An Armchair Overview of Poetry History
Poetry is as old as the human race. As soon as the first hunters had begun to inscribe charcoal drawings on the walls of their caves, you can be sure that somewhere, someone was trying to do something different with the sounds that came out of people’s mouths every time they spoke. I don’t have hard evidence for this of course, but I think it’s fair to speculate that if people were driven to express themselves in wall art, they were probably, even in pre-literate societies, also getting busy playing around with sound.
Poetry is all about sound. So is music, of course. But poetry is doing something a little different in that the sound-effects are created by words and not instruments. When a musician composes, the work composed may be subject to a variety of different performance interpretations, depending on the instrument chosen for the playing, the skill of the performing musician, as well as a number of things which may depend to some extent on improvisation. So, for example, Kiri te Kanawa singing Madame Butterfly is a very different sound to Kiri te Kanawa singing from Porgy and Bess, because in order to sing the latter she has to use her voice and breathing in a different manner. Equally, the Sting who started out with the Sex Pistols evolved a very different style of performance when he compiled a retro album of very romantic oldies.
But a poem by Seamus Heaney will always ‘belong’ to Seamus Heaney, just as a poem by Wordsworth will always ‘belong’ to Wordsworth. Strictly speaking, there is no way a Heaney or a Wordsworth or a Plath or a Baudelaire or a Ted Hughes can be re-interpreted by different poet ‘players’, because the sound in a poem is circumscribed by language itself and not melody. There may be melody within a poem, but it is not the central force of the poem, so much as the particular conglomeration of sounds and the force of these on the human intellect and ‘soul’. The locus of achievement in a poem, lies in language and what language ‘means’, and how variously that language may by expressed and experimented with.
We know from what we have inherited in world literature that the ancient writers were lyricists and balladeers, and that they admired the epic poem, the ‘big’ one which would pull together all the detail and resonance of great wars – real and mythic – great passionate romances, and heroic deeds. Poetry seems to be the place where the heroic has always found a comfortable base. Today, the heroic has shifted, insofar as it can be found within the shorter lyric as much as in the longer narrative poem, but that is a consequence of our sense of ourselves within the space of the world as much as anything else. By this I mean that no community is distant from us nowadays. Every city, every town, every small business throughout the planet is accessible, either by actual travel or through information technology. We do not have the same perspective of giganticism which loomed over the ancients. We know that no matter what shocking event occurs within a distant community, something similar may be happening elsewhere, or right on our own doorsteps. The concept of what exactly ‘home’ means has consequently altered. Ulysses, the hero of Homer’s Odessey, seemed a very glorious character to most people up to thirty years ago. He still does. What occurred there seemed singular and spectacular, just the kind of thing that a hero would and should undertake. Yet our knowledge of the world and how it works, our strong sense of the patterns of local and international politics, must surely influence how we now perceive the myths and legends of the ancient writers. Where is home nowadays, for example? What is a journey? If you travel to India and go climbing in the Himalayas, does that constitute a journey? Do people who take two weeks holiday in a Mediterranean country each year make a journey? Surely the person who takes a two-week package is capable of experiencing exactly the same vastness of encounter as the person climbing the Himalayas. For all the snobberies about travel, it is entirely possible that the Himalayan climber is a mean-minded, petty individual incapable of any kind of generosity, who uses the sherpas mercilessly, pays nobody properly, ignores the needs of his climbing companions and comes home none the wiser for his experience apart from noting that the Himalayas are ‘high’ and ‘cold’ and that he had the best-insulated clothing of the group. Meanwhile, our two-week packager risks her own life by swimming far out to assist a first-time wind-surfer who has got into trouble, not only does she do that but she falls in love with someone else who joins her and her husband for dinner one night, there ensues a rapid wrangle of emotions as she faces down the dilemmas of what she perceives to be a stale marriage. Decisions have to be taken and she comes home very changed by her experience. Equally, the man who travels from Donegal to Dublin every month for a check-up with a medical consultant also makes a journey, but how we approach the journey is what counts, not its length or distance or duration. Think about the journeys we all make privately, into the self, that go unnoticed and unrecorded and which we face incessantly. How should we record these journeys? Mostly, we don’t. We consign them to the bunker of memory, where they are resurrected every so often, the outer contours perhaps slightly changed by the course of time, but the main events largely unchanged. Writers make the journey in a different way. They want to make more sense of the event, the journey, the experience, the sensation, the feeling, than day-to-day thinking and memorising will allow them to do. That is why they need to write it down in some form.
