Poetry ranges in type from the simple and short to the
and long. Knowledge of the characteristics of the types serves
as an invaluable guide to the reader of poetry. To approach a
ballad as though it were an epic or an epic as though it were a
lyric is equivalent to expecting from a comedian the philosophic
profundity of Aristotle or from the writings of St. Augustine the
humor of a television comedy. The various types of poetry differ
not only in their characteristics, but in their intentions and in
the means by which the intentions are realized. Each must be
known for what it is, what it intends, what it does, and how it
What are the reasons for poetry, and what are some of its uses? A poet who recently was awarded the Nobel Prize has given a memorable answer. "Poetry," writes T. S. Eliot, "may make us see the world afresh, or some new part of it. It may make us from time to time a little more aware of the deeper, unnamed feelings to which we rarely penetrate."
It is these " deeper, unnamed feelings," common to us all, which the poet reveals. Discovering our hidden emotions, he becomes their interpreter. He gives our inarticulate sensations words - the right words - and thereby makes us atticulate. He takes a small detail and shows us its overwhelming truth. Calling our attention to things we neglect or fail to recognize, he makes us understand not only their nature but our own.
Poetry, then, is not something odd; it is not a special study," a thing set apart from ordinary individuals. On the contrary, it is a vital part of every man, the expression of his deepest emotions. It is not for the few. It is for everyone, in everyone. It might even be said that man inherited poetry from the universe. Before man was conscious of what was about him, even before he was evolved, the universe was full of rhythm. There was a rhythmic balance of light and darkness; day followed night with inevitable regularity. The sun sank, the moon climbed heaven, and all the stars revolved in rhythmical order. The tides rose and fell with a never-ending repetition. The seasons were set to a constant rhythm of four quarters; the earth turned in a rhythm of twenty-four hours and made a circle about the sun in a rhythm of three hundred and sixty-five days. When prehistoric man came upon the scene, he responded to the sway of a universal pendulum. All the rhythms- of creation were repeated within him: the beat of his heart, the rise and fall of his breath, the alternation of his waking and sleeping. Mothers echoed the eternal rhythm whenever they rocked a baby to sleep or crooned a wordless lullaby. Savage priests danced around campfires, putag ting their prayers into poetic chants, making in ic, and stamping their barbaric rhythms into rituals. Rhythm is the base of poetry. It is the heartbeat and the pulse in the lifeblood of our language. Our daily speech is full of rhythm. When speech becomes uplifted or exalted the rhythm becomes more pronounced, and,-as the rhythm is emphasized, the prosaic becomes poetic. Deeply emotional passages in the Bible, parts of certain novels like Melville's "Moby Dick," and Lincoln's Gettysburg Address are printed as prose, but they are so rhythmical that they are often classified as poetry. Poetry, therefore, may be said to be the rhythmical expression of man's highest thoughts and his deepest dreams.
Although it is plain that poetry fulfills a great human need, it is also true that some people have a prejudice against poetry, especially modern poetry. They claim that it is obscure and difficult. They say that it is written on queer subjects by queer creatures, that poets are a lot of moon-struck dreamers, starry-eyed simpletons, and long-haired incompetents who are unconscious of the real world.
Prejudice and truth have little in common. It is worth looking at the truth about poetry if only to dispel the prejudice against it. There have been a few writers, painters, and composers who were strange and eccentric, just as there are strange and eccentric persons in every walk of life. But poetry has been written chiefly by men who were anything but weak or odd. The great poets have also been great persons. They did not try to escape from the workaday world and live isolated lives in some fanciful " ivory tower." Some of them were called upon to perform important missions, and practically all of them were vigorously engaged in the world's work. Chaucer, " the father of English poetry," was an ambassador, but he kept company with millers and peasants as well as knights and priests. Philip Sidney was a gallant soldier. Walter Raleigh was an explorer, a statesman, and a warrior. Shakespeare was an actor and manager of a theatrical troupe, besides being a small-town boy who became the world's greatest poet-playwright. John Milton, champion of the rights of the free man, acted as England's secretary of foreign affairs. The Elizabethan Ben Jonson was a bricklayer. Robert Herrick, author of exquisite lyrics, was a goldsmith. Robert Burns was a farmer.
These men meditated in the midst of action, as have poets in later days. John Keats is sometimes thought of as a fragile spirit; but, before he succumbed to tuberculosis, he was an athlete, a skilled cricket-player, a boxcr, and an all-round good fighter. Emerson is pictured as a preaching philosopher, but he was a rugged citizen of the outdoors and still went swimming in Walden Pond at the age of seventy-eight. Whittier, another famous New England poet, started life as a chore-boy, cobbled shoes, and grew up to be one of the country's most courageous foes of slavery. Besides being the poet of democracy, Whitman was a carpenter, teacher, and active journalist. Tennyson wrote dainty lyrics, but he could bend horse-shoes and throw a crowbar farther than any man in his village. "The great poets," wrote T. W. H. Crosland, "are not only the sanest people in the world, but physically and temperamentally the toughest."
