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Poetry

In the Beginning was the Word ---- The Gospel according to St John, 1.1. Authorized Version, 1611

 

Poetry expresses more than the sum of its words. It should, in my view, be memorable and, what is nearly but not quite the same thing, easy to learn by heart. By memorable I mean that it should be in some way striking, so that even if listeners forget the words, they will recall the experience of having heard it. In pre-literate ages, when poetry contained the sum knowledge, history and religion of the tribe, it was a necessity for its words to lodge easily in the mind of a bard or scald. Stupendous feats of memory are recorded for early bards, and the Irish ollamhs, or druids, underwent "prolonged and intense training in the magical and poetic arts" as Robert Graves relates in The Crowning Privilege. Poetry should still, although many might now disagree, be composed to be spoken aloud, preferably from memory, but in any case with minimal dependence on a script.

Poetry, being oral, preceded prose, which is written; and the poem, despite the ringing assertion of St John, preceded the word. This is because emotion precedes thought, and poetry expresses emotion. Poetry need not be intelligible: there are poems which are both memorable and easy to memorize, and which are also unintelligible; but words and language were designed to convey information, and it is debatable whether any great work of literature can be totally unintelligible. Unintelligible language, in the sense of a language which admits of no interpretation, is an oxymoron.

The modern movement in 20th century poetry, and much prose, can arguably be said to have been launched by Ezra Pound's "re-representation" of The Seafarer, which first appeared on November 30th, 1911. Much of Pound's poem, in my opinion, is incomprehensible, but works which later followed Pound's lead, such as Eliot's Prufrock and The Waste Land, and Joyce's Finnegans Wake, though extremely opaque, could be said to hover on the near side of meaning. Great swathes of later 20th century literature and poetry, or verse, recognizable by its setting on the printed page, can be fairly placed on the far side. A tendency this century, perhaps partly as a result of the influence of Pound, but reinforced by many other factors, has been for poetry to baffle rationality.

It must be admitted that literature, whether in poetic or prosaic form, which sets out head-on to address themes such as the enigmas of life and the universe, which are yet to my mind unfathomable mysteries, will inevitably tend towards obscurity. Into this category fall many of the mystical and visionary poems and sacred books of the world. What sense, in fact, can actually be extracted from St John's statement? Neither Pound's semi-scrutable poem, nor the Anglo-Saxon original of The Seafarer, which would have been perfectly understandable to its contemporary audience, can be placed directly in this category.

For the sake of argument, it may be accepted that one of the defining qualities of poetry is that it should be concentrated, or in some way heightened, for impact on its audience. To achieve this the poet relies on aids similar to those used by musicians (the differences are in the vocal nature of the sounds) such as metre, alliteration, assonance, rhythm, rhyme, repetition, refrain, stress, pitch, tone, contrast, counterpoint, and so forth. Pound says something of this sort in his A Few Don'ts By An Imagiste, 1913. The list of aids might be extended by reference to any book on prosody. It is tempting to suggest that the fewer of these aids a poet employs, and the less adroitly, the feebler and less memorable his or her poetry will become. A close comparative analysis of the diction, rhythms, and prosody of the following pair of quatrains, extracted from the notorious 1967 Robert Graves - Omar Ali-Shah version of Omar Khayyam (p.82), might help to resolve this point:

Fitzgerald translation

Awake! for morning in the Bowl of Night
Has flung the Stone that puts the Stars to flight:
And lo! the Hunter of the East has caught
The Sultan's Turret in a Noose of Light.

Graves-Shah translation

While Dawn, Day's herald straddling the whole sky,
Offers the drowsy world a toast 'To Wine',
The Sun spills early gold on city roofs ---
Day's regal Host, replenishing his jug.

Graves somewhere expresses a horror of "rhetoric", by which he may mean a characteristic type of Victorian verse. To my mind, in spite of his vivid prose, his prolific poetic output, and his self-proclaimed life-long dedication to the art of poetry, he failed to produce a single memorable line of verse. He must have believed that his version of Khayyam was not only more accurate, but better poetry, than FitzGerald's. My own feeling is that the jury is still out on this matter. It is interesting, though confusing, given the nature of their poetic output, especially when compared with that of Graves, that both Pound and Eliot expressed the greatest admiration for FitzGerald's Khayyam.

These few notes are meant to indicate my understanding of the bare essentials of poetry, and thus to illuminate my approach to this interpretation of The Seafarer. A major aim has been clarity, coupled with compression of meaning. I believe that this paradoxical combination of clarity with complexity makes effective poetry, and is especially true of the original composition. My poetic vademecum, since 1959, has been William Empson's Seven Types of Ambiguity, first published in 1930, and later also his The Structure of Complex Words, 1951. In Empson's first edition of Seven Types, there is a dedication to I.A.Richards, and the statement that "I derive the method I am using from Mr Robert Graves' analysis of a Shakespeare Sonnet:

The expense of spirit in a waste of shame,

in A Survey of Modernist Poetry." Both the dedication and the acknowledgement are omitted from the second (revised and re-set) edition of 1947, and all subsequent editions, and one vaguely wonders why.

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NOTE. 1 October 2000. The answer to this question is discovered in Robert Graves, His Life and Work, by Martin Seymour-Smith, Holt Rinehart, NY, 1982, p 145: "Neither Riding nor Graves liked Seven Types of Ambiguity ('Empson is as clever as a monkey & I do not like monkeys,' wrote Graves in 1944), as they considered it a corruption and not a development of their own methods." Seymour-Smith adds, however, that "like it or not, the method employed ... led ... to one of the main features of the New Criticism: its concentration on the text." And few texts demand and deserve greater concentration than the poetry penned by the Anglo-Saxons.

 

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commentaries: one, two, three, four, five, six

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