commemorating lives, battles, and historical events. Within the warrior culture that helped shape much early Greek poetry, this final purpose was particularly crucial. In a preliterate world lacking many means of remembering a person's story after death, oral poetry took on great importance as a vehicle for awarding a kind of earthly immortality. Once passed into the “fame” of words, the hero would live forever in the minds of listeners. Poetry gained power and authority in part because it was felt to be divinely inspired. In the Greek epic tradition, exclusive to male poets as far as we know, the singer called upon the muse, a goddess, to fill him with voice as in the opening of Homer's Iliad:
Sing, goddess, the anger of Peleus' son Achilleus
and its devastation, which put pains thousandfold upon the Achaians,
hurled in their multitudes to the house of Hades strong souls
of heroes . . .
(The Iliad, trans. Richmond Lattimore)
This summoning of the muse, known as invocation, implied the existence of an imaginative force outside the poet's own mind and body. In the ancient past it was believed that inspiration—a Greek word meaning literally the “taking in of breath”—was conferred through the generosity of divine beings, linking earthly humans and their brief lives to the eternal spirit of the gods. An important change in this idea of inspiration would come centuries later. With 17th-century metaphysical poets, the center of inspiration moved inward to the soul; still later, with 19th-century romantic poets, to the unconscious mind and the imagination.
What Is Free Verse Poetry?
Free verse poetry, rhymed or unrhymed is composed without attention to conventional rules of meter. Free verse was first written and labeled vers libre (French for "free verse") by a group of French poets of the late 19th century, including Gustave Kahn and other symbolists. Their purpose was to deliver French poetry from the restrictions of formal metrical patterns and to re-create instead the free rhythms of natural speech. Pointing to the American poet as their precursor, they wrote lines of varying length and cadence, usually not rhymed. The emotional content or meaning of the work was expressed through its rhythm. Free verse has been characteristic of the work of many modern American poets,and often times in the work of the owner of this site,with subsequent scathing criticism from many other poets for doing so.As if to say that "Free Verse" is written for no other reason than lack of awareness of the existence of form.Not!
Many of todays aspiring poets try to exist within form at the expense of delivery and/or meaning.My philosophy is....if it's good,let 'er rip!
Let no shape or form scoff meaning!
"The greatest thing by far is to be a master of metaphor."