Poetica # 2: The Foreword
With Poetica # 2: The Inner Circle Writers' Group Poetry Anthology 2020 due out soon, I thought you might like a glimpse of my foreword:
Poetry is sometimes a hard sell.
Derived from the Greek poiesis, ‘making’ it’s defined as a form of literature that uses aesthetic and often rhythmic qualities of language, like sound, symbolism, and metre, to create or evoke meanings alongside of, or as substitutes for, prosaic apparent meaning.
The problem arises with how it is usually presented to us.
It’s either force-fed to us in school without any contextual explanation, or it comes across our newsfeed at random times and associated with random topics — when we’re not ‘in the mood’ for it, in other words. Many readers rapidly learn to be dismissive of it, either while still at school or later. In an attempt to clear up this misunderstanding of what poetry is, let’s begin by attempting to establish a historical context and then look at an experiential framework.
From hunting poetry in Africa, court poetry of the empires of the river valleys of the Nile, Niger and Volta, from the Pyramid Texts written during the 25th century BC, from Asian epic poetry, the Epic of Gilgamesh, written in Sumerian, through to folk songs such as the Chinese Shijing and religious scriptures like the Sanskrit Vedas and the Zoroastrian Gathas, we arrive at the Homeric epics, the Iliad and the Odyssey, and Ancient Greek attempts to define poetry. Aristotle's Poetics focused on the uses of speech in rhetoric, drama, song, and comedy; later concentration was on features like repetition, verse form, and rhyme. Throughout, attempts to define poetry compared it to prose and noted its aesthetic elements as distinct from those of ‘ordinary’ writing.
In other words, whereas there is a kind of writing which focuses on being ‘objective’ and concentrates primarily on relaying information — an ‘outward-facing’ writing, one might say — poetry is at the other end of the spectrum, zooming in on the subjective, emotional, inner experience of human beings.
Forms and conventions of poetry developed to evoke and describe this subjective level of experience: words in poetry are more carefully selected to convey depths of meaning, or to evoke emotive responses. Assonance, alliteration, onomatopoeia, and rhythm are used to throw off the coldly objective, to urge the reader or listener into a kind of trance. Most poetry becomes an incantation to some degree, as well as using ambiguity, symbolism, irony, and many other stylistic elements to purposefully create multiple interpretations. Metaphor, simile, and metonymy are designed to create resonance between otherwise unconnected or lightly connected images and ideas, forming layers of meaning and links perhaps previously not perceived. These resonances may occur at every tier, from the word to the line, from the line to the stanza, from stanzas to overall structure.
The experience of poetry can be such that many conclude its creation is somehow superhuman — hence the concept of the Muse.
Poetry is something that we can take for granted. Failure to be introduced to it properly results in many simply grouping it with the rest of written language and finding it wanting, according to the criteria of most of that writing: poetry becomes ‘difficult to understand’, ‘overly complex’, ‘too subjective’ and perhaps even laboured and boring — boredom arising rapidly when something lacks sufficient reality for the reader. This all comes about because we are usually never told that poetry is its own ‘thing’: it doesn’t belong alongside prose, it doesn’t need to be compared with other kinds of writing, it is a separate order of reading or listening experience. If schools could begin by first describing ‘inner and outer’, subjective and objective views, and how words can be used in very different ways, poetry might stand a chance in the classroom. As it is, we need to look even deeper to salvage it for some.
It begins with the action of reading.
The word ‘reading’ comes from Old English rǣdan, of Germanic origin, related to the Dutch raden and German raten ‘advise, guess’. Its meaning embraced the concepts of ‘advise’ and ‘interpret’ as in ‘interpreting a riddle or dream’. And when the process is considered more deeply, it can seem as though one is engaged upon some kind of ‘dream-interpretation’: after all, when reading, one is taking symbols in sequences and drawing meaning from them, both the meaning that the author installed in them (it is hoped) as well as various other meanings that one may install for oneself.
In both ‘rational/objective’ writing like essays and aesthetic pieces like stories or poetry, we end up with reading as a kind of guesswork: what one ends up with at the end may only be an approximation of what was written, and could even be at wild variance with the original intention depending on what exactly has taken place in the interim.
Consider how a child learns to read: first, he or she must grapple with the reality that a set of particular symbols, chosen over time by the surrounding culture, has individual sounds connected with it. We have come to call this ‘phonics’ and to see it as a fairly scientific undertaking: one takes a symbol and ‘learns’ that it ‘means’ a sound. The symbol ’T’ is connected to the sound ’t’ and not to any other sound, for example.
Then things get more arcane: the sound ’t’, coupled with other sounds, adds up to something quite different from a mere noise. The symbols ’t’, ‘r’, ‘e’ and ‘e’ combine to form the sounds ‘tree’ but also the meaning ‘tree’. Another layer of understanding is achieved. In itself, that is quite a mystical and subjective accomplishment. A young human being has linked physical sounds with written shapes and has progressed beyond what most animals are able to do, and then has transcended even that and joined those same shapes with something intangible, the idea behind them. ‘Tree’ may seem a little too tangible and objective as an example, like most physical nouns; ‘love’ may make the point more strongly. A subjective feeling, an idea which has outward signs but which is in itself a mental or spiritual thing, has been bound to a set of emblems imprinted on a page. No wonder that the word ‘spell’ is derived from the same root as the ‘spell’ that is practiced by a mage.
But things get even more complex. Placing these representative tokens that we have come to know as ‘words’ together, one can achieve almost infinite effects through sentences (the word ‘sentence’ stemming from Latin sententia ‘opinion’, from ‘feel, be of the opinion’, reflecting that same sense of subjective approximation). Sentences of various types and complexities go on to form paragraphs; paragraphs develop into chapters; chapters evolve into books. And every step of the way, the reader takes symbols and works with them to arrive at meaning.
The simple act of reading is not therefore a one-way transmission of information, perception or opinion from one mind to another, but a participative act: the reader brings both a personal understanding (or misunderstanding) and a personal contribution (or lack of contribution) to the process.
Poets work with this: subjective experiences or perceptions are captured using words, broken into not sentences but lines, and woven into tapestries of rhythm, sound and significance. A successful poet can lead a reader or listener into a magician’s cave, full of excitement, promise and mystery. With readers who are unprepared, or misunderstanding the journey, the poet unwittingly leads them into darkness and occlusion, an experience of being surrounded by meaninglessness and irrelevance.
How do we form our own views of what is going on in another’s world? By understanding the foundation of imaginative, subjective, ‘inner’ thinking. Poetry isn’t like prose or informative essays or scientific rationality or the outer world — it communicates to us about inner worlds, firstly those of the poets, and then, if the poet is successful, about our own.
Welcome to the many inner worlds of the more-than-one-hundred poets in this volume.
Grant P. Hudson
Clarendon House Publications