This is equally true of the poets of our own times. Far from being frail in body and precious in thought, John Masefield, poet laureate of England, spent his youth before the mast, sailed the seven seas and, during his stay in America, earned his living in a carpet factory in Yonkers. Edwin Arlington Robinson worked in the New York subway. Robert Frost was a bobbin-boy in the mills of Massachusetts before he became a farmer and teacher in Vermont and New Hampshire. Carl Sandburg drove a milk-wagon, was a harvest hand, dish-washer, truck-handler, handyman, and enlisted as a soldier during the Spanish-American War. Vachel Lindsay pitched hay and tramped across the country, spreading his "gospel of beauty " and trading rhymes for bread. Rupert Brooke and Joyce Kilmer were two of the many soldierpoets who died for their countries. Langston Hughes was a hotel busboy. Merrill Moore left doctoring in Boston to risk his life in China during World War II, and Karl Shapiro wrote much of his best poetry while serving on an island in the South Pacific.
These poets are close to us. They tell about ordinary things: an old wall, a few wildflowers, coal mines, skyscrapers, factories, trees, journeys, homesick blues. They celebrate simple people. One of the great poems of our times is Robert Frost's conversational "The Death of the Hired Man" the most striking section in Carl Sandburg's The People, Yes is the part entitled "Yarns of the People", which is a summary of proverbs, superstitions, country wisdom, tall tales, and folk-sayings. The poets make readers see ordinary things in a sharper focus and feel them with a greater understanding.
There is an unsuspected wealth of beauty in daily speech; we make our language more vivid by using swift poetic phrases. We aren't satisfied to say that a thing is merely "fast"; it achieves increased speed when we say- it is "fast as lightning." To make it still more colorful we used a poetic device called hyperbole (which means exaggeration) by saying it is as fast "as greased lightning! "Contrariwise, an old horse isn't just "slow." It is (to use another comparison or simile) as "slow as molasses" or, to make it still sfower, "as molasses in January." The power of simple poetic comparison is shown in such well-known phrases as "plain as a turnip,"sharp as a knife," "clever as a fox," "hungry as a bear," "scarce as hens' teeth," "cute as a kitten," "busy as a bee." We say these things without being aware that we are using the same devices of speech as the poet.
Even slang has its roots in poetry. Slang, sometimes called the shorthand of the people," intensifies languauge when we speak of "crashing" a party, or "muscling" in. To be "burned up" is a more fiery as well as a more poetic wav of saying "incensed." "I'll tell the world!" is certainly more dramatic than "divulge" or "publicize."
The common man's poetic instinct is strikingly illustrated by the popular names given to wildflowers. In every instance the country name is more charming, and more accurately descriptive, than the technical name. A certain plant is known to the botanist as Arisaema triphyllum; but the ordinary nature-lover recognizes it as a "Jack-in-the-Pulpit," a name which is imaginative and poetically humorous. Instead of the botanical Digitalis, we prefer the whimsical "Foxglove." We say "Monkshood" (which is what the flower looks like) instead of Aconite. We are being unconsciously poetic when we refer casually to such wayside weeds as "Dandelions" (originally "Dent de Lion" or "Lion's Tooth"), "Baby's Breath," "Butter-and-Eggs," "Deadly Nightshade," "Aster (meaning "a star"), "Heal-All," "Solomon's Seal" "Jewelweed," "Thimbleweed," "Black-eyed Susan," etc. The common daisy is like a diminutive sun with its golden center and outspreading rays; it was called, like the sun, the "Eye of Day" or "Day's Eye," hence "daisy."
Like the character in Molière's play who was delighted to find that he had been talking prose all his life, we are continually using poetry for emphasis or for color, even when we are unconscious of it. We are all part-time poets whether we realize it or not.
A good poem creates excitement; the beat of rhythm and the leap of rhyme keep the reader in a state of animation. In all ages men have been moved by lively songs and roused by dramatic poems. Long before poetry was actually written or printed, the ancient bards sang their tales, celebrating heroic battles and glorifying gallant deeds in verse. Poems which tell stories are popular because so often they reach down into the heart of the folk; like folk-tales, they originate among the people. The old tales in verse were made for crowds in market places; they were sung in taverns, and repeated on street corners. The ancient singers put the history of their time into galloping measures and ringing rhymes; they embroidered legends with highly colored figures and turned the news of the day into literature.
It is said that one obstacle to the appreciation of poetry is that the great many different kinds of poetry make it almost impossible to define it. Although poetry may be indefinable, it is unmistakable. Nevertheless it is natural to want an interpretation, if not a definition, which will explain the peculiar power and appeal of poetry.
