Tuesday, November 11, 2008



A publisher considering a MS wants to know three things: Has the author something important to say? Do people want to hear about it? Is the writing adequate to the task? Judging from submissions, it will surprise many poets to know that similar criteria apply to poetry. Yes, a poem may start with a vague tune in the head, and no doubt develops in some subterranean way of its own, but the final piece needs to be as tightly plotted as the best detective fiction. All must seem natural and inevitable. Level by level — content, argument, emotive expression, diction, imagery, rhythm — everything will hang together and be interrelated in one convincing whole.How is that achieved? By the application of an immense amount of effort, flair and experience. There is no single method of composition. Spencer used the medieval world of allegory to suggest and shape. Shakespeare followed the rules of Renaissance rhetoric. Racine modelled his plays on the Greek classics. Yeats wrote prose drafts. Pound employed mimicry and textural collages. And so on. Every writer of stature develops his own method, which works for him and fulfills the cultural expectations of the time. Time available and natural talent impose their own restrictions. How composition proceeds is largely determined by the content, and that content is not so much chosen by the poet as drawn from his deepest nature. Certain themes provoke and obsess writers, so that from juvenilia to masterwork the author can be seen working and reworking a restricted range of material. Often these relate to personal incidents, perhaps deep in childhood, but not completely so, and not so as to explain why response has taken this particular form, or invoked any response at all. How does this relate to the craft of writing? The one thing that all editors and publishers look for is individuality. They want something fresh, authentic and distinctive, which is nonetheless relevant, self-validating and convincing. Novelty by itself counts for nothing — the small presses are crowded with such stuff — but poems that build gradually into a landscape at once original and significant are greatly prized. The odd poem can always be created out of some lucky chance, but to produce good work consistently, that explores new territories and presents them vividly, calls on rare personal qualities, honesty not the least of them. Matters well outside the usual ambit of literature have to be researched, and everything fused in an uniquely personal and all-embracing vision.
Word Usage
Can poetry employ any sort of language? Are there overall principles to guide and justify word choice?
Lexicons are governed by social usage. The Elizabethans embroidered words with religious, courtly and pastoral associations. These trappings were gradually dropped, and the eighteenth century imposed a more correct and classical diction. The Romantics introduce a new inner world with cold, pale, grey, home, child, morning, memory, ear, feel, hold, sleep, turn, weep, etc. Later come moon, stir, water, body, shadow, house. The mid-nineteenth century popularized dead, red, rain, stone. Nineteen thirties poetry was packed with references to industrial buildings and social change.
Vocabularies not only reflect interests and fashions, but must be broadly understood in their contemporary setting. Pound's literary borrowings are very wide — from the ancient world, from classical Chinese, the Renaissance and early USA history — but for many the Cantos remain an unconvincing patchwork. William Carlos Williams stressed the sensory and the homely, but his shorter poems are often limited, verging on the banal. At the other end of the spectrum lies the poetry of Geoffrey Hill, where a Christian and guilt-saturated diction can be baffling to a readership lacking the scholarship, or indeed the interest, in the western intellectual tradition.
Words do not possess wholly transparent meanings, but in the more affective poetry their latent associations, multiple meanings, textural suggestions and rhythmic power are naturally given freer rein. But the touchstone is still the audience, even the audience of one. "Words too familiar, or too remote, defeat the purpose of a poet", said Johnson, and that observation remains true, as much for traditionalists writing inside a poetic tradition as for others trying to kindle poetry out of naked experience.