Every poem written testifies to the notion of the journey. People have always written poetry. It has survived political oppression of all kinds, for thousands and thousands of years, it has survived famines, dictatorships and oppressions (including domestic oppression). We will speak later about the whole psychology of continuing to write in less than ideal circumstances.
What Poetry Is
Like many satisfying things, what poetry is can be difficult to define. It can be compared to this and that. I am reluctant to be categorical about what exactly a poem is, yet it seems to me that a good poem has a lot to do with anxiety. Its writer has a central anxiety, something which agitates and preoccupies him, which will not let him go until he has addressed it and faced it down. But you cannot say that a poem is an anxiety. That is not enough. But if the anxiety is the trigger-mechanism which creates the poem, we could perhaps speculate that a poem is a kind of resolution, a very open-ended one. It is a resolution in words which are laid out in a particular pattern, sometimes by formal design, sometimes from pure instinct, and the effect of this resolution is that when it is read by somebody else something new occurs. Although the poet does not, in general, write ‘for’ an audience, or with specific readerships in mind, nonetheless there is a relationship between a good poem and its readers. The thing is, once the poem is published, it no longer belongs to the poet. It is like a child which has been pushed out into the world, to encounter this and that phenomenon which may or may not respond to the child’s nature.
Ideally, a good poem sends trajectories of language that is charged by emotion far out into what I shall term ‘psychic space’, where it then connects with the emotional trajectories of other, searching, readers. A poem has a lot to do with signification. It must signify something for a reader before s/he can be open to its deeper meanings. In a good poem – if it is really good – the triggers occur, domino-like, making the reader almost fall into the poem’s meaning, which can vary from reader to reader.
But there are certain poems which leave large numbers of people in no doubt as to their meaning, for example Elizabeth Bishop’s ‘Moose’, Seamus Heaney’s ‘Mid-Term Break’, Eavan Boland’s ‘Night-Feed’, Wordsworth’s ‘Daffodils’, John Milton’s ‘On His Blindness’, or Philip Larkin’s ‘High Windows’. There are, simply, poems which connect unmistakably with huge numbers of readers, allowing us to conclude that a good poem can be compared to having a ‘human’ touch, except in words, or that it is like knowing when you have met the right person, have fallen in love. It is a decision taken without your choosing, and you must follow it to its conclusion or feel the loss keenly and for the rest of your life.
What Poetry Is Not
Some people are moved to write a kind of protest-verse. They find themselves agitated in their day-to-day lives by things such as litter, smoking in public, unmarried mothers, tax evasion, teachers’ strike action, young people pushing and shoving in queues, young people drinking on the streets (or generally anything to do with young people), or cruelty to animals. The list is endless. At the outset of any writing class I usually state that these subjects might be better suited to journalism*. The poet who wants to argue and not only to argue but to make everybody see his or her point of view is usually wasting their time in a poetry workshop. Not only that, they are wasting the time of everybody else too. Anti-litter, anti-unmarried-mother poems, anti-abortion verse is usually the product of a messianic outlook which wants to convert the world.
But poets do not want to convert the world. They have no axe to grind, at least not that way. This is not to say that poets are harmless, domesticated pet-writers either. Far from it. But poetry that challenges will usually find its source in something more challenging than re-arranging the world to one’s liking.
If poetry is not about sloganising and banner-banging, neither is it doggerel. Many people believe themselves to be good rhymers. All those English classes in which we learned our rhyming poems and studied metre have had their effect, not all of it good (though some of it remains remarkably positive*), given the claptrap surrounding the examination and grading of a student’s grasp of poetry as a subject. Surely there is an argument – which poets themselves could advocate – for not being ‘examined’ in poetry? The effects of nineteenth century Romantic poetry are still felt in the reading lives of most contemporary readers. By the time of the French Revolution in particular, there was a great deal of ferment within literature as much as in politics. By the nineteenth century, the new young bloods of the day, the High Romantics were Wordsworth, Coleridge, Blake, Byron, Keats, and Shelley and their preoccupations were new, fresh and exciting to the readers of the day. Byron had the pull and romance of any young film actor today, and literate people were stirred by the contents of verse in the same way that visually literate people today emerge from cinemas sometimes breathless with excitement. It was, you could say, a fashionable occupation. Later in the nineteenth century, in the heyday of Victoria, Tennyson, Browning, Arnold, Rossetti, Swinburne, and (arguably) Hopkins presented an extraordinary variety and intensity in their respective visions.
