WHAT IS POETRY?
All the tight
Rules to write
In a bind
That we find
Our words free.
Words, they must
Have been thrust
to be sent
Is for we)
Where was I?
Oh, that's right:
(Did you see?
Can bend words,
And then it can shift on a dime,
A poem can twirl, and dance, and keep time
To the strangest of beats and the oddest of rhymes
A poem is an orator dancing ballet
Leaping away on legs that could power her clear up to the sky
Arms held in a circle and almost-not-quite
Flying away on invisible wings
To the beat of invisible drums, out of sight.
That tumultuous tremor
That quivers 'neath soft silken skin like the hammer
whose thunder could render asunder
The heavens we find ourselves all living under
But yet it does not,
For the hammer's restrained --
As are the balletic, kinetic refrains
Of a poem,
Whose words have of course to be trained
And to mind
And that's why we have rules
Like meters and rhyme
schemes and other things fools
Might not understand, or worse yet, take for granted,
And, unknowing, unleash some
Of free verse and other prose
Posing in costumes and
Dancing like poetry -- but not quite, no not them.
For the freedom of writing outside of the lines,
Of ignoring iambs and eschewing near-rhymes
Is a mirror-box freedom, a fractalous twisting
That traps thought in seemingly-endless wide vistas.
Freedom's not freedom, not when you have not
Been cooped in a cage or been tied in a knot.
To truly know freedom
One must have been confined
And that's true, too, if not truer, for freedom of minds!
Consider the chaos of children at play,
In contrast to dancers within a ballet:
Each scene full of movement, each hard to define.
But over here, children are tumbling and bumbling and rumbling and stumbling and hitting and spitting and flitting between their games and their slides and their swings and they're nice and they're mean and they smile and cry and laugh sing shout fall down...
While over here,
Dancers move carefully 'round
In a well-defined pattern whose intricate bounds
Demonstrate subtle beauty nowhere else to be found.
The dancers, it's true, could spring forth with abandon
And fly up and swing round and come down and landing
Alight on their feet and then scamper away
But then they'd be children.
And there'd be no ballet.
To go see
what words could
if they're good
Words to be
About the poem: I've often remarked, one, that I don't write about writing, but I'm going to do that a bit here, and two, that I think poems need to rhyme and have rhythm and meter and the like to separate them from prose, and so, with rare exception, I almost never write "Free Verse" anymore.
Yesterday, Andrew Leon -- a smart man and great writer -- wrote a blog post about poetry, in which (I'm pretty sure I read it right) he agreed with me, more or less: poetry requires those elements that set it apart from prose, and that free verse, devoid of rhyme or meter, is not poetry. It's just prose, in different shapes.
Electric lighting arcs its unsubtle, harshly yellow deathrays over the blank surface of the highway, making the entire nightscape a parody of nature: black tar where grass grew, hideous mottled yellow where the sun cannot shine.
I just made that up, now, and I think it's very evocative. But is it poetry?
Electric lighting arcs
over the blank surface of the highway,
making the entire nightscape a parody of nature:
hideous mottled yellow
the sun cannot shine.
Is that poetry, now? The divisions I chose were deliberate, setting off each phrase, and mirroring the companion sets at the end, but is it poetry?
I think not.
Free verse is to poetry what a bunch of kids playacting a movie scene is to cinema: if not one being a mockery of the other, it is at best an imitation, perhaps not devoid of its own charms and fun, but, still, one is not the other and cannot be, because one does not follow the conventions of the other. Kids do not have a soundtrack by John Williams, or cinematography, illumined on a giant screen in a dark theater. Movies do not have kids dressed as Darth Vader. Each has its merits, but each is not the other.
And looked at in that way, free verse is simply prose, striking a pose.
So this poem is meant to illuminate that difference, first in the way it uses its words to lay out the rules of poetry -- the first rule being that there must be rules.
But it also highlights another aspect of poetry, something that prose cannot do. Poetry is not limited to the meaning of words, and words are not limited in poetry. Writing a poem, trying to rhyme words, forces you to expand your vocabulary, because you must find words that match each other in length and syncopation and sound, and forces you to experiment with word order and structure, to make the syllables fit and the meaning still carry through. When I write poetry, I stop periodically and read it aloud (the way poetry is meant to be read) to make sure it flows. I never do that with prose.
(A benefit of writing poems, proper poems with rhyme and rhythm, is that it lets you carry over the ideas of structure and expanded vocabulary and word order to your prose, making it more poetic, and letting you use the structure of the words themselves sometimes to convey meaning. I did this a lot in my book Eclipse, a sci-fi book where you wouldn't ordinarily expect to find poetic elements.)
When you write prose, you can just splatter the words down. A post about poetry would read, well, exactly like this paragraph you're reading. But a poem about the rules of poetry must follow those rules, and that helps it convey meanings and feelings on more than just the level of the meanings of words. Just flipping words around from their expected order, to fit a meter, focuses the attention on those words and how they relate to each other.
Consider this line from my poem Lazy Bones Jones
The mouth leads to the gullet, itself quite a fear
Filled with protrusions and lumps and things queer.
The repetition of protusions and lumps to make the line work emphasizes how many there are, instead of saying "his belly was lumpy," and the use of "things queer" focuses your attention on those words, because they are out of order, and queer is an unusual word, there mostly to rhyme.
Another thing about poetry: poetry's rhythms and meters can make words fit even if they do not rhyme -- think of songs you might have heard that don't rhyme, but you don't notice, because the meter and beat of the song carry you from word to word, forcing you to pay attention to the entire world of the poem, not just the words. Free verse and prose do not do that; they exist only in the words themselves, not in the environment of a poem. By bending words around, moving them to fit a rhythm, you call attention to the words and at the same make them part of a whole, like putting a picture in a museum's room where other paintings might complement it and make you see things you hadn't seen before. Blank verse -- unrhyming poems written in iambic pentameter -- is like that. It has a rhythm to it that carries you along. Paradise Lost is written in blank verse. So poetry doesn't have to rhyme, necessarily, or it doesn't have to have rhythm, but it must have one or the other, or it lacks both of the two essential elements of poetry.
In What Is Poetry? I strove to show how limiting words, how trapping them in a structure, can make them mean more, not less. The very act of limiting the words, of the minimal syllables in many of the stanzas (most stanzas have only half the syllables, or so, of a haiku, which is a form of poetry I dislike because so many people think they can write one) demonstrates the strictures of poetry. The short lines require short words, the frequent line breaks force you to keep involuntarily pausing, only to go back and re-read the poem again as a continuous sentence. It's a poetic equivalent of the steps to the United States Supreme Court, steps that the architect made deliberately a length that forces a regular-sized man to shorten his pace: the steps are too long to take in one full stride, but too short to make two regular strides across, so as you approach the building, you are forced to alter your gait and slow down. This poem does that, using the architecture of a poem to demonstrate the point the poem is trying to make.
The words used in the poem, too, demonstrate how that shape affects them. At the start of the poem, each stanza alternates between free-sounding words and confined-sounding words: free and see versus thrust and bind, but then when the poem talks about poems being sent in torrents, the structure of the poem breaks down, and when it recaptures itself, it is in the original tightly-wound format, but the words of confinement are gone.
Reading a poem is as much about reading the meaning of the words chosen and their order as it is about reading the meaning of the words as they fit in the sentence. Rhyme and rhythm help make that point.
And, if you look at it, it resembles the silhouette of a ballerina. That, too, was intentional.
As always, all Friday's Sunday's Poems feature a hot actress. This one is Danielle Fishel.