The Appeal of poetry

by on Saturday, 08 December 2007 Comments
People express and communicate ideas and messages through language. Before the invention of alphabets and hieroglyphs and other symbolic ways of preserving and communicating, such as the pounding on hollow logs by African natives, the smoke signals of American Indians and pictographs drawn on cave walls, language was expressed only by gestures and spoken sounds. Nowadays we are bombarded not just by conversations, but by barrages of words spewing out of radios, TV sets, and phones and an endless array of newspapers, magazines and books. Some of these communications are mainly utilitarian, relating news events, imparting information, recording data, instructing, etc. Others are intended for pleasure or amusement, like stories, humor, drama, musical lyrics and finally poetry, which is what this is mostly about.
Written language is generally divided into “prose” and “poetry”. The American Heritage Dictionary defines “prose” as “ordinary speech or writing, without metrical structure.” It is the type of expression generally found in books and newspapers. Some prose, however, is considered to be “literature” in the sense of “imaginative or creative writing, especially of recognized artistic value (American Heritage Dictionary).” This kind of literature does more than just narrate facts. By its choice of words and the way it describes a scene or event, it portrays colors and evokes feelings and moods and brings out a wealth of subtle, hidden meanings between the words. It is a pleasant aesthetic experience.
Take for instance the famous first paragraph of Charles Dickens’ novel “A Tale of Two Cities”:
It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way--in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.
Contrast that with the way a journalist or reporter might have put it:

It was the year 1775. To some people everything was as good as it could get. To others things were as bad as ever. Those who had it good wanted nothing to change. Those who had it bad wanted to overthrow everything. There was hope on one side and despair on the other. Just like modern times it generated a lot of tension and uneasiness.
Both versions express more or less the same idea, but Dickens is much more graphic and sensitive and moving. The second one could serve as introduction to a book or article and who knows it might eventually receive a Pulitzer Prize for journalism, but ordinarily literature that is acclaimed artistically is full of color and vivid descriptions and feelings. The reader is left not just with a mass of detailed information, but a sense of pleasant aesthetic experience arising from images created by the writer’s choice and crafting of words.
Take another example, this time the first part of the first paragraph setting the scene for the first episode in the famous novel Ivanhoe by Sir Walter Scott. An unimaginative writer might have begun like this:

Two men are sitting in a forest. The trees are so close to each other the sun’s rays barely pass through, but there are some open sections through which a person can easily see for some distance.

Contrast that with what the novelist wrote:
In that pleasant district of merry England which is watered by the river Don, there extended in ancient times a large forest, covering the greater part of the beautiful hills and valleys which lie between Sheffield and the pleasant town of Doncaster. …

The sun was setting upon one of the rich grassy glades of that forest, … Hundreds of broad-headed, short-stemmed, wide-branched oaks, which had witnessed perhaps the stately march of the Roman soldiery, flung their gnarled arms over a thick carpet of the most delicious green sward; in some places they were intermingled with beeches, hollies, and copewood of various descriptions, so closely as totally to interrupt the level beams of the sinking sun; in others they receded from each other, forming those long sweeping vistas, in the intimacy of which the eye delights to lose itself, while imagination considers them as the paths to yet wilder scenes of sylvan solitude. Here the red rays of the sun shot a broken and discoloured light, that partially hug upon the shattered boughs and mossy trunks of the trees, and there they illuminated in brilliant patches the portions of turf to which they made their way. …

The human figures that completed this landscape, were in number two, partaking, in their dress and appearance, of that wild and rustic character, which belonged to the woodlands of the West-Riding of Yorkshire of that period.

Sir Walter’s description is much more vivid. A mood is created and we have details with which to create a mental picture of the scene.

The American Heritage Dictionary defines “poetry” as “a piece of literature written in meter; verse”. There are several things that distinguish poetry from prose. Traditionally poems are written as a series of lines in each of which the words are arranged in more or less identical patterns of accented and unaccented syllables (the meter), which gives the poem a cadence when read aloud. The last words of each line are usually expected to rhyme. Another important thing that distinguishes poetry is its choice and use of words. To fit the meter, the order in which words are presented is often different from that in ordinary prose, but even more significantly, the words are often selected for the way they sound or they are given underlying meanings and nuances or evoke images that create a mood or symbolically express ideas about reality that go beyond the literal meaning of the words. Poetic diction often uses verbal devices like assonance, alliteration, onomatopoeia and rhythm, which often leave the poem deliberately vague, ambiguous, suggestive, mysterious, ironic, or symbolic.
The reader of a poem is not only entertained by the poet’s literary style, but is moved to see reality in a new light. As one expert put it (Polish historian of aesthetics Vladyslaw Tatarkiewicz in an article “The Concept of Poetry”, quoted in “Poetry,” Wikipedia Free Encyclopedia) poetry is “an art based on language” and “expresses a certain state of mind”. According to poet Archibald MacLeish (same source) “A poem should not mean / but be”.
Here are several examples illustrating the differences between prose and poetry. In the first, look at a brief observation someone might make about trees:
No poem is as nice as a tree, which rooted in the ground lifts its branches to the sky, alternately washed by rain or covered with snow. Sometimes birds build their nests in it. Anybody can write a poem, but only God makes trees.

