This, from my series of lectures from old and/or defunct classes. This is Lecture #7 from DU’s erstwhile Writers on Writing course, and is an introduction to poetry.
Lecture 7: Recipe for Poetry
Many people of all ages have this crazy idea that poetry is stuffy, difficult, lofty, and way beyond them. They feel that they have to write an “Ode to a Grecian Urn” or understand just how important that little red wagon is in order to attain the vasty height of poem reader-hood. And writing poetry? Forget it, they’re not that “deep.”
In fact, poetry is the oldest and most profound way humans communicate. Song, image, sound, is as old as our upright crania, and as essential to our culture.
To talk about (and to write) poetry (as opposed to prose and story), one needs less a set structure (like a plot) than a recipe. There are three essential “poeia”s which, combined, make poetry what it is. (1) The recipe of three ingredients is as follows:
- Phanopoeia (image)
- Melopoeia (music)
- Logopoeia (intellect)
…is the language of image. Rich image is often more important, even supercedes, any narrative in poetry. All five senses are important in poetic image, and often in contemporary poetry you see either collaboration or other combinations of picture and word. There is the literal way to do this (concrete poetry, or additions to visual art, comics, or picture books), but in essence all poems have image at their center. Read this sample of phanopoeia in the first two stanzas of Linda Hogan’s “Bear Fat”:
When the old man rubbed my back
with bear fat
I dreamed the winter horses
had eaten the bark off trees
and the tails of one another.
I slept a hole into my own hunger
that once ate lard and bread
from a skillet seasoned with salt. (2)
We’ve got the tactile (the feel of the fat and the massage), the visual (the horses and trees), taste and smell (the fried lard-and-bread image), and hearing (horses chewing bark, frying skillet), and this all in the first two stanzas. Notice the blank verse: no strict set meter other than what comes naturally to the English language. What a beginning reader of poetry should “get” out of this is not necessarily what Hogan “meant” by the lines, but the images themselves. Poetry is like mythology, in that every individual reader will take a poem’s images differently, and the images, free of spoon-fed “meaning,” can take on as many meanings as there are imaginative possibilities.
…is the sound of the poem. There may be no meaning or narrative at all to a poem, only sound. The sounds of poetry come directly from poetry’s root: song. Each different sound resonates in the reader’s ear with a different reaction; as different colors resound with different human moods, so do the different vowel sounds and consonant stops. Poets have the poetic license (!) to play with these sounds and their combinations, which is where certain set structures like sonnets and haiku and rhyme schemes come from. A master of melopoeia, Dylan Thomas centered his work all around sound. Here’s the first stanza of “All all and all the dry worlds lever”:
All all and all the dry worlds lever,
Stage of the ice, the solid ocean,
All from the oil, the pound of lava.
City of spring, the governed flower,
Turns in the earth that turns the ashen
Towns around on a wheel of fire. (3)
Of course the first thing you’ll notice in the difference between poetry and prose is the line breaks! What are they there for? They do what all punctuation does: they provide a breath break. All commas, periods, dashes, ellipses, and line breaks do this, in different degrees. The line is a breath unit (4)–so Thomas’ commas and periods at the end of his lines make for longer breath pauses. I would recommend reading this particular piece aloud. Loudly. Listen to the repeated gong-notes of the vowels, the “pound of lava” going through the whole piece. Poets make language into a meal (and prose writers can learn a lot from this practice).
…can be better translated into a “dance of ideas.” (5) Stressing intellectual ideas, putting forth ideology and philosophy, poetry has long been a changer of history, as well as a “recycl[er] of a culture’s ruins.” (6) Poetry has been the most powerful protester and cause for many a cultural change. That’s not to say that a beginning reader of poetry should be bogged down by trying to figure out a poem’s “deep profound meaning” each time they read. A good poem should convey its “dance of ideas” through its image and sound selection, and meanings, as discussed above, can be as multifold as a poem’s syllables. Check out the three fractured haiku that make up Jack Collom’s “Indefinite Articles”:
is like a moon
in a song
why should a
poem act so tough, it
has no feelings
Everything boils down
to a chunk of Roquefort,
which gets lost. (7)
The light-hearted jab at poetry “acting tough” is a great thing for beginning readers and writers of poetry to remember: that song is in all of us, and a poem itself isn’t the feelings, the feelings are within us. The image of a moon in a song is a vivid visual and aural one, but why is it Collom’s definition of opinion? The reading of such potent little gems will differ for each person reading it. This is the other big thing about poetry vs. prose: in a poem, the language is condensed, heightened. Anything said, any image conveyed, any repeated sound, is magnified by virtue of the poem’s line break form and length. This is why magic spells of old were often written in verse: the potency of the word, its actual physical power, was thought of as more powerful in poetry.
But then sometimes all it boils down to is “a chunk of Roquefort, / which gets lost.”
(1) Ezra Pound’s setup, channeled through Anne Waldman, Naropa University lectures
(2) From The Book of Medicines, Coffee House Press, 1993
(3) From Collected Poems, New Directions, 1957
(4) From Lorna Dee Cervantes, Naropa SWP lecture, 1999
(5) Ezra Pound again, again through Anne Waldman
(6) Steven Taylor, panel discussion, Naropa SWP 1999
(7) From The Task, Baksun Books, 1996