Although I am an avid reader, I have never been a fan of poetry. Whilst I will happily obliterate a weekend devouring volumes of Tolstoy, Dickens, Greene and other classic writers, the thought of reading a Shakespearean sonnet sends me to sleep! Well.. at least until my recent awakening. I have learned that enjoying a good book and appreciating poetry are two vastly different things. In a book, there is a storyline to follow and characters to relate to; a great story can easily transport the most humble reader into another world. However, poetry is more akin to photography or painting. It plays with language in rich and surprising ways to create an evocative picture and like most art forms, poetry is always open to interpretation.
Traditionally, poetry has resided in the realm of the privileged classes. Just the other day, I was sharing a novel fact with a friend that most old-English verse was written ten syllables to a line as that most neatly matched the breath capacity of our lungs when speaking in English. A rather snobbish, British person happened to be walking by, and he interuppted,
“That is an iambic pentameter,”
“An iambic what…?”
“That is the term to describe a ten-syllable verse. Everyone knows that, didn’t you go to school?”
You do not need to know what an iambic pentameter is to love Shakespeare. Comments such as that intimidate and deter regular people from enjoying the pleasures of poetry. Poetry is not meant to be pried apart and described in technical terms. Poetry should be read aloud so your tongue can savour the literary twists and rhythms. Anyway, if it is any consolation, that British guy’s comments were incorrect. An iambic pentameter is actually a five-foot line in which one light stress is followed by one heavy stress for ten beats. For example:
The shatered water made a misty din.
Great waves looked over others
These poetic lines by Frost should be read using an up-and-down intonation to sound melodic.
It doesn’t help that many world leaders and dictators have also been passionate poets. In an insightful editorial by BBC, Why tyrants love to write poetry, I was surprised to learn that Nero, Stalin, Mao, Hitler, Sadam Hussain and Bin Laden all loved creative writing and even tormented innocent masses with their creative frustrations! Thus, the elevated position held by poetry makes it appear even more elusive to the masses.
A New Perspective
Poetry should not be a mysterious art form. The key is to stop trying to understand a poem and to simply enjoy it. Poetry is rarely intellectual and always emotional and sensory. Like a photo, it is just a different way of seeing something. Below are a few examples I adore, which illustrate this point.
I hung the moon
on various branches of the pine
With blue, uncertain, stumbling buzz
A photograph uses light, shadow, colour and focus as visual tools to create a surprising or beautiful image. In contrast, poetry uses its own devices to portray a subject matter in a refreshing light. Here are a few key poetic tools to become familiar with:
A simile is a figure of speech that compares two different things in an interesting way. Similies are frequently used by stand-up comedians. For example, Jim Gaffigan employs this hillariously when talking about cake, “Cake is not like drinking. You never hear someone bragging, ‘yeah last night I ate four pieces of cake.'”
A metaphor is a figure of speech that describes an object or action in a way that isn’t literally true but helps explain an idea or make a comparison. For a metaphor to be successful, it must be both accurate as well as surprising. C.S. Lewis used metaphor beautifully when describing the snow as winter sits folding its linen.
Personification is the attribution of a personal nature or human characteristics to something non-human. A great example is by T.S. Eliot, the yellow fog that rubs its back upon the window-panes.
Onomatopoeia is the use of a word that, through its sound as well as its sense, represents what it defines. The bees buzz and cows moo are straight forward examples. Or a more creative example is in the words of Audubon in A Vision, “He hears the jug slosh.”
Alliteration is the occurrence of the same letter or sound at the beginning of adjacent or closely connected words. Sally sells sea shells by the seashore.
The repetition of vowel sounds within words in a line or lines of verse. The effect is to create a near-rhyme. Hear the mellow wedding bells, is an instance of assonance by Edgar Allen Poe.
I have only just started to whet my poetic appetite. Coincidently, at the same time, I have picked up reading one of my all-time favourite novels called The Brothers Karamazov. It is a heavy book that debates ethics and attitudes towards life by following the story of three brothers and the mysterious death of their father. In the book, each brother represents a different life philosophy. Dmitry, the eldest brother, is a sensualist. He is hot-blooded, pleasure-seeking and short-sighted yet has a childlike belief in the truth. Ivan, the second eldest, is the cynic. He is the studious sort who believes in nothing and debates everything; everything has a rational answer. The youngest brother is Aloysha, who is pure-of-heart. Aloysha places more emphasis on relationships and understanding how people relate to one another. Aloysha is compassionate, observant and full of feeling.
As I was concluding book two of The Brothers Karamazov, in which Dmitry goes mad and has one last night of excessive revellery before being handcuffed and jailed for the murder of his father, I was inspired to write a poem. Here is a poem written from the perspective of Dmitry.
Where am I going?
All the way to hell!
Money. I need it. One last desperate plan.
In a cold sweat
I’ve got a proposition for you!
I feel my desperation turning to
depression. This plan is not going to work.
Am I drunk? He responded,
“You’re worse than drunk!”
Fragmented thoughts coalesced
“Landlord, gimme more bottles
Everyone’s having a drink!”
bubbles and cards,
double or nothing;
I feel my heart ecstatic.
The bleak morning light arrives,
and I’m revealed a scoundrel.
An interrogation, handcuffs, and
I leave with a heavy heart.
Don’t critique my poem too harshly, as it was only a first attempt! I admit that my poem lacks many of the key literary devices, such as alliteration, which should form part of any poets toolkit. However the activity got my creative juices flowing and I have most decidedly concluded that whilst the meaning of life might be different for everyone, an important part of enjoying life must be indulging the senses. So in that case, bring on more poetry!