I've been following with pleasure the many responses throughout the Red Room to Belle Yang's provocation: What is poetry? At one point I had in mind a huge omnibus blog posting that would include my musings on and reactions to all the things people have been posting, but I have come to realize that (a) I'd never have time to write it and (b) no one else would have time to read it!
I've also been trying to suppress my professorial impulse to write the equivalent (in length and, probably, in interest!) of a course lecture on the more specific subject of whether meter is fundamental to poetry. What follows is certainly not a lecture, but instead are some thoughts and examples that go on a bit longer than I'd intended. : ) I hope it goes without saying that though these are declarative sentences, I don't mean to suggest that everyone would agree with all or any of this! These are my (informed) opinions.
- Does a poem need structure to succeed? Generally speaking, I would say yes: structure to build upon or structure to work against. But the variations of poems building upon structure are many, I find, and the degrees to which a poem can work against structure range from 1 to 180.
- Is accentual-syllabic meter a rich structure for poetry written in English? Absolutely. You can read anyone from John Donne to Gwendolyn Brooks to Rafael Campo to see/hear this. I've linked to sonnets by the first two poets; here's a poem by Campo that's also in iambic pentameter, but made up of quatrains:
The New World's History in Three Voices
Confusing Cuba with a wealthy land,
Columbus started what for centuries
has plagued the people who survived in me:
part-slave, part-royalty, part-Caliban,
cross-dresser in the golden silk the sea
rolls out along a beach that isn't mine,
American yet un-American
because not one of us is truly free,
I am compelled to sing in rhyme
Forgetting what the end of beauty is.
I know that beauty is both grand and wise;
I know that Cuba's dying is a crime
that started with Columbus and his lies.
The Caliban in me will dance as if
he understands that beauty is like love;
the royalty in me could do with less,
but always wants whatever he can have.
Today, I think I'm just as beautiful
as something I convince myself I feel
but can't remember, what the proud black slave
in me would call "the greatest gift of all."
I don't know what she means by that, her hands
so calloused none are more American,
but sing for this island, this miracle.
- The purely accentual meters of old Anglo-Saxon poetry (á la Beowulf) were rich, too, but to honor the richness of that part of our tradition shouldn't require us to give up William Shakespeare's sonnets or John Milton's blank verse (unrhymed iambic pentameter; not to be confused with free verse) or (as follows) Dorothy Parker's cynical, epigrammatic rhymes:
By the time you swear you're his,
Shivering and sighing,
And he vows his passion is
Lady, make a note of this--
One of you is lying.
- Just as accentual-syllabic meter came into English by way of influences from the French, Latin, and Italian languages and poetic traditions, Japanese poetry gave English poetry the gift of haiku and, by extension, syllabic poetry. Though it's a relatively new (20th-century) phenomenon in English, would we want to give up syllabic poetry (or it's "cousin," word-count poetry) just because we can't predict its rhythms? Haiku (and other arrhythmic counting forms) offer a different kind of structure to play with and against, as in this one by Sonia Sanchez:
i want to make you
roar with laughter as i ride
you into morning
- Belle put her finger on it in her original post, as Francoise Renoir pointed out in her comments there: poetry is about patterns -- often, but not always, conceivable as repetition, as Annie Finch has argued in The Body of Poetry. But repetition needn't be as tight as meter to be effective. Here's a link to a free verse poem by Sharon Olds that uses syntactical repetition ("I see..." / "I see..." / "I take..." / "I say..." and "you are going to..." and "her . . . untouched body" / "his . . . untouched body" and so forth) to create patterns (irregular patterns, but patterns just the same) that form the structure (rhythmic, conceptual, and thematic) of the poem.
- But, poetry is also about images, which Corrine Copnick noted in her comments, and which are frequently (but not always) conveyed through metaphor (as Belle has pointed out). Not just visual images, but images that appeal to our other four senses as well: touch, taste, smell, and hearing. First read and then listen to this free verse poem by Yusef Komunyakaa (the correct title is "Ode to A Drum") that gives its attention primarily to images of touch and sound. Note the many metaphors (e.g., "weathered raw as white / butcher paper" and "a woman / once shattered me into a song"), but also the direct naming and description that also constitute and conjure up images (e.g., "seasoned by / wind, dusk & sunlight" and "Kadoom. Kadoom. Ka- / doooom.").
- And poetry is also about sound, which includes rhythm, but is far from limited to it. Other elements of the music of language that poetry makes frequent use of include rhyme (true rhyme and slant rhyme), alliteration, consonance, assonance. Another point worth making here is that rhythm need not be metrical (a sustained regular pattern) to carry one along. Here is a tiny prose poem of mine that makes good use of the music of language, without aspiring to metrical rhythm (read it aloud a couple of times):
small letters signify to some an author's sense of her inconsequence; to others, disgraceful defiance. from either standpoint, she who starts sentences or writes i's in lowercase commits a capital offense.
- And, of course, poetry is about language: words, their multiplicity of meaning, their precision and their ambiguity, denotation and connotation, their etymologies, their cultural baggage, their power and their emptiness, their malleability and their adhesiveness. This is true of a traditional verse like the one below by Emily Dickinson (which turns on a painful play on the words "closed/close") and of a free verse poem like the subsequent one, by Ed Roberson (which invents a form that is based on interruption and disjunction, revealing, rather than covering up, the way caring for his infant daughter impacts his writing):
My life closed twice before its close --
It yet remains to see
If Immortality unveil
A third event to me
So huge, so hopeless to conceive
As these that twice befell.
Parting is all we know of heaven,
And all we need of hell.
-- by Emily Dickinson
Picking Up the Tune, the Universe and Planets
this form is the lena
after my daughter
here she is I will have to
hold on a minute tell you her line.
the universe and planets holes and scribbles
interruption she gets her changing
she is the only music she gives
in which it is written.
back she only wanted me to pick her up to say so.
-- by Ed Roberson
- Finally (finally!), poetry can be about (which is to say composed of, focused on) all of these things (patterns, images, sound, and language) or any combination of 2-3 of them -- maybe even only one of them. If you haven't heard any sound poetry, which may or may not employ actual words (in English or any other language), then check out this recording of Marie Osmond (yes, that Marie Osmond) performing a sound poem by poet Hugo Ball. (This is a bit of a reward for those of you still reading!) The link is to a YouTube video that provides the text of the poem as visual accompaniment to her vocal performance; her version varies from the text because she is performing from [a good, but imperfect] memory. As you will see/hear, not even language is absolutely a requirement of poetry. Poetry has many different purposes -- to delight, to communicate, to describe, to record, to provoke thought, to provoke action, to create emotion, to process experience, etc., etc. -- and the right form for a given poem is the one that will help the poem achieve its particular purpose(s). I could say so so so much more -- we've barely even touched on the issue of a poem's content in relation to its form -- but it would take an entire semester to do it justice. I hope, however, that some reader(s) will find it worthwhile to meander through the world of poetry (particularly poetic form) via this post. You may find that it's a friendlier place than you imagined . . .