Wednesday, 20 October 2010

What is a poem?

To begin with an official interpretation seems like a solid base with which to explore the question. The Oxford Dictionary of Current English defines a poem in this way:

Poem / n. metrical composition, usually concerned with feeling or imaginative description; elevated composition in verse or prose; something with poetic qualities.

This is a fairly broad if impersonal description of what constitutes a poem. It can be argued that poetry has existed as long as language, whether we are discussing the spoken or the written word. If language is a means of communicating thoughts through sound or a visual medium then it follows that poetry is an extension of this basic function. We write and speak so that we are understood by ourselves and others. Language is the primary means through which human culture defines and engages with its multiplicity of identities. We use it to create the idea of a Self that is separate from the world in which it is created. The development of language triggers a process of individuation in which greater subtleties of experience can be defined and shared with others, or simply understood by those having the experience.

Poetry seems to be an elevated form of language that is given focus by virtue of what it claims to be. If something is separated from common language and is ordered into some semblance of metrical rhythm, does it then constitute a poem? A conventional poem is usually composed of metrical feet, a unit of stresses in syllables that can be falling in nature, called trochaic, or rising in nature, called iambic. Prose can also be considered poetry if it bears the mark of careful intention. Is it true to say that poetry concerns itself with an appreciation of beauty? Perhaps it is not always the full-bodied Beauty of the Romantic poets; indeed, much modern poetry is edgy, dark and offensive to many people. Even the more restrained poems of today and yesterday are often filled with subversive allusions and little digs at conventional wisdom. Is it going too far to say that poetry can act not only as a mirror of human consciousness but also as an agent of social change? There are many poets who were and are unashamedly political in their work, often creating a parallel tract to official history. Is this part of the identity of the poem, to recover buried subjective truths and social values? It is inarguable that the poem owes its life to human voice, whether it is the spoken voice or the silent reading voice of the mind.

It can be argued that the poem, like all prose, is dead. It is fixed, inflexible, an artifact or perhaps a fetish. It is concerned with subjectivity but the poem itself is objective, a thing with no individual life. It is the creative, combining faculty of the human mind that animates the poem, breathing life and rhythm into something inert. The implication of this argument is that human consciousness is the active spirit of all poetry. The poem itself is merely a pattern, a guideline or form through which the imagination is able to view itself.

This essay will now look at a poem called ‘The Sick Rose’ by William Blake. Although ‘The Tyger’ and ‘London’ are considered by scholars to be some of his best work, for this essayist ‘The Sick Rose’ is concise and possesses a terrible power and immediacy. I will transcribe the poem in full:

O Rose, thou art sick.
The invisible worm
That flies in the night
In the howling storm

Has found out thy bed
Of crimson joy,
And his dark secret love
Does thy life destroy.

Is there one definite meaning to this poem that Blake himself understood fully or is there a nexus of interconnected meanings, some of which were partially obscured even from Blake? Is the poet an architect or simply a medium? Perhaps he is both, transcribing and also shaping the immaterial. Is this a poem about the futility of ideal romantic Love, or is it a meditation on the nature of Evil? Is it somehow both, or neither? The poem suggests the substitution of one love for another – crimson joy becoming a ‘dark secret love’. Or is the poem talking about the ghost of entropy, the inescapable fact of decay and death. These many meanings are not separate from the mind of Blake or any other reader of the poem. It is the human voice, silent or spoken, that gives the poem its power. It is this same voice that can deny the inert language its power.

Next let us look briefly at a poem called ‘Daffodils’ by William Wordsworth. It is an unashamedly romantic and upbeat work. The poem is composed of four verses each with six lines. I will transcribe the last verse here:

For oft, when on my couch I lie
In vacant or in pensive mood,
They flash upon that inward eye
Which is the bliss of solitude;
And then my heart with pleasure fills,
And dances with the daffodils.

Wordsworth captures the appreciation of simplicity that poetry can often give us, taking comfort in something like nature without sentimentalizing it. The key line in this verse is ‘They flash upon that inward eye’. Poetry is usually concerned with how the interiority of people engages with the exterior world, how the subjective imagination sets up a feedback loop with everything that is deemed objective, and how the two influence each other to create the subtleties of the human spirit.

The last poem this essay will look at is one of my own. It is titled ‘Hush’:

The sun-rain-sun of a difficult season
Grey luminosity of the King’s Cross
Sanguinary mornings, bloodless
Slow faces in books and newspapers
The silent hum after the echo of the closing notes
Day as the overture of Night
The breeding ground of afternoon
Black silk curtains reading over shoulders
Stealing watches off slender wrists
The office ceiling lined with carpet
Butterflies pressed between every brick and stone
Amidst the noise silence is screaming
The city hides its excitement
Poets and killers bleed between the lines

When composing this poem I did not want to be overly abstract or grandiose, rather I wanted to capture a specific mood I felt during very early mornings in London, a sense that the city was suspended between life and death, an odd liminal mood that seemed almost tangible. Whether the poem can be considered a success to that end is debatable, but it still follows that I am both the creator of the poem and also a reader of it, and as such there are resonances that remain beyond my grasp. Is it this kind of compressed metaphorical potency of all poems that invests them with such wonder and appeal? Perhaps it is akin to the human soul speaking to itself.

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