Romantic philosophies spurned the cut-and-dried Enlightenment viewpoint of the previous century. For Enlightenment thinkers, logic and clarity was everything. The word itself – or ‘Erklärung’ in German, meaning ‘making clear’ or ‘clarification’ – demanded an analytical, positivistic attitude to everything from the sciences to the arts and also in the manner in which people conducted their day-to-day affairs. But the pendulum always swings away in another direction, and gradually, this mood which came to be known as ‘Romanticism’ evolved, finding its musical counterpoints in Beethoven, Tchaikovsky, Schubert, Mendelsohn, Liszt and others. In the world of literature, that moodiness and emotionality was also reflected. The subjects of the Romantics were of course the big ones – death, love, eroticism, beauty – and these were played out in big, long, rhythmically arresting word-works. But the manner of interpretation by individual poets reflected emotional turmoil, an unresolved feeling that did not provide neat conclusions. The intellect was not top dog according to this poetic world view, so much as the notion of soul. Soul was where the truth about human nature and all our doings could be found, it was argued, soul was what unleashed the true passion which lay unhealthily oppressed behind genteel conventions. In Goethe’s ‘Leiden des Jungen Werthers’ or ‘The Passion/Sufferings of Young Werther’, we observe the result of an unrequited passion when a young man falls in love with a married woman. She is so hopelessly out of his reach, married sensibly to a sensible and decent man, and at the end Werther commits suicide. The effect of his novel on the young novel-reading population of Europe was, a bit like Byron’s poetry, startling. People began to dress like Werther, and there are accounts of imitation, ‘copycat’ suicides similar to that in the novel. The book caused a sensation because it struck a chord that had obviously not been played in literature before.
For the present-day writer, it must be remembered that there is an enormous legacy at our backs, whether we wish to acknowledge this or not. Even if one does not feel particularly part of a specific tradition, we have absorbed a great deal of the rhythms of previous centuries. And for some of those who attend writing classes, this means rhyme.
‘What,’ I was asked recently in a writing class, ‘has happened to the discipline in poetry? Nobody rhymes any more!’
To some extent, this is true. Very many published poets do not use rhyme in the accepted sense of the word. That is, they do not use what is called ‘end rhyme’, where the last word at the end of a line rhymes with the last word of the next one, or if not there then it will rhyme at the end of the third line. Or sometimes the first line rhymes with the fourth one. Or perhaps, in the case of a villanelle* like Dylan Thomas’s ‘Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night’, or Derek Mahon’s ‘Antarctica’, a particular pattern is evident in the rhyming scheme, with two very obvious rhymes carrying right through the whole poem until both are carried in the final quatrain.
Sometimes I think that readers to not always observe the presence of rhyme in poems because they do not read very well. That is, they’re not prepared to go back over a poem if they have not grasped its ‘meaning’ on a first reading. It’s a little like ‘looking’ at abstract painting. People who prefer representational or illustrative art will tend not to like abstract works in which there is no obvious drawn image, but instead perhaps what they perceive as blocks of colour, or splashes and drips, or a few wide swipes of the paintbrush. But they more you look the more you see. And it’s the same with a poem. A second reading gives more to the reader. And a third even more. And if you have still not grasped the sound-patterns in a poem perhaps it’s worth going back to it another day. Or trying a new poem. Because a poem is like a person and some poems are just not to our liking. The thing is, poets use rhyme quite commonly. It’s just that people who claim an absence of end rhyme are not actually reading perhaps as widely as they should. If they read the works of living poets they would observe that very many contemporary Irish poets are indeed using rhyme in their work, and end-rhyme at that.
