What is Poetry and What Is It Good For?

People blog about these allied topics elsewhere, and there seems to be a bloomlet of books answering the same questions. I’ve lived a fairly good number of years, writing, reading, and listening to what I consider poetry, and I can’t say that I’ve thought of this for a long time.

There are inductive and deductive artists: ones who think of, or latch onto, a useful theory, and produce art from it; and those that, if they think of theory at all, derive it from what they have already created. I’m in that later, and I think larger, group.

The concentrated amount of work I’m doing with the Parlando Project means I am working a lot with poetry, and making constant choices. To give me focus in this process I did take on a few principles for Parlando, but  having handled this much poetry in the past year means that I can’t help but observe my choices and what those choices say about what I believe about poetry.

Poetry is musical speech.

Simply, poetry is musical speech. And good poetry not only sings with its words, it sings twice, as its thoughts flow like the logic of music. Do that and I think it’s poetry. Fail to do that (or rather, if I fail to hear that) and it may be a perfectly good something else, but it’s not poetry.

Hold it, some of you may be saying to your screen, what about free verse? What about those decidedly non-rhythmic pieces that are published as poetry, and are widely considered as such? Let’s take Ezra Pound’s famous short imagist poem “In a Station of the Metro” as an example of that:
 
“The apparition of these faces in the crowd;
Petals on a wet, black bough.”

No meter, no rhyme, is that musical speech? To me, yes, it is. I hear this music, as I hear the music in other poems, as a musician, but you could hear it too, even if you are only a listener of music. Music does not need to be a drill team march or four-square polka or sound the bass drum of some dance music that expects regular, repeating beats. The top melodic lines of much music vary in rhythm constantly, and musical speech should have the same freedom, as Pound himself declared in his famous short list of Imagist rules.

Monet St Lazare Station

They say the best things in life are free, but you can give them to the birds and bees!
I want Monet! Monet!  That’s what I want!

I could read other poems, ones that do follow conventional accentuated syllabic meters, and not hear much music in it. If I turn on a metronome or a simple drum machine pattern, I may hear rhythm, but I don’t necessarily hear music.

Yes, this sense of musical speech is subjective, particularly for a poem sitting mute on the page.

And what about the second music that good poetry will also sing, the musical logic of thought? I’m not even sure that “thought” is the right word, as it’s more at apprehension or experience, but as a listener or reader those subjective transferred experiences are felt as thoughts are and engender my own thoughts in response. When Emily Dickinson looks at a bird in her path, or Meng Haoran awakens after a stormy night, or when Ezra Pound comes to the subway stop and sees this throng of urban humanity as a transitory and eternal natural grouping I get to share my understanding of their understanding, if I have the patience and openness to seek to do so.

Music is not how to get from one note to the other as quickly and predictably as possible, rather it is how to pleasantly surprise, or even confound, you in those journeys between related notes.

Any of those experiences could alternatively be a chapter in a memoir, or a scientific observer’s log entry, or a character’s chapter in a novel. Some experience or apprehension of experience is transferred in those ways too—that’s what all art does—but in poetry, the transfer happens in the context of musical expression. This can work, like a meditation chant, a hypnotist’s spell, or any experience where the normal stops and starts of thought are interfered with. And the flow of the order of the data has an internal meaningful structure in good poetry, as a melody or a chord progression has in music, which is not necessarily the flow that works the most efficiently. Music is not how to get from one note to the other as quickly and predictably as possible, rather it is how to pleasantly surprise, or even confound, you in those journeys between related notes.

Consider an image, a set of relationships set out in a poem to be related at once to each other, as chord is in music.

Consider an image, a set of relationships set out in a poem to be related at once to each other, as chord is in music. And the relationship between one image and the next is like a cadence or sequence of chords in a musical composition.

When one thinks of poetry, as I now do, as a musical thing, and not a literary thing, then the presentation of it as we do in the Parlando Project, should make sense to you. Not that it must make sense first, it can simply be experienced.

All this implies some of what is the worth in poetry; and to be honest, some also of what is problematic in poetry, but I’ll leave a further discussion of those things to another post.

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