What is poetry? How does poetry create meaning? How is a poem understood? What makes a poem different from prose? These are questions that we as poets must address.
What has been difficult for many poets, especially in our Post Modern Age of the individual is that every "modern day" poetry of its time has been built up and out of what others had done before it.
This theory of poetry is called The Anxiety of Influence and was introduce by the famous literary critic Harold Bloom in his book of the same name which was published in 1973. In his book Bloom writes that every poet who takes up the craft has an oedipal relationship with the past poets who came before him. These poets hover as dark clouds in the consciousness of modern poets minds, instilling insecurities and inhibitions - thoughts like...How can I as a poet stand up to the likes of Williams Wordsworth, Dylan Thomas, W.H. Auden, Rilke...Who am I to consider myself a poet in comparison to the marks past poets have left on the minds of men?
This poetry complex leads them to believe that they have to do something different with their poetry. They have to change the manner of it somehow, mold and/or shape it into something new. Or challenge the poets of past to a duel of poetic might and mechanism. The poet thinks to himself something in the lines of: "if I swim against the stream of those before me, I will come out, not only a stronger poet, but a new champion of write."
Modern and post modern poets have in their publishing and posting of poems proven Bloom's theory, without a doubt, to be an actual manifestation.
When we write in free verse, we are walking down halls that echo the words of Walt Whitman and Emily Dickinson. When we write sonnets it appears as if Petrarch, Shakespeare, Donne and Spencer's shadows are dimming our light. Unfortunately, poets have mistaken these gestures as a threat, instead of, recognizing them for what they are - a passing of the baton from past poet to present poet to keep our craft and art alive.
The moment we acknowledge that poets of the past are our mentors and beacons of light to guide us through our darkness and writes, is the moment we are entitled to call ourselves poet.
Poetry is a craft of depth. To reach those depths, a poet needs technique.
The foundation stone of poetry is that form and content are inseparable. Poetry is a verbal art form where the interaction of the form and the content cannot be separated. In other words, if there is a separation between form and content - it is not poetry. The form of speech cannot be separated from the content of speech.
Let's approach this from a different perspective. Take a verse from a poem and try to paraphrase it - to paraphrase means to restate what is written in your own words. If you can do so, what you have just read is not poetry, it is prose - whether the verse is written in full lines or half lines. the external organization of it, doesn't give the written piece the right to be called a poem.
In poetry, there is a fundamental interconnection between the sound and the sense - between the shape of the poem, its words and the meaning that is contained within its confines. These are known as patterns, patterns of poetry.
These patterns are passed on from speaker to speaker, from reader to reader. They are imbedded in the structure of the language itself. That is why we find it many times difficult to translate from language to language, especially, from language family to language family. Because the patterns are different - the sound and beats of languages are different. The characteristics of language are different, for example, some languages have gender, whereas others don't. This linguistic variant can be the difference between one language's melliflousness and another's "trodding through the mud with army boots on": Old French vs. Old English.
Self acclaimed poets who do not learn the patterns and sounds of their language can be compared to a self acclaimed musician who does not know the intrinsic patterns and sound of his/her instrument which we all know would be absurd.
We will begin first with the sounds of the language: alliteration. The English that we speak today has its deepest roots wrapped around the bedrock of Old English or Anglo-Saxon. Anglo-Saxon was a language whose natural tendency in poetry was alliteration and stress.
Alliteration is when the initial stressed consonant sounds of a word group repeat themselves on a line or throughout a verse. The following are examples of alliteration:
...stirs and swirls leaves
- Stormy Seas (lines taken from "Winter's Bite")
softly swirling snow
sinking slowly spreading seeds
snowfall snapping sleet
spontaneous sharp shrapnel
snowballing structural slush
- Laurel McCue (taken from a posted draft in Peppered Poets)
Rocks of conformity will bruise perception
Caves of compliance will shun the light
- Frecklewood (lines taken from "The Lioness that Dwells Within")
These examples demonstrate the direct and inherent connection between form and content. The prominent /s/ sound in the first line by Stormy Seas creates the image and sensation of the wind lifting the leaves in fleeting flight. In the second example, Lauren McCue stimulates the senses that snow stirs in its falling. The last example with the prominent /c/ sound has a cutting edge sharpness that lacerates the skin of thought.
A Study in Alliteration: Beowulf: an excerpt from Episode I
Beowulf is possibly the oldest Anglo-Saxon or Old English piece of literature that has survived the sand storms of time. It is an epic poem that consists of 3182 alliterative long lines.
The point of this practice is not to delve into the depths of the poem. The point of this practice is to pick up on the alliteration. Read the piece aloud and expose yourself to the sonorous nakedness of the English language. Although this is a translated version from the Old English/Anglo-Saxon to modern English - the alliteration remains loyal to the origin form.
THE LIFE AND DEATH OF SCYLD.
The famous race of Spear-Danes.
Lo! the Spear-Danes' glory through splendid achievements
The folk-kings' former fame we have heard of,
How princes displayed then their prowess-in-battle.
Scyld, their mighty king, in honor of whom they are often called Scyldings.
He is the great-grandfather of Hrothgar, so prominent in the poem.
Oft Scyld the Scefing from scathers in numbers
From many a people their mead-benches tore.
Since first he found him friendless and wretched,
The earl had had terror: comfort he got for it,
Waxed 'neath the welkin, world-honor gained,
Till all his neighbors o'er sea were compelled to
Bow to his bidding and bring him their tribute:
An excellent atheling! After was borne him
A son is born to him, who receives the name of Beowulf--a name afterwards made so famous by the hero of the poem...
(excerpt taken from: http://www.gutenberg.org/files/16328/16328-h/16328-h.htm)
For this week, seek out an English speaking poet of the past. Choose a few of his/her poems and study their alliteration. Write down the senses that they stir. Which consonants does he/she particularly use? What effect does the alliteration have on you and your understanding of the poem?
After you have done that, choose a poem or poems that you have already written. See if you have applied alliteration. If you have, write down in the margins or underneath what sounds are prominent and what senses they stir. If not, try to allocate alliteration onto your lines then compare, you may find the alliteration congrous to your write.
Then engage in Rough and Raw writes. Choose three sounds that you would like to use in the initial position and alliterate them throughout your writes.