For those who do not use end-rhyme, there is still an engagement with sound patterns. Some writers use internal rhyme, where a word placed in the middle of a line, or anyplace but at the end, rhymes with another word in the middle of another line. Or perhaps there is a half-rhyme, where the last word at the end of one line rhymes with the first word of the next, or a word in the middle of the next. Poets play around with sound all the time, but most practitioners are reluctant to make the ‘meaning’ or direction of their poem subordinate to rhyme. In other words, if there is a better, more precise word to be found which expresses exactly what they mean, then they will choose it in preference to one which rhymes perfectly but is inadequate in meaning.
There are other ways of creating word groupings that we remember, of course. Alliteration is one of them. This was the most important principle of Anglo-Saxon poetry. It made verse more memorable, added to the effect of the rhythm, and the recurrence of the same sound pleases the ear. Used to excess it has a comic effect (think of the operas of Gilbert and Sullivan and ‘I am the very model of a modern major general …’ etc.), and Shakespeare understood this in ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’ when he made Bottom say:
Whereat with blade, with bloody blameful blade,
He bravely broached his boiling bloody breast.
But once a poem is in the process of being re-drafted you might find that a little alliteration creeps into the phrases and it’s a good idea to be sensitive to the effect of this.
Assonance creates another sound pattern, resembling both rhyme and alliteration. It is the rhyming of the principal vowels of the stressed syllables of neighbouring words, e.g.:
When the black herds of the rain were grazing
In the gap of the pure cold wind
And the watery hazes of the hazel
Brought her into my mind,
I thought of the last honey by the water
That no hive can find.
Brightness was drenching through the branches
When she wandered again,
Turning the silver out of dark grasses
Where the skylark had lain,
And her voice coming softly over the meadow
Was the mist becoming rain.*
So, if we break down the sound patterns of this poem it’s apparent that the presence of rhyming vowels creates its own repetitions. For example, ‘rain’ rhymes with ‘grazing’ in line one, but so also do these two words rhyme with the ‘hazes’ and ‘hazel’ of line three. This ‘a’ sounding sound-rhyme continues into the second stanza, with ‘again’, ‘lain’ and ‘rain’ also rhyming. The poem also contains two other assonance patterns, as in line six of stanza one, with ‘hive’ and ‘find’ and then there’s an internal rhyme in stanza two with the words ‘dark grasses’ and ‘lark’.
I believe it is really important not to become over-anxious about these formal aspects of poetry, not because they are unimportant – they do matter and always will matter – but because they can make writers over-cautious and virtually unable to compose a poem. But nonetheless it’s worth knowing what the technical jargon implies and has implied in the past, in order to strengthen your own starting position.
Modern poets make all kinds of formal choices in the writing of poetry. I do not think that for most the actual form of the finished work presents itself at first draft stage. Instead, perhaps a blank verse is produced, largely unrhymed, and as blank verse implies, it is not divided into stanzas. After a while the poet may look over what she has written. Certain questions emerge such as whether that draft is ‘complete’, but mainly the poet casts her eye over the main ideas in the poem. What is their direction? Are there links between one idea and another? Should she break the ideas up in the way fiction-writers make paragraphs, to indicate a change or development of some kind? This is the sort of nitty-gritty decision-making which poets automatically undertake in shaping up a poem. And so, if a poet opts to move away from blank verse, there are choices to be made.
Some poets divide their block of poetry into lines or verses of three, called triplets. Strictly speaking, triplets traditionally involve end-rhyme as well but in contemporary terms this does not often occur and many writers regard an unrhymed three-liner as a ‘triplet’. This is not something the purists would approve of but that’s more or less what happens.
A quatrain is a stanza of four lines, but often – perhaps because of its traditional place in the ballad or indeed in the verse of the past – poets don’t use it a great deal unless perhaps in the Shakespearean sonnet. But there’s a huge range of formal options available to poets, from couplets, to three-liners, to quatrains, to five-liners, on to six, seven and eight line stanzas.
It is not something to worry about. If you cannot use these forms it does not mean you are not writing poetry. Equally, if you are skilled and confident at how you section off your poetry, nor does that mean you are writing poetry.
Because a poem is like a salamander, in its most mythic sense. Like the salamander, it is forged in fire and lives in fire (think of the private fire of your life!). It is strong enough to resist the effects of fire and, in surviving, takes on the colour and fierceness and delicate beauty of fire. Fire is many things. So is a poem. Think of salamanders and poems and find the relationship.
