How Poems Move #5

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

When discussing the poems that we’ll be studying in this course and the poems that the students will write, I emphasize how poetic effects and poetic meaning are created. Poetic effects communicate and enact thought and feeling, harmony and dissonance, emphasis and rhythm, movement and stasis, narrative and meditation, tones of voice, and more. In general, they also mark the language of a poem as belonging to poetry rather than to some other kind of utterance. The qualities of language that mark a poem as poetry are in a way a proof of the poet’s skill and artistic deliberateness; they used to be proof, long long ago, of the peculiar effectiveness of language when it is used in a particular, highly compressed way with notable rhythm, sound and tropes. But these qualities of language are also a trace of what I believe is an instinctual impulse in all of us to use language to do more than it usually does. And also the result of the fact that we get pleasure from language used in this way.  (See Dylan Thomas’s account of his childhood sense of language, in his “Poetic Manifesto” —it’s reprinted in the book I edited, The Poet’s Work; this is only one of many essays in which poets speak of this.)


"You can tear a poem apart to see what makes it technically tick… You’re back with the mystery ofhaving been moved by words. The best craftsmanship always leaves holes and gaps in the works of the poem so that something that is not in the poem can creep, crawl, flash, or thunder in. The joy and function of poetry is, and was, the celebration of man, which is also the celebration of God." - Dylan Thomas from A Poetic Manifesto

We all feel to some degree an uncanny power in language to say more, to mean more, than words mean, and to do more than merely represent our world and our lives in it. We have all felt the power of language turned against us, and we have all used language against others. Language is not just something we use but also something we do. (I’ll post soon a quick summary of language functions.)  

(In recent decades some of the arts have gravitated toward de-skilled creation, and so has poetry. But our focus is on work of manifest and impressive artistic skill.)  

As I see our main work together in a poetry writing workshop, whether beginning or advanced, it’s more a studying of how poems say what they mean, rather than a discussion of what they mean. (That latter leads into what the poet believes and who the poet is, and everyone has to right, I must think, to believe and be who they are; but no one has an obligation to like what everyone else believes and who everyone else is. Poets rise and fall based partly on what sorts of human values and courage of being they give to the reader; that takes place on its own.)

That is, I try to teach how to describe how poems make meaning rather than how to interpret the meanings they make. We may have different (good) reasons, as individuals, for cherishing one poem over another, about which we may agree or disagree; but we’re pretty likely to agree on how a poem creates its effects in the listener and reader.

Among the elements of poetry that we’ll study are: the relationship between the poetic line and the shape of a sentence (i.e. syntax); the sounds and rhythms of the English language; imagery and figures of speech; word choice (diction); some of the traditional resources of poetry (such as particular devices and patterns), and particular purposes of poetry—like declaring, perceiving, mourning, acknowledging, playing, praising, narrating, meditating, and witnessing; and also the flexibility of poetic thinking.

Depending on the purpose of our looking, we look at the elements of poetry in different ways. Regarding poetic and linguistic resources, we study image, line, sentence, rhythm and meter, diction (word choice) stanza, structure, tropes (especially metaphor and metonymy), traditional forms and rhythmic patterns, and in general simply how poems (as opposed to other kinds of human discourse) move from thought to thought, feeling to feeling, image to image, and so on. Regarding the poet’s stance toward reality and use of imagination, we speak of landscape, history, social functions of poetry (which are related to genres), and the kinds of objects (in a psychoanalytical sense—that is: people, places, things, events, etc.) that hold the poet’s attention.

-Reginald Gibbons