Metaphor commonly means saying one thing while intending another, making implicit comparisons between things linked by a common feature, perhaps even violating semantic rules. Scientists, logicians and lawyers prefer to stress the literal meaning of words, regarding metaphor as picturesque ornament. There is the obvious fact, however, that language is built of dead metaphors. As F.L. Lucas put it: Every expression that we employ, apart from those that are connected with the most rudimentary objects and actions, is a metaphor, though the original meaning is dulled by constant use. Consider the words of that very sentence: an expression is something squeezed out; to employ something is to wind it in (implicare ); to connect is to tie together (conectere); rudimentary comes from the root to root or sprout; an object is something thrown in the way; an action something driven or conducted; original means rising up like a spring or heavenly body; constant is standing firm. Metaphor itself is a metaphor, meaning the carrying across of a term or expression from its normal usage to another. {1} Metaphors are therefore active in understanding. We use metaphors to group areas of experience (my consciousness was raised), to orientate ourselves (life is a journey), to convey expression through the senses (his eyes were glued to the screen), to describe learning (it had a germ of truth in it), etc. Even ideas are commonly pictured as objects (the idea had been around for a while), as containers (I didn't get anything out of that) or as things to be transferred (he got the idea across). Metaphors have entailments that organize our experience, uniquely express that experience, and indeed create necessary realities. Lakoff and Johnson attacked commonly accepted theories of metaphor, which derive from a naive realism — that there is an objective world, independent of ourselves, to which words apply with fixed meanings. But the answer is not to swing to the opposite and embrace a wholly subjectivists view that the personal, interior world is the only reality. Metaphors are primarily matters of thought and action, only derivatively of language. {2} How do sentences in different languages have the same meaning? Rationalists assume that there is a universal base of shared semantic primitives (just as Chomsky's grammar once supposed there were syntactic universals) but fail to explain how this base came about. Empiricists argue for some body of shared experience that arises from contact with the real natural world, but can't explain why language takes the form it does. For writers and critics, metaphor is simply a trope — a literary device deriving from the schools of classical rhetoric and intending to put an argument clearly and persuasively. Boundaries are not sharp, but devices are commonly grouped as schemes and tropes. Schemes (which include alliteration, chiasmus, etc.) have more to do with expression. Tropes (which include metaphor, metonymy and synecdoche) are more powerful and deal with content. Metonymy entails using a name to stand for the larger whole: Whitehall intended otherwise. where Whitehall stands for the British civil service. Metonymy does not open new paths like metaphor, but shortens distance to intuition of things already known. Metaphor therefor involves a transfer of sense, and metonymy a transfer of reference. There are larger considerations. Kenneth Burke thought tropes were ready-made for rhetoricians because they describe the specific patterns of human behaviour that surface in art and social life. Hayden White sketched a theory of history which bridged the claims of art and science by defining the deep structures of historical thought in terms of metaphor, metonymy, synecdoche and irony. For Derrida, the inevitable clash of metaphors in all writing shows only too well that language may subvert or exceed an author's intended meaning. Paul de Man saw language as an endless chain of words, which cannot be closed off to a definitive meaning or reference. The literal and figurative meaning of a text is not easily separated, and the realities posited by language are largely those accepted by the dominant ideology as truthful representations of the world. Alan Gross argued that truth in science is a consensus of utterances rather than a fit with evidence. Knowledge does not exist independently of conceptual schemes, and therefore of linguistic formulation. Poetry that accomplishes fullness and authenticity is therefore knowledge of very real kind, though nonetheless rooted still in the beliefs, practices and intentions of language users.
Rhetoric was formerly an indispensable aid to writing poetry, and some of its approaches are still helpful. Taxis, or the structure of argument, shows how lines and phrases work on our affective understanding. Its structure, the overall shape of a successful appeal to an audience, is usually simple. Attract the attention by producing something of immediate personal interest. Develop an argument with a few more instances — but not too many, and keep them relevant. Lead to agreement with personal assurances, guarantees, claims on authority. Conclude by complimenting the audience on their humanity and common sense. Equally obvious and necessary is finding the appropriate words, tone and gestures: lexis. All writing must make some appeal, but poetry goes much further. We expect to be deeply moved, and in ways not experienced before. By new correlations to accepted themes, by freshly conceived notions, unrecognized but believable experiences, a wider range of sympathies, an greater acuteness of perception, we expect a world to be more precisely shaped and peopled with emotion. And that is very difficult. The Romantics drew on the past, and on untamed landscapes. The Symbolists exploited the music and associations of words. The Futurists used strident novelty, shaking readers out of their accustomed responses. The Modernists fashioned individual, somewhat self-referential worlds. The Postmodernists rely on vivid, populist images. Rhetoric organizes language to evoke emotion, persuade by argument, or to distract. Of course the last — distraction, entertainment — can be very complicated but even the direct emotional appeal is no simple matter. Unconstrained outpouring is not art. At the very least, we want to know that the emotion is appropriate, that our feelings are nor being wantonly played upon. We need, in short, to be persuaded