Wednesday, February 08, 2006

My Manifesto, Part I

I've decided I can't be an Artiste without a Manifestoe. So I've written out some of my thoughts about poetry, and about creativity in general, and I'm going to post in several sections. Mostly this was an exercise in clarifying my thinking, but insh'allah other folks may find this useful.

What Is Poetry?

Any attempt to define poetry is bound to cause argument. Here’s my definition: Poetry is writing or speaking that has a rhythm distinctly different from that of normal prose or speech.

The acid test: Read it aloud, ignoring whatever line breaks the printer may have introduced. If it sounds like prose, it’s prose. If you find the natural stresses and breaks falling on your ear in a distinct pattern, it’s poetry. The rhythm doesn’t have to be even or consistent, it just has to get your attention.

At this point, any two readers may part company over a given poem. Poetry is, to a certain extent, in the ear of the listener.

I should also point out that there isn’t a hard-and-fast dividing line between poetry and prose. The immortal Roger Zelazny used to write prose that was only a hand’s-breadth from poetry:

The days were like Shelley’s leaves: yellow, red, brown, whipped in bright gusts by the west wind. They swirled past me with the rattle of microfilm.
--from A Rose for Ecclesiastes

I may have made it clear by now that I think poetry is meant to be spoken aloud. Throughout most of human history, poetry was of course sung, spoken, or chanted to audiences; the idea of poetry that is meant primarily to be read is a relatively new one, and probably accounts for the modern development of free verse.

(“Free verse”, by the way, usually means verse that follows neither rhyme nor meter. “Blank verse” usually has a specified meter, but doesn’t rhyme. Verse that both rhymes and scans may fall into any one of several verse forms—for a glimpse of the variety of verse forms available, browse the links in the “Poetry Resources” sidebar. Or, a poem may rhyme or scan according to a scheme invented by the poet on the spot.)

The goal of poetry as I see it is this: Poetry should be effective, honest communication. It should come from the heart, and speak to the heart.

All other discussions then devolve into “how”? How can we make poetry more effective? These discussions are not trivial, but they should be kept in perspective. A carpenter doesn’t consider a saw “better” than a hammer, but understands that they are meant for different uses; both serve the greater purpose of building whatever’s under construction. Similarly a poet should avoid getting hung up in arguments over whether, for instance, blank verse is “better” than rhymed verse. They have different effects on the reader/listener, and the poet’s job should be to determine which is more appropriate for the poem at hand.

As a poet, you will naturally prefer to write in some styles more than others. That’s OK. But make an effort to develop some skill in styles you don’t prefer. Writing poems in a set form is very good technical training for a poet, even if the results aren’t to one’s personal taste, and the day may come when you have a poetic idea that just cries out to be expressed in one of the forms you don’t usually use.

And What Does It Mean?

There are some who say that poetry is not supposed to “mean” anything and that pursuing the question of “meaning” is missing the point. Sometimes this is simply an excuse for the poet not bothering to “mean” anything! However, if the goal of poetry is to communicate, there are many ways that that goal can be achieved.

One way that poetry can communicate is to make clear, simple statements with which the reader either agrees or not. Another way, perhaps more characteristic of poetry, is to deploy images or ideas whose “meaning” is not completely specified; this allows the reader to, as it were, fill in the blanks. Readers will associate these signifiers with whatever seems most emotionally immediate or relevant to the reader. Thus readers can tailor-make their own “meanings”, within a framework suggested by the poem.

This is why we sometimes read a poem written by a complete stranger and feel as though it was written expressly for and about us. In a sense, it is; as readers, we become co-authors. We write our own thoughts, feelings and experiences into the spaces between the poet’s lines.

I felt all flushed with fever, embarrassed by the crowd.
I felt he’d found my letters, and read each one out loud
--from Killing Me Softly With His Song, Charles Fox and Norman Gimbel

Completely straightforward poetry (or writing of any kind) allows no room for this process to occur. The meaning is unambiguous and is the same for every reader, but some emotional force, some perceived relevance on the part of the reader, is sacrificed.

In the end, the important question for the reader may be not “what do you think it means?” but “how does it make you feel?” T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land is an extremely obscure poem, stuffed full of references to people, places and things that no-one’s ever heard of. (You can find explanatory commentaries on it that are several times the length of the poem itself.) Yet it remains a vividly evocative and disturbing piece of writing, even to people (like myself) who have no idea what it’s about.

On the other hand, poetry that provides no frame of reference may leave readers scratching their heads and going “huh?” (For some real head-scratchers, read the review of Wallace Stevens at Poetry Kit.) Such poetry has failed at the essential task of communication. Poets must learn where the middle ground is, and what tactic will be most effective.

There have been, and may still be, schools of thought according to which only certain subjects are appropriate for poetry. I think these ideas are pretty much all behind us now (whether this is necessarily a good thing, I can’t say). To the extent that poetic content differs from prose content, I think it’s in how poetry says things rather than what things poetry says.

Next: It Don't Mean A Thing If It Ain't Got That Swing

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