I love poetry because I love the many ways words can be manipulated on a blank page. To me, poetry is something beautiful and visually simple, a thing that looks like it should be uncomplicated. But nothing could be farther from the truth.
I guarrantee you, this post will not scratch the surface of why poetry is so much more than naughty limericks (which I do know a great many of and which are quite hilarious).
Bad poetry can be written by anyone, but writing great poetry takes a certain genius–I don’t consider myself a poet, although I do sometimes feel compelled to attempt poetry.
Poetry doesn’t always rhyme and it frequently involves complicated aesthetics that are both auditory and visual. This is because the reader may not always be reading the poem aloud, and so the visual art of the piece comes into play.
Sometimes, poetry is long, epic in actuality. Consider Manfred, by George Gordon, Lord Byron (From Wikipedia, the font of all knowledge): Manfred: A dramatic poem is a poem written in 1816–1817 by Lord Byron. It contains supernatural elements, in keeping with the popularity of the ghost story in England at the time. It is a typical example of a Romantic closet drama. (end quoted text)
Byron himself referred to his works as “closet dramas,” since they were intended more for the theater of the mind than the actual theater.
Excerpt from Act III, scene I of Manfred
There is a calm upon me–
Inexplicable stillness! which till now
Did not belong to what I knew of life.
If that I did not know philosophy
To be of all our vanities the motliest, 10
The merest word that ever fool’d the ear
From out the schoolman’s jargon, I should deem
The golden secret, the sought ‘Kalon,’ found,
And seated in my soul. It will not last,
But it is well to have known it, though but once.
And a “theater of the mind” is what Byron’s work sparks in me.
Words are bent and shaped by poets to evoke meanings, bent and formed into precise shapes. We novelists and writers of short fiction have the luxury of creating a long narrative. In poetry, space is intentionally limited by the author, forcing the the poet to write within narrow constraints. Thus, allegory, allusion, and indirection are common motifs in poetry.
Traditional forms have precise constraints: Sonnets are fourteen lines, following a set rhyme scheme and logical structure. Sonnets use iambic pentameter, which is characterized by the familiar “da dum da dum da dum da dum da dum” cadence of five sets of syllables.
Even in free verse, one must pay attention to the meter, the basic rhythmic structure of a piece, the rhythm and cadence of the syllables. A clear example of this can be found in Walt Whitman’s poems, where he repeats certain phrases and uses commas to create both a rhythm and structure.
I love the poem, When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d, written in free verse in 206 lines. Whitman used many of the literary techniques associated with the pastoral elegy. He composed it during the summer of 1865, a period of profound national mourning. The country was reeling in the aftermath of the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln, that occurred on April 14, 1865.
Despite the poem being an elegy to the fallen president, Whitman neither mentions Lincoln by name nor does he mention the circumstances of his death. Instead, Whitman used allegory–symbolic imagery: the lilacs, a falling star in the western sky which was the planet Venus, and a shy bird, the hermit thrush. It is most definitely an elegy because he employed what scholars consider the traditional progression of the pastoral elegy: moving from grief toward an acceptance and knowledge of death.
It is is a beautiful poem, and is one I often return to. Lines 18-22 of Whitman’s When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d:
In the swamp in secluded recesses,
A shy and hidden bird is warbling a song.
Solitary the thrush
The hermit withdrawn to himself, avoiding the settlements,
Sings by himself a song.
And how has poetry evolved into the 21st century? For one unique direction of evolution check out the works of Seattle poet, Bill Carty on Pinwheel.
For more famous contemporary poets, check out 31 Contemporary Poets You Need to Read.
I have always been a fan of the classic masters: Dickinson, Browning, the Brontë sisters, Byron, Shelley, Frost, Whitman. Wordsworth, and my beloved Yeats, among many. I was raised in a home with their works proudly displayed on the bookshelves in the living-room, massive tooled-leather volumes from Grolier, smelling of romance and ideas.
I didn’t always understand the works of the great poets, and I still don’t–but I love them.
I leave you with a rhyming poem, The Song of the old Mother by William Butler Yeats:
I rise in the dawn, and I kneel and blow
Till the seed of the fire flicker and glow;
And then I must scrub and bake and sweep
Till stars are beginning to blink and peep;
And the young lie long and dream in their bed
Of the matching of ribbons for bosom and head,
And their days go over in idleness,
And they sigh if the wind but lift a tress:
While I must work because I am old,
And the seed of the fire gets feeble and cold.
This essay, Contemplations on the Theater of the Mind, was first published on Life in the Realm of Fantasy, by Connie J. Jasperson under the title But what about poetry? © Connie J. Jasperson
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