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荷叶塘

理想的乌托邦 生活的埃瑞璜

 
 
 

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What Is Poetry?--On Composition and Appr…  

2010-04-24 21:23:00|  分类: 作业及论文 |  标签: |举报 |字号 订阅

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 Introduction

Literature, as one of the symbols of civilization, must bear certain rules. Poetry, being a kind of literary form, should have some characteristics, too. What are its characteristics then? “A short piece of imaginative writing, of a personal nature and laid out in times”? Or “a literary expression in which language is used in a concentrated blend of sound and imigery to create an emotional response; essentially rhythmic, usually metrical and frequently structured in stanzas”?

Mostly they are true. As time goes by, however, poetry has developed into modern poetry which “avoids rhyme and standard grammatical organization and seeks new ways of expression”, from traditional poetry following “standard rules of grammar and syntax with a regular rhythm and rhyme scheme”. If one thinks it easy to define poetry according to the chronicles, that will be fatally wrong, because many a modern poet borrows traditional styles. Then, how to define poetry? What are the characteristics?

Poetry is composed by poets, who in the first place must have certain qualities which, conversely, are the characteristics of poetry. And poetry is spread among readers whose perspectives are as significant as the poet himself. Therefore, the following chapters will analyze the poetry characteristics from these two angles to give a better understanding of poetry.

 

Chapter 1  Poetry for One to Compose

It is of course not easy to compose a poem, otherwise everybody can be a poet. Bakhtin says that poetry is “the more privileged literary form than novels” and poetry with the aesthetic function is to “delight”. But how does a poet delight the readers when writing a poem? One must have unique talents when composing a great poem. And the poem he composes must bear certain characteristics he is trying to convey.

1.1. Passion

Edgar Allan Poe says, “With me poetry has not been a purpose, but a passion.” Paul Engle says, “Verse is not written, it is bled; out of the poet’s abstract head. Words drip the poem on the page out of his grief, delight and rage.” Because of passions and powerful feelings in heart, words can find their escape from the poets’ head: love, hatred, sorrow, joy, fear, jealousy, sarcasm, etc. A poems may be composed of just several lines. But because of its conciseness, a poem carries powerful meanings through each line with its distilled words. Without constant passion, a poem could not last long.

Let’s take Elizabeth B. Browning’s How Do I Love Thee? as an example.

“How do I love thee? Let me count the ways,/ I love thee to the depth and breadth and height/ my soul can reach, when feeling out of sight/ For the ends of Being and ideal Grace,/ I love thee to the level of every day’s/ Most Quiet need,…/ With my lost saints—I love thee with the breath,/ Smiles, tears of all my life! – and, if God choose,/ I shall but love thee better after death.” (7)

With powerful feelings, the poet or the speaker feels love from three-dimentions, condenses daily needs into love, and even fantasizes better love after death. Therefore as successful poet, one must bear a passion or powerful feelings, and transfer into powerful words. Only in this way can he evoke the reader’s passion. In poetry, the poet’s passion projects in every word. But where does the passion come from?

Of course it comes from life. Gwendolyn Brooks says, “Poetry is life distilled.” In experiencing life, a poet senses and feels the beauty of nature, the hardships of life, the goodness in man, the cruelty in reality, and reveals what he feels. Being a kind of animal of feelings, man couldn’t be more passionate.

1.2. Inspiration

A passion, of course, does not necessarily lead to a successful poet. Many people, even insane ones, can be passionate. He has to calm down, think deeply and find words to reveal the interior feelings or emotions. William Wordsworth says that “poetry is the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings” and “it takes its origin from emotion recollected in tranquility”. And in tranquility, the earthly surroundings and mundane things will give “an animating, enlivening, or exalting effect upon” him. As a result, he will be stimulated with a fresh idea or brainstorm as “the working of some extraordinary power or influence”. This process is inspiration. The fresh idea he gives will enlighten the reader to follow the string of his thought and to experience and empathetic understanding of him. Therefore, inspiration is significant in composing a poem. Socrates says, “ I decided that it was not wisdom that enable [poets] to write their poetry, but a kind of instinct or inspiration, ...”

Let’s set W. D. Snodgrass’s Here in the Scuffled Dust as an example.

“…I lift you on your swing and must/ shove you away,/ see you return again,/ drive you off again, then// stand quiet till you come./ You, though you climb/ higher, farther from me, longer,/ will fall back to me stronger./…to bob in blue July/ where fat goldfinches fly/ over the glittering, fecund/ reach of our growing lands./ Once more now, this second,/ I hold you in my hands.” (25)

In this poem, the swing is not an ordinary swing any longer. When the speaker experiences his action of lifting the listener up, he is suddenly animated that it is also the way of our actual life: “shove away”, “return again”; climbing “higher”, “farther” and “longer”, falling back “stronger”. And the “fat goldfinches” represent gold or money for which human beings work hard “in blue July” and to gain in the harvest season. Then, under the poet’s inspiration, a common practice of swinging transforms into human’s ordinary way of life. And the reader finds the profound meaning in swinging and in the poem. Thus the poem is sublimated.

We may wonder and think it hard for ordinary people to have such amazing inspirations. But Murieal Rukeyser says, “Breathe-in experience, breathe-out poetry.” Or like Einstein’s words, “Genius is 10% inspiration and 90% perspiration.” It means that a poet should gain inspirations in his experiencing life and hard work. Therefore, one is supposed to be very observant on and sensitive to the life he is leading, to carefully and to think deeply, or he will fail to inspired by his surroundings.