that we should feel deeply about something. The wellsprings of individual emotions have to be tapped, and these, as any tabloid editor knows, are very obvious. Love in all its forms, the pain of death and separation, the joy of friendship and in the good things of life, the pride of home, family, status and country, loyalty, courage in adversity, simple modesty, service and kindliness — these and dozen others make the world go round. How are these emotions tapped? Not by direct appeal. Not even by showing rather than telling. The reader is a fastidious creature and dislikes being buttonholed. The emotions have to grow out of the situation described, and that situation must be credible.Rather than clothe a sentiment with illustration, therefore, or tag a moral onto a story, the emotion must arise out of the very portrayal of the scene, event, reflection, etc. Poets may in this seem at a disadvantage. With their greater compass of time, scenes and characters, the playwright or novelist has no need to hit the target squarely with the first shot. But in compensation the poet is allowed greater resources of language. Nothing very much in the arts is a raw slice of life. Dialogue in plays and novels seems natural, but is very far from a transcription of a live performance, which indeed a radio listener detects immediately. Even in the most realistic novel the dialogue is contrived, and has to be — to move the plot along, display the speaker's character and motivations, keep the reader wanting more. And if doesn't appear contrived, which it certainly must not, it is because the dialogue very subtly uses various understandings and conventions; it becomes an art that hides art. Rhetoric was such an art, and was often enjoyed in this way. A sophisticated audience saw through the devices, but nonetheless applauded the display of such skills. Nor was this such an admission of defeat, even for poetry. New Criticism focused on the literary devices employed. Postmodernism denies that anything exists beyond such devices, poetry being a self-conscious and superior form of entertainment. And in such entertainment the illustration — exemplum in rhetoric — sometimes became more important than the argument. The correlate was seen as vivid and engrossing in its own right, which enabled the speaker or writer to smuggle in matter that had little to do with his theme. Instead of the argument proceeding step by step, with each step illustrated, the illustrations themselves linked to develop subsidiary themes, or distracted from weaknesses in the central argument. Something similar is used in television adverts: we enjoy the visual display without believing or even remembering the message. Poetry employing this technique became very oblique, if not somewhat rambling, but produced surprising effects. We remember Milton's extended similes that add grandeur to Paradise Lost, and Byron's irrepressible digressions in Don Juan. If the images have no connection with the theme, then of course they are simply decoration (which a less austere age was quite happy to accept) but even here they had to contribute to the larger effect.
Metre is a contentious subject, and studies based on mechanical, musical, organic and linguistic analogies have shown how little is currently understood. Nonetheless, as defined as some pattern of phonological stress, pitch and/or length, rhythm is practically an inescapable element of poetry. Cultural conventions and literary history select their varying requirements from the individual features of a language, but rhythm also arises naturally from the simple exercise of breathing and the desire for shape and regularity in human affairs. Metre is a systematic regularity in rhythm. In western literature there are two great metrical systems — the quantitative (introduced by the Greeks) and the accentual (which appears in Latin of the third century AD) — but metre of some sort is found in all poetry, east and west. Metrical skill comes from practice rather than any slavish following of rules, and rules indeed vary with the literary tradition and what poets are attempting to achieve. The ear is not the only judge. Swinburne and Chesterton appeal to the auditory imagination, but look bombastic on the page. The late blank verse of Shakespeare needs a trained actor to bring out its rough-hewn splendour, and the rhythmic subtleties of Geoffrey Hill are apt to vanish on public performance. New metres are difficult to create. Much more common is the importation and adaptation of metre from a foreign language, which is a good reason for reading beyond translations. Conventional English verse is usually (and confusedly) described in a terminology deriving from classical prosody — i.e. as iambic, trochaic, dactylic and anapaestic. For contemporary practice it may be better to consider metre under two headings: whether the syllables or the stresses are being counted, and whether these counts are fixed or variable. Accentual verse has fixed counts of stress but variable syllables. Syllabic verse has fixed counts of syllables regardless of stresses. Accentual-syllabic is conventional metre with both stress and syllables fixed. Free verse has no restrictions on either. How readers recognize and respond to metre is unclear, but any particular metre seems to be a norm, a pattern intuited behind permissible examples. The examples are often irregular, and indeed the common iambic pentameter seems only to be exact in some 25% of cases overall. Accentual verse is found in popular verse, ballads, nursery rhymes, songs and doggerel. Syllabic verse as exemplified by the French alexandrine is not strictly metrical, and twentieth century attempts to write a pure syllabic verse in English have not caught on. Accentual-syllabic was developed by Chaucer from Italian models, and became the staple for English poetry from Elizabethan times till comparatively recently. Contemporary free verse originated in France around the middle of the nineteenth century, was championed (briefly) by the founders of Modernism, and has ramified into various forms, some of them indistinguishable from prose. Traditional verse is overshadowed by the achievements of the past. Chaucer, Spenser, Shakespeare, Milton, Pope and Wordsworth set standards difficult to emulate, and poets are nowadays hardly encouraged to try. Many of the better magazines, where the fledgling poet must start his publishing career, will not take traditional