The poets themselves have tried to describe some of the ways poetry differs from prose. "Prose," declared Samuel Taylor, "consists of words in their best order. Poetry consists of the best words in the best order." Matthew Arnold put the same idea somewhat differently: "Poetry is simply the most beautiful, the most impressive, and the most effective mode of saying things." "Poetry is the record of the best and happiest moments of the best minds," wrote Percy Bysshe Shelley; "a poem is the very image of life expressed in its eternal truth." Edgar Allan Poe considered poetry "the rhymical creation of beauty." Robert Frost says that a living poem is "a reaching out toward expression, an effort to find fulfilment. A complete poem is one where an emotion has found its thought and the thought has found the words." Recognizing that it is a combination of romantic beauty and everyday realism Carl Sandburg writes: "Poetry is a synthesis of hyacinths and biscuits."
It is obvious that interpretations differ; there is no final all-inclusive definition of poetry. Technically, it might be summarized this way: Poetry is a rhythmical pattern of words expressing deeply felt emotion and/or experience and/or imagination. The greater the combination of emotion, experience, and imagination, the greater the poem.
A poem is created when the poet composes it; it is re-created each time it is read with understanding. Before we can appreciate a poem, we must know how to read it. And as we read it, we must be aware of certain values. It will not be difficult if we remember five things about poetry.
With these five observations about poetry in mind, link to Edna St. Vincent Millay's "Renascence," one of the most imaginative and widely read of modern poems. The poem begins with easy grace yet with concentrated power. Casually, in the tones of ordinary speech, in the simplest possible rhythm, the poet establishes the scene and its background. The reader sees the details of the Maine coast in the opening lines:
Was three long mountains and a wood;
I turned and looked another way,
And saw three islands in a bay.
Of the horizon, thin and fine,
Straight around till I was come
Back to where I'd started from;
And all I saw from where I stood
Was three long mountains and a wood.
And present, and forevermore.
The universe, cleft to the core,
Lay open to my probing sense.
Of every brooded wrong, the hate
That stood behind each envious thrust;
Mine every greed, mine every lust.
I felt the rain's-cool finger-tips ...
Brushed tendcrly across my lips ...
And all at once the heavy night
Fell from my eyes and I could see -
Can e'er hereafter hide from me
Thy radiant identity!
Thou canst not move across the grass
But my quick eyes will see Thee pass,
Nor speak, however silently,
But my hushed voice will answer Thee . . .
God, I can push the grass apart
And lay my finger on Thy heart!
Another poem in which the different effects and poetic devices increase the reader's enjoyment is G. K. Chesterton's "Lepanto." This is the famous Mediterranean naval battle which took place on October 7, 157I, when the Allied Christian powers broke the domination of the Turks The conflict has-additional historical importance because it was the last great encounter between fleets of galleys and also because it was the last of the Crusades. The poem ends with a brief glimpse of Cervantes, author of Don Quixote, who fought in the battle and smiled ("but not as Sultans smile") at the outcome. The contrasts in sight and sound are immediately established as the poem begins:
The gathering of the aroused Christians is indicated in the subdued but pronounced alliteration of:
It increases with the stronger alliterative accents of:
Stiff flags straining in the night-blasts cold,
In the gloom black-purple, in the glint old-gold
Then the rockets, then the trumpets, then the cannon, and he comes.
Further appreciation may be attained by comparing such a poem, in which sound effects are of primary importance, with Vachel Lindsay's "The Congo," John Masefield's "Rounding the Horn," and Harold Monro's "Every Thing." In each, the words project the idea and the emotion with a force and clarity which any sympathetic reader can understand. Such understanding will increase with each reading and enlarge one's receptiveness to the enjoyment of poetry.
Poetry is not, as some suppose, the poet talking to himself exclusively or using a special language to impress a few other poets. It is an act of sharing. The poet hopes to interest all of us; he uses certain devices and forms of poetry in order to make the communication more intense and more memorable to the reader. If we comprehend the poet's intent and grasp his meaning, the sharing of his ideas and emotions makes the poet's world our world.
Essentially the poet's world is our world - a world enlarged by the imagination and enriched with beauty. It is there for us to enjoy by the simple process of reading - reading creatively. In one of his rare and profoundly serious moments, the author of Life With Father, Clarence Day, Jr., wrote this wonder fully condensed essay about reading: "The world of books is the most remarkable creation of man. Nothing else that he builds ever lasts. Monuments fall, nations perish, civilizations grow old and die out; and, after an era of darkness, new races build others. But in the world of books are volumes that have seen this happen again and again, and yet live on, still young, still as fresh as the day they were written, still telling men's hearts of the hearts of men centuries dead."
In the vast world of books it is poetry, more than any other kind of writing, which lives on "still young, still as fresh as the day it was written still packed with the power of life, telling men's hearts of the hearts of men centuries dead." There is no more powerful and no nobler form of speech.