The Subjects of Poetry
If the Romantics were consumed by ‘soul’ and the stormier reaches of the imagination, the Victorians were equally consumed by the need to break away from the frequently erotic quest of the High Romantic poets, into something more classical. Advances in science, geology, evolutionary theory and social analysis may have been to some extent responsible for the world view of the Victorian reader, but the poets of the day seemed to nonetheless take a great deal from their Romantic precursors. Imagination still needed to be indulged, regardless of the ‘advances’ of the day, regardless of piety or religious impulse.
So poets continued to write about beauty, nature, death, love, passion, political events, encounters between man/woman and the wilderness, loneliness etc.
But early twentieth century poetry demonstrated that something new had begun to happen in verse. Outside events had affected people’s lives, primarily the First World War, and meanwhile the age of locomotion and telegraphic communication was well under way. People began to see themselves a little differently in relation to the rest of the world, which was, undoubtedly, becoming smaller and apparently more ‘manageable’.
Nobody illustrated the change in the writing of poetry more than the young American T.S. Eliot did. The first ‘Modernist’, his (along with his compatriot Ezra Pound) critical pronouncements were to change the face of poetry forever. Contemptuous of what he termed the ‘emotional slither’ and ‘painted adjectives’ of contemporary verse and the decadence of mass and middlebrow culture, he wanted to change the very quality of aesthetic sensibility. And in a way, he did, bringing a searching clarity to bear on the way poems were written, and furthermore championing various writers, among them Yeats, Joyce, Frost, Hemingway, Marianne Moore.
Eliot’s long poem ‘The Waste Land’ caused a sensation when it was first published, and was read for decades afterwards as a testament to a shattered culture in the wake of the First World War. Any would-be poet should read it for its fluent use of literary and mythic references, its nervous energy and its brilliant control of rhythm.
Fast forward now, to the late twentieth century and what we find in poetry now is no defection from what was absorbed through Eliot’s legacy, but a kind of tagging on, an add-on effect which had a great deal to do with the various social and cultural movements of the latter half of the century. That includes views on socialism, democracy, communism, feminism, racism, and equality issues in general. All of these – or elements of them – have informed the poetry which we now regard as hip-hop contemporary, and it means that instead of what the purists would see as a virtually disembowelled corpus of poetry where nobody respects form, metre, rhythm or ‘suitable’ subjects, we have at our disposal a vast history of fact, legend (some of it urban), criticism, actual poetry practice and, in particular, a spiritual vacuum which has created an even greater need for poetry.
People undoubtedly want to write. But what to write, many ask. What is a suitable subject for poetry?
Suitability Issues and the Anti-Poetics
In order to answer that – and to show just how differently writers sometimes respond to the question – I want to go back to the period just after the Second World War, when – just like after the other great World War – poetry and what it meant, was urgently reappraised, particularly by the Polish poets.
When it comes to writing your own poetry, you will probably obsess a bit about whether the subject of your poem is really ‘suitable’ for poetry. Perhaps you cobble together a first draft and realise that, although the poem was supposed to be about the trees in autumn and the effect they have on you, instead you have begun to digress in the middle of the poem into something about your childhood, or your boyfriend, or the woman who most recently broke your heart. And this is as it should be. This is what happens when poets write. Most of us don’t do what W.B. Yeats sometimes did, which was to write out in a couple of prose sentences the general thrust of his poetic ideas. For most writers, the poem begins much in the way a story begins. You write a line that you think is ‘about’ something, then discover that further down the poem you have linked into something else. And behind all your writing lurks the Romantic tradition, with its images of beauty for its own sake, of recollection in tranquillity, of daffodils, sunsets, the pastoral, Roussouean idyll. Very wholesome. But that baggage is there, pulling at your shirt, nudging you into writing about the ‘beautiful’ and ‘uplifting’.
The process is generally similar for most writers. However, the question of subject is always perplexing. For Irish poets, the view of poetry has frequently been one of mystic vision, a place-oriented, unconscious system of divination. But the post-war Polish poets inverted this creative process, and their poetry became a product of intellect informed by experience and a telling strand of scepticism.
This is how it happened:
After the war, the work of poets like Tadeusz Rosewicz, Zbigniew Herbert, Czeslaw Milosz reflected despair at the value of literature. Milosz for example argued that art was not an equal partner with historical events. For him, famine and death were more powerfully expressive than the most inspired poetic stanza or the most beautifully painted picture.