poetry, and those with more generous requirements may still lack readers or editors capable of telling the good from the merely facile. Nonetheless, strict verse enjoys periodic revivals, and has been a feature of several twentieth century schools — the Georgians, Neo-Romantics, the Movement poets and the New Formalists. Free verse is very confused field, not properly understood or linguistically mapped. Adoption may be more about pamphleteering and cultural aspects than poetic ends. Some of the speech rhythms claimed as "superior to metre" are not rhythms at all but an enviable dexterity in idiomatic expression. Some are loose assemblages of rhythmic expression to no constant base, and some an endearing tribute to their author's performance skills.Why use the device? Because metre creates and organizes content, giving emphasis to words or elements that would otherwise escape attention: the tighter the metre, the more expressive can be small departures from the norm. Metre gives dignity and memorability, conveying tempo, mood, the subtle shifts in evidence, passion and persuasion beyond what is possible in prose. In the hands of great master like Shakespeare, metre provides grace, energy, elevation, expressiveness and a convincing approximation to everyday speech. But metre is not diametrically opposed to free verse. Many contemporary poets write both, or served an apprenticeship in strict forms before creating something closer to their needs. Nonetheless, in the absence of this ability to highlight and compound meaning, free verse is often driven to expand in other directions. It prizes a convincing exactness of idiomatic expression: the line seems exactly right in the circumstances: appropriate, authentic and sincere. It operates closely with syntax. It adopts a challenging layout on the page where line and syntax are rearranged to evade or exploit the usual expectations.
Imagery is the content of thought where attention is directed to sensory qualities: mental images, figures of speech and embodiments of non-discursive truth.Given that language is so largely constructed of dead metaphors, some residue of original use must remain behind the most commonplace words. Yet readers very much differ in their ability to visualize such metaphors, and not all metaphors are primarily visual. How do poets bring such qualities to life? And how far should they go, since many of Shakespeare's lines become ludicrous if their mixed metaphors are realized too completely?A first point to make is that both the use and concept of imagery has shifted with changing cultural outlooks. The medieval view of art was rooted in morality, and its descriptions of the world never forget that the things depicted served God's purpose: the smallest thing reached into a larger world beyond. Renaissance writers studied the classical authors more widely and employed figures — rhetorical figures, including simile, allegory and metaphor — whose purpose was to clarify, enforce and decorate a preexisting meaning. Imagery was often elaborate, but not generally constitutive of meaning. The growth of a homogeneous reading public in the 18th century, with more settled opinions, brought a polite and plain diction into general use. Images became mental representations of sensory experience, a storehouse of devices by which the original scenes of nature, society, commerce, etc. could be recreated. With Romantic transcendentalism, when the world reappeared as the garment of God, and the abstract and general resided in the concrete and particular, poetry came to embody the sacred, and images to be symbols of an indwelling (though not necessarily Christian) deity. In Modernism and Postmodernism, the interest has focused on the images themselves, which are an inescapable part of language, and therefore of a poet's meaning.These are very broad generalities. There are traces of Medieval allegory in most Renaissance writers. Shakespeare's later works may be partly written in the hermetic tradition. The best eighteenth century writers do not simply open the props cupboard but use conventional imagery to make penetrating comments. Byron may be a Romantic poet but he is not a spiritualist like Blake. By the eclectic late twentieth century, matters had become very complicated indeed.Imagery can vary. Psychologists identify seven kinds of mental images — those of sight, sound, taste, smell, touch, bodily awareness and muscular tension. All are available to poets, and all are used by poets, though not to the same extent. Browning uses tactile imagery while Shelley's imagery emphasizes movement. Nor is imagery per se important — its extent or type — but the purposes it serves. Metaphor, simile, allegory, personification, metonymy (attribute for all) and synecdoche (part for whole) each compare one thing with another and involve both in different ways. Often the things compared are both images, but one of them may also be a feeling or concept. The effect differs, therefore, and word choice is further dictated by literary fashion and a poet's obsessions. Donne's metaphysical images show a startling reach from subject to analogue, but such conceits were prized at the time, and Donne was a tortured and exceptionally learned writer. Literary works can indeed be attributed to authors in disputed cases by computer analysis (cluster analysis) of imagery, and occasionally something made of the poet's state of mind.Imagery can be used to eternalize thought, to create mood and atmosphere, and to give continuity by recurring leitmotifs. Light and dark are prevalent in Romeo and Juliet, for example, and the aimlessness of modern life evoked by fragmented images in The Waste Land. In longer poems, moreover, the recurring imagery need not simply reappear but can operate in contrast with other images to develop plot or increase the dramatic effect. Writers tend to make certain words or images typically their own, particularly when hard-won, so that individual poems become inseparably part of the larger corpus by which they are recognized and understood. And since authors inevitably share something of their contemporary's concerns, those concerns and attendant images will illustrate and shape their own writing. Such concerns are important. Overworked editors of poetry magazines discern immediately from the attendant imagery whether a poem submitted will enhance the brand image of the publication, and pass the poem on or out accordingly.