That is all very true, but so dull and ordinary, no one will ever remember it or quote it. Not so the poem “Trees” by Joyce Kilmer:

I think that I shall never see
A poem lovely as a tree.
A tree whose hungry mouth is prest
Against the earth’s sweet flowing breast;
A tree that looks at God all day,
And lifts her leafy arms to pray;
A tree that may in summer wear
A nest of robins in her hair;
Upon whose bosom snow has lain;
Who intimately lives with rain.
Poems are made by fools like me,
But only God can make a tree.

As a second example, look at what this person who is not a poet might have written in a letter to his mother:

I was walking along and came upon a lot of flowers on the edge of the lake under the trees. There were thousands of them blowing in the wind. It was a very pleasant sight that I recall with pleasure.

Contrast that with the poem “Daffodils” written by William Wordsworth:

I wander’d lonely as a cloud That floats on high o’er vales and hills, When all at once I saw a crowd, A host, of golden daffodils; Beside the lake, beneath the trees,
Fluttering and dancing in the breeze.
Continuous as the stars that shine And twinkle on the Milky Way, They stretch’d in never-ending line Along the margin of a bay: Ten thousand saw I at a glance,
Tossing their heads in sprightly dance.
The waves beside them danced; but they Out-did the sparkling waves in glee: A poet could not but be gay, In such a jocund company: I gazed -- and gazed -- but little thought
What wealth the show to me had brought:
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.
Finally, here is how a rather dull preacher might express himself about man’s disregard for God’s creation:

Why don’t men recognize or heed the signs of God’s presence in the world like the flashes of lightning, the reflections of light or the properties of oil? Men are spoiling and destroying the world by the senseless ways they act. In spite of all this God continues to renew and bless nature with his loving care.

Compare this with the way that the poet Gerard Manley Hopkins says the same thing in his moving poem “God’s Grandeur”.

The world is charged with the grandeur of God.
It will flame out, like shining from shook foil;
It gathers to a greatness, like the ooze of oil
Crushed. Why do men then now not reck his rod?
Generations have trod, have trod, have trod;
And all is seared with trade; bleared, smeared with toil;
And wears man’s smudge and shares man’s smell: the soil
Is bare now, nor can foot feel, being shod.
And for all this, nature is never spent;
There lives the dearest freshness deep down things;
And though the last lights off the black West went
Oh, morning, at the brown brink eastward, springs--
Because the Holy Ghost over the bent
World broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings.

Not everyone appreciates poetry. Collections of poems seldom, if ever, rate high on bestseller lists. Many readers of fiction and non-fiction and subscribers to magazines that cater to special interests look down on poetry, consider poets as idyllic dreamers at best or soft and unmanly at worst. They lack the patience and the inclination to waste time on such pretension for playing around with words.
They don’t know what they are missing and have no desire to find out.
The earliest poetry that has survived to the present is the Akkadian Epic of Gilgamish from the 3rd century B.C. There were many epics in ancient times. The poetic form might have made them easier to remember and recite by storytellers. Since then poetry has evolved into many forms including free verse, that is, poems with lines of unequal length, no rhyming and sometimes no meter. Their emphasis is on expressing ideas in a poetic way. There are also examples of prose that are considered poetic because of the way the ideas are expressed in language similar in style or content to what is found in poems.
There are many kinds of poems. Some tell stories; some are meant to instruct; some are meant to convey the writer’s feelings or reflections about reality; some just use meter and rhyme as ways to entertain saying things that are clever or satiric or are whimsical or funny.

Robert Ronald

Bob was among the most prolific writers of eRenlai. He passed away peacefully on January 2 2009 in Taipei. A tribute to his life and his work can be found here on eRenlai:

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