By RAYMOND FENECH
Poetry is an art as vast as the universe. As William Blake wrote, through poetry one should be able: “To see a world in a grain of sand/ And a heaven in a wild flower, / Hold infinity in the palm of your hand / And eternity in an hour.”
It should be like child talk, simple; like the first steps of a toddler, as he launches himself into a spacewalk; and stunning, like his very first fall. It should cry out words that are communicable, words that will sooth any sadness or inspire happiness, leaving an alerted mind.
Wordsworth and Coleridge once remarked that common life happenings should be described in the language really used by men.
‘Unusual’ does not have to mean obscure, abstract or vague. Once I read a comment made by the editor of a leading literary magazine who said he had more submissions than subscriptions and that there were more people writing poetry than reading it. So, I read an issue of this magazine and found the poems published only addressed the poets who wrote them – the main reason why the majority of people cringe when one even mentions the word “poetry”.
Poems should not sound heavy, nor thrive on “one million dollar words”, as Ernest Hemingway described difficult words that would sent the majority of the readers to a dictionary. It should touch the readers’ innermost feelings to the point they can associate what a poet has written with their own experiences.
Good poetry need not necessarily be based on the poet’s capability to rhyme, nor require the genius of inventive technique. Poetry should be weighed by its qualitative communicability. Robert Frost said: “There are two kinds of language – the spoken language and the written language … words exist in the mouth not in books! The vocabulary may be what you please, though I like it not too literary; but the tones of voice must be caught fresh and fresh from life.”
There are many people who think that abstract languagegives their poetry greater distinction, but has the opposite effect, because vagueness is next to meaningless. Of course, at times, poets do use abstract words, but I think they are finding out at their own expense that today, this style of poetry is no longer the ideal tool to lure readers to buy their books.
Ezra Pound, in his dos and don’ts for poetry, noted the following:
- Poetry should be written at least as well as prose.
- Language is an instrument for expressing and not for concealing or preventing thought.
- Go in fear of abstractions.
- Use no superfluous word, no adjective, which does not reveal something.
- Don’t use such an expression as “dim lands of peace”. It dulls the image. It mixes an abstraction with the concrete. It comes from the writer’s not realising that the natural object is always the adequate symbol.
- A narrative is all right so long as the narrator sticks to words as simple as dog, horse, sunset.
With desktop and self-publishing technology available everywhere, writers and poets are finding easier access to the public, without the need to go through the parochial systems of publishing where only academics, critics and editors have the right to decide what is good or bad poetry.
It doesn’t take a genius to realise that some poetry books are bought because of the influence of leading critics telling people how good they are. Other books sell because of the reputation of the authors, even if the content is not worth the paper it is printed on.
Arnold writes: “Poetry is nothing less than the most perfect speech of man, that in which he comes nearest to being able to utter the truth.” If poetry readers are to be given the chance to appreciate any poetry, they must first understand the message in the poem. Otherwise poetry will be considered merely a capricious and spontaneous venting of verbal diarrhoea, which will leave no one the better for its creation.
Simonides, the master of the mature Greek lyric and the earliest of the supreme Athenian poets, considered poetry as a “speaking picture”. There is so much to inspire thought in this short definition. Here he refers to poetry as an audio-visual art, all the more reason why it should be communicable for all to read and be able to visualise at the same time. And what a speaking picture it could prove to be to clinicians using poetry in therapy sessions.
For some poets, getting published is a priority, but what counts is that the writer’s message reaches as wide an audience as possible.
Rita Dove, US Poet Laureate 1993 and Pulitzer Prize winner, stated: “Like many teachers, I used poetry only to meet certain curricula. The poems my students wrote were often formulaic gimmicks found in textbooks: acrostic and anagram poems, limericks, and haiku taught in the rigid 5-7-5 syllable mode. My students were as terrified as I was to try their hands at ‘real poetry’. It’s not hard to find the source of this fear. I’m looking at a literature textbook right now that has reprinted Shakespeare’s Sonnet 18 with an activity below: ‘A sonnet is a 14-line poem written in iambic pentameter. Try one of your own.’ Reading a prompt like this, who wouldn’t conclude that poetry is reserved for geniuses?”
Let’s make an all-out effort and give poetry back to the people – where it belongs.
Raymond Fenech is the author of The Incident Of The Mysterious Priest And Other Stories, available now.