1. FL Lucas's Style (1958).2. G. Lakoff and M. Johnson's Metaphors We Live By (1980).
Internet Sources
1. Poetry In Review. Herbert Leibowitz. http://www.parnassuspoetry.com/editors.htm. Some general comments on poetry by the editor of Parnassus.2. What is Poetry? Vivion Smith. Jun. 2001. http://depts.gallaudet.edu/Englishworks/literature/poetry.html. Good outline of types and facets of poetry.3. Understanding and Explicating Poetry. Mark Canada. Aug. 1999. http://www.uncp.edu/home/canada/work/markport/best/study/poetry.htm. Helpful first steps.4. How to Write Poetry. Grant Shuyler. Jul. 2003. http://home.ca.inter.net/%7Egrantsky/howwritepoetry.html. Sane advice, with recommended books.5. ProTeacher. 2003. http://www.proteacher.com/070034.shtml. Lessons for children that deal with main aspects of poetry.6. Elements of Poetry: A Brief Introduction. Paul P. Reuben. Jun. 2003. http://www.csustan.edu/english/reuben/pal/append/AXF.HTML. Perspectives in American Literature: A Research and Reference Guide. 7. Poetry. Pradosh Kumar Mohapatra. http://members.tripod.com/mopy/poetry-def.htm. Unattributed encyclopedia entry.8. Introduction to Poetry. Eric Rabkin. 2002. http://www-personal.umich.edu/%7Eesrabkin/240w97Syl.htm. Syllabus for Class 240 002: lists main points and standard reference works.9. Poetry and the Politics of Self-Expression. Barney F. McClelland. 2003. http://www.butterfliesandwheels.com/articleprint.php?num=21. Argues for (some) poetry craft. 10. Lyric Poetry and Subjectivity. Amittai F. Aviram. Aug. 2001. http://www.cla.sc.edu/engl/faculty/avirama/papers/lyric.html. A closely argued case for lyric poetry.11. On "Poetry". Donald Hall. http://www.english.uiuc.edu/maps/poets/m_r/moore/poetry.htm. Articles by Hall and others on the evolution of Marianne Moore's poem Observations. 12. Reading a Poem as a Verbal Contraption. Bernard Turner. 2003. http://courses.nus.edu.sg/course/ellturne/en2101poerhet.htm. Course notes for EN 2101E(BT).13. The language of poetry and advertising: an interdisciplinary teaching project at Hamburg University. Martin Klepper and Ingrid Piller. 2000. http://webdoc.sub.gwdg.de/edoc/ia/eese/artic20/piller/5_2000.html. Report on a successful teaching project.14. T. S. Eliot and the Poem Itself. Denis Donoghue. 2000. http://www.partisanreview.org/archive/2000/1/donoghue.html. Examination of the essence of poetry.15. American Poetry Since 1945: The Anti-Tradition. http://usinfo.state.gov/products/pubs/oal/lit7.htm. A useful survey.16. A Roots in Our Throats: A Case for Using Etymology. Natasha Sajé. May 2003. http://awpwriter.org/magazine/writers/nsaje.htm. Word choice and etymology: an AWP article.
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