For these poets, the recognition of art’s inability to say anything truthful about the terrors of war amounted to a profound crisis. Their early education had been informed by the nationalist rhetoric of the older, idealistic poets, yet experience had now proven that words were not quite adequate as a means of expressing the truth about anything.
The only solution for Tadeusz Rozewicz was to create a poetry which was free of ‘prettiness’, which was stark and pure and insisted that its role was to simply name objects. He began to strip down the language of poetic expression, and the poems he wrote are characterised by a directness which reveals the torment of the human heart confronted by evil. Trees feature prominently in his work, and these represent innocence, life, growth. In the poem Massacre of the Boys, the smoke of Nazi crematoria is a terrible parody which negates the notion of a living tree:
The children cried ‘Mummy!
But I have been good!
It’s dark in here! Dark!’
See them They are going to the bottom
See the small feet
they went to the bottom Do you see
of a small foot here and there
with string and stones
and little horses made of wire
A great pain closed
like a figure of geometry
and a tree of black smoke
with no star in its crown.
Notice also the style of punctuation in this poem. Although the dialogue lines where the children speak is punctuated, the rest is fairly minimal. There are no full-stops yet new sentences begin in the middle of a line, and are capitalised. It’s as if not only must the subject be stripped bare and fully exposed, but the conventions of form are also laid open to question. Remember this when you write your own work.
Another poem of Rozewicz’s encapsulates the fracture that emerged between the traditional poets and this new, post-war generation:
the poets of old
the word like a tree
they like a child
What shall I hang
upon the branch of a tree
which has suffered
a rain of steel
the poets of old
around the tree
they danced like a child
What shall I hang
upon the branch of a tree
which is burnt
and never will sing
the poets of old
beneath the oak
they sang like a child:
But our tree
creaked in the night
with the weight
of a corpse despised
After the war, naming things became one of the primary formal and contextual techniques used by this poet. It is as if emotions have been frozen through exposure to horror. The work is free of metaphors, conventional punctuation, similes, adjectives and all the usual devices which, in the hands of poor practitioners are little more than props. In New Comparisons he deliberates on this absence:
To what will you compare
is it like night
to what will you compare
is it like a kingdom
to what will you compare
to what will you compare an eye
a hand in darkness
is the right like the left
teeth tongue mouth
to what will you compare
But it can be argued today also – and should be – what can it mean to write ‘a poem’? Most people agree that all cultures are capable of the descent into barbarism, yet we continue to talk blithely of ‘culture’ itself, we assume that the matter of debate on artistic forms, on art itself, and beauty is a closed matter, as if nothing has happened to disturb the flow of such discourse. The question remains, if civilisation fails inwardly, if it collapses daily and if Auschwitz is found in any town albeit in a particular, individualistic and un-collective sense, how can poetic language itself be anything but superficial, irrelevant and marginal? Can language express it? Should language express it?
Such questions might not seem relevant to our own culture today. But I believe they are central to any debate on poetry and will continue to gain in relevance when one considers that the activity of poetry is mostly contained within a closed group of practitioners and readers. The US poet Dana Gioia has a great deal to say about this argument in his book of essays Can Poetry Matter?*, a work which forcefully outlines the argument about the status of poetry in his own society, but which is fairly relevant to our own.
* Of course, it is an insult to professional journalism to assume that it should be the target-practice for what are essentially crank concerns. Professional journalism is dispassionate and where it is passionate it is not didactic.
* For one thing, well-taught poetry can draw younger readers out of the immediate, pushing them to read about experiences and emotions they may not yet have ‘lived into’ but eventually might. There is an argument against ‘relevance’ and ‘accessibility’, given that a great deal of adult inner life is devoted to analysing and debating situations and problems which are complex, difficult, and which elude our complete understanding.
* The Lost Heifer, by Austin Clarke
* ‘American poetry now belongs to a subculture. No longer part of the mainstream of artistic and intellectual life, it has become the specialized occupation of a relatively small and isolated group. Little of the frenetic activity it generates ever reaches outside that closed group. As a class, poets are not without cultural status. Like priests in a town of agnostics, they still command a certain residual prestige. But as individual artists they are almost invisible.’