1.3. Imagery

What is imagery? “Imagery is the content of thought where attention is directed to sensory qualities: mental images, figures of speech and embodiments of non-discursive truth.” Mental images are “those of sight, sound, taste, smell, touch, bodily awareness and muscular tension”. And figures of speech are: simile, metaphor, personification, synecdoche, metonymy, allusion, symbolism, irony, paradox, oxymoron, etc. If we say poetry is a dress, powerful feelings will be the textile--  without which there would be no poetry; inspirations, the design – to define the integrality of a poem; and imageries, the decorations and buttons – apposite “decorations and buttons” will add to the beauty of “the design” while inapposite ones will destroy it; and sometimes “the decorations and buttons” is included in “the design”. So the most apposite imagery may arouse readers’ imagination and empathy. That is, readers’ emotion may rise and fall accordingly with the speaker and the poet.

Let’s observe the poem Harlem (A Dream Deferred), written by Langston Hughes:

“What happens to a dream deferred?// Does it dry up/ like a raisin in the sun?/ Or fester like a sore--/ And then run?/ Does it stink like rotten meat?/ Or crust and sugar over--/ like a syrupy sweet?// Maybe it just sags/ like a heavy load// Or does it explode? “(29)

The poet inspired imagines Harlem or people there to have different dreams. The whole poem is composed of similes with sensory qualities. “A raisin”, “crust and sugar”--taste, “a sore”--bodily awareness, “rotten meat”—smell, “heavy load”— muscular tension. With different sensoriums, the reader will have a better illusion of different kinds of dreams: sad or happy, fulfilled or unfulfilled, repressed or exploded.

Sometimes poets apply different figures of speech within one poem to gain the same effect, for example, America, written by Claude McKay:

“Although she feeds me bread of bitterness,/ And sinks into my throat her tiger’s tooth,/ Stealing my breath of life, I will confess/ love this cultured hell that tests my youth!/ Her vigor flows like tides into my blood,/ …”(29)

The figures of speech used, personification, metaphor, oxymoron, irony, simile, etc. are to show the speaker’s mixed powerful feelings of the country. Although he experience hardships and agonies, he loves and is proud of his country.

1.4. Creativity

Poets should be creative. It is because of creativity that we have development of poetry in all directions—different poets with different styles or a single poet with several styles, such as Shakespearian and couplet, Spenserian, etc. To destroy the traditional style is also a kind of creativity as well as to create a new one.

Let’s take e. e. cummings’ l(a as an example. This poem has only four words: “a leaf falls loneliness”(4). But the poet draws a vivid picture of the scattered letters, just like a leaf falling down in a very lively way: upside, underside, erected, etc. Though this poem is rather odd, it’s picturesque creativity presents a vivid visual effect of one’s overwhelming loneliness.

Chapter 2  Poetry for One to Read

After the composition of a poem, the poet is regarded to be “dead”. And the poem itself will speak to the reader. Then poetry is found to have the following characteristics from the reader’s perspectives.

2.1. Aesthetic pleasure in poetry

Using inverted order and poetic words, poetry can be indecipherable at the very beginning. Nonetheless, the reader can appreciate the artistic beauty and feel genuine pleasure. On the one hand, poetry sometimes applies rhythm and rhyme scheme, etc. to create a melody. Sonnets, quatrains, etc., even free verses are melodic with some accented and unaccented transitions. In this sense poetry becomes a melodic song. On the other hand, poetry with its poetic words or design or framework can give a reader an imaginary picture: “welkin”(sky), “silver sphere” (the Morning Star), etc. or the above poem written by e. e. cummings. In this sense, we may say poetry is an artistic painting. Both constitute the essence of poetry—to “delight”, even before it is actually understood, just like T. S. Eliot’s words, “Genuine poetry can communicate before it is understood.”

2.2. Empathetic and imperfect understanding in poetry

Every poem has a meaning for the reader to understand. So aesthetic appreciation is not enough, for “the worst fate of a poet is to be admired without being understood”, says Jean Cocteau. Nonetheless, can one fully understand what the poet is trying to convey? Perhaps it is hard to answer.

Let’s take William Wordsworth’s She Dwelt Among the Untrodden Ways as an example.

“ …A Maid whom there were none to praise/ And very few to love;…// She lived unknown, and few could know/ When Lucy ceased to be;/ But she is in her grave, and, oh,/ The different to me!” (34)

The poet depicts that a pure, virginal girl, Lucy, once lived alone, and now dies “unknown” but the speaker feels great difference and pain after her death. We should not question whether or not the speaker is actually the poet and whether or not Lucy actually exists as the poet’s lover, sister or anything, or we would destroy the beauty of the pure love and genuine grief in the poem. Just as A. E. Housman says, “Even when poetry has a meaning, as it usually has, it may be inadvisable to draw it out… Perfect understanding will sometimes almost extinguish pleasure.” So imperfect understanding, especially empathetic understanding is the wayout. That is to say, one needn’t fuuly understand the background information or autobiography of the poet. All one needs is to “participate in or experience vicariously the [speaker]’s feelings, volitions, ideas, and sometimes the [speaker]’s movements to the point of executing bodily movements resembling his”. Therefore Stella Center says, “The goal of all reading is empathy with the content and spirit of the material read.”

Conclusion

    According to the poetry characteristics analyzed above, we may find the processing of poetry can be divided into two: to compose and to read. One can start to write a good poem if he first of all has powerful feelings spontaneously overflown and then thinks deeply in tranquility and gets inspired with apposite imageries and unique creativity. If he cannot possess all of them, he can start from reading, to appreciate it as the combination of a melodic song and a beautiful painting and to understand empathetically and imperfectly.

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