Saturday, March 20, 2010

Giving Poetry Its Power

I think a good poem is a little word engine. It's more than a clever saying, it's constructed to move.

A poet uses one of any number of verbs that mean the same thing. The one they pick has a sound characteristic that drives the engine forward (alliteration, assonance, rhyme). Or alternately, the word has a root meaning, a little different from another word, that sticks an implication into the thought. Sometimes there's a conceit--an advancing comparison or metaphor, that strikes you with its brilliance. The best-known example of that is John Donne's compass in Valediction: Forbidding Mourning.--the perfect circle made by the travelling spouse and the stationary one.

Poetry has a rhythm. That's all that iambic pentameter, the rising and falling foot. (Trust the stuffy English to drag Latin into something easy, and make it intimidating.) The main thing to know, if you are not up on the iambs and the meter, is that rhythm advances the poem. Shakespeare's sonnets always sound like a heartbeat or a clock ticking. The rhythm reinforces the sense of a heart beating with love, the advance of time, the urge to be here now.

So every once in awhile (if not always) you should read poetry aloud. Give it the full play of the author's craft.  We listen to pop music and sing along. That's because poetry is better on the tongue than in the book.
I used to read poetry aloud on road trips with my husband. You would think, "oh, no" but it really worked out. One time I was reading Keats' Ode on a Grecian Urn on a freeway. I got to the second stanza--

      Heard melodies are sweet/But those unheard are sweeter--

and he said "God!"

I stopped reading.
"No, that is the most beautiful thing I've ever heard in my life," he said, and switched lanes. "Start over."


Bob G. said...

Now that is a wonderfully concise and yet comprehensive description of poetry...
Bet your English teacher is smiling.

Ann T. said...

Dear Bob G.,
Probably I should thank my 6th grade teacher, who nobody dared cross and who made each of us hand-print an anthology of about sixty poems over nine months. Aughghghgh! Pretty sure she caused a river of tears for 60 students annually. I now have one, hand written, with about three hundred in it.

Go Ms. Reese,
Ann T.