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This Is Poetry?
by Matt Bynum

Poetry is more than simply an expression of unbridled emotion

Modern writers seem to have the idea that if they feel prose writing is too restrictive, then a switch should be made to poetry writing, where ideas and emotions can run wild and freely. Yes, poetry is capable of expressing intense emotion, but it is not unbridled. Poetry writing, or should we say effective poetry writing, is actually more restrictive than prose writing.

Both poetry and music share the quality of "meter". A common "time signature" found in music is "4/4". The "4/4" means that the music is divided into equal "measures" that each contain 4 "beats". A simple example of a single "4/4" measure contains four "quarter" notes - ONE- two-three-four. But a "4/4" measure can also contain notes that are longer or shorter than a quarter note. A "half" note is equal to two quarter notes - ONE-(sustain)-three-four. And then there is an eighth note - ONEand-two-three-four. In a quarter "rest", no note is sounded for the length of 1/4 time - ONE-(rest)-three-four.

Poetry also has meter. A common meter found in English poetry is "pentameter", specifically, "iambic pentameter" - a marching, clock- like meter, each line having ten syllables, like so - one-TWO-three- FOUR-five-SIX-seven-EIGHT-nine-TEN.

From Shakespeare's Sonnet 12 (circa 1600)

When I do count the clock that tells the time,
And see the brave day sunk in hideous night;
When I behold the violet past prime,
And sable curls all silvered o'er with white;

From Thomas Gray's An Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard (1750)

The Curfeu tolls the Knell of parting Day,
The lowing Herd winds slowly o'er the Lea,
The Plow-man homeward plods his weary Way,
And leaves the World to Darkness, and to me.

From Tennyson's The Idylls of the King (1842)

And Arthur deign'd not use of word or sword,
But let the drunkard, as he stretch'd from horse
To strike him, overbalancing his bulk,
Down from the causeway heavily to the swamp.

The first line of each poem establishes the poem's meter. But note that the poems should not be read in an emotionless, robotic manner. The first line of "Idylls" does use the standard "one-TWO-three-FOUR- etc" rhythm. But notice line 3 "To strike him, overbalancing his bulk". This should not be read as "to STRIKE him OVERerBALancING his BULK". A better reading would be "to STRIKE HIM (pause) OVERERBALancING his BULK" The words, and the actions that the words convey, indicate how the poem should be interpreted. But there is still that underlying tick-tock rhythm within the meter that guides the poem toward its conclusion.

Of course, both music and poetry use many types of meters - 4/4 time and iambic pentameter are single examples among many. There can also be "mixed meters", several meters within a single work.

The growth and development of any art, including poetry, means that contemporary artists have access to more complex forms. They can communicate using complex forms because contemporary audiences are (or should be) more sophisticated. The contemporary poetry audience, for example, should be well "versed" in classic poetry. Modern poets should take this knowledge of classic poetry and use it as a foundation for the development of modern poetry. It should be possible to trace the "lineage" of a modern poem back to its "ancestors". This is the true growth of an art, when the techniques used in modern day work can be traced all the way back to the beginning.

But what is the lineage of modern poetry? It does not appear that modern poetry has respect for its ancestors. It seems that it is only too willing to break with the conventions of the past, as if form and meter are inadequate, unnecessary, quaint.

It would seem that the era of the "Beat" poets (circa 1950's) represents a departure from the old forms, especially Allen Ginsberg's 1955 public reading of Howl. One witness (Micheal McClure) said of this reading, "In all our memories no one had been so outspoken in poetry before. We had gone beyond a point of no return - and we were ready for it, for a point of no return. None of us wanted to go back to the gray, chill, militaristic silence, to the intellectual void - to the land without poetry - to the spiritual drabness. We wanted to make it new and we wanted to invent it and the process of it. We wanted voice and we wanted vision."

From old movies, you probably have seen a gathering of beatnik types gathered together for a poetry reading. The poet steps on stage and says something like:

Obsequity!
Red asteroids assault the evergrowing tagents slithering noiselike
out of frostbitten tongues.

The poet is accompanied by the beating of bongo drums. Perhaps the drums were used to help induce a trance-like state. For the Beats considered themselves to be "shamans", priests of the unseen spirit world. "O Poets! Shamans of the word!" wrote William Everson in Birth of a Poet. "When will you recover the trance-like rhythms, the subliminal imagery, the haunting sense of possession, the powerful inflection and enunciation to effect the vision? Throw off this malaise, the evasion, this attitudinizing and sickliness of urbanity. Penetrate to the discord in yourself, the rootlessness, and induce the trance that will heal the rift within. Shamanize! Shamanize! The American destiny is in your hands".

Of course, if the Beat poets would have been left to themselves, no harm would have been done. But no! They are declared the voices of the era. And so modern poetry has followed the example set by the poets - it has become self-absorbed and formless, and so, incapable of providing a conduit of meaningful communication.

See How Beat Happened at http://ezone.org/ez/e2/articles/digaman.html

See also Is it Poetry or Prose? at http://www.artsreformation.com/a001/dr-prose.html

Last updated: 12 April 2006
Updated by: Matt Bynum