Demystifying Poetry

Art work credit: Sandeep

Why poetry

I too dislike it: there are things that are important beyond all this fiddle.
Reading it, however,
with a perfect contemp for it,
one discovers in it after all,
a place for the genuine.
Hands that can grasp, eyes
that can dilate, hair that can rise…..

This is an extract from a poem on Poetry by Marianne Moore. She begins with the disclaimer ‘I too dislike it’. Her aim is to take the readers into confidence at the outset. And then to tell them how one gets something genuine in poetry, how reading a poem can be exciting and joyful.

This ‘genuine’ that Moore refers to is the truth of life a poet seeks to express in a poem. The poet is the articulate and the reader is the inarticulate part of that process. However the joy factor is not less important than the ‘genuine’ in Poetry.

Moore knew that poetry is difficult to understand. It is concentrated, full of associations and images. It is also subject to interpretations. Still she encourages the readers to enter the difficult terrain of poetry. She assures them that despite the difficulties, reading poetry can be rewarding. The complete poem is available here.

Why to evaluate

One should begin reading poetry for enjoyment, and not for evaluation. Acquiring the tools of evaluation at the initial stage is like putting the cart before the horse. But it is also true that the process of evaluation begins with the choice of our first poem. Otherwise we wouldn’t say that we like this poem more than that. Or X poet is my favourite. Our choices also change with age. In childhood we like nursery rhymes more but as we grow older we prefer poems with deeper meanings. 

It is true that too much analysis could lead to a loss of enjoyment. But some knowledge about the important aspects of poetry can surely help us understand and enjoy it better. A good way to acquire the knowledge and a critical sense would be to read poetry for enjoyment and to reflect while one reads. One can pick up the tools for evaluation as one delves deeper.

Content & Form

What is the poet trying to convey and how does he do that? These are the two questions that can reveal the two important aspects of Poetry: Content and Form. Content refers to the world view or the theme of a poem. And its types are as many as the variety of life itself. Still content of poetry can broadly be classified into themes like Doubt & Faith, Life & Death, Love, Grief, Nature, Society etc. Form is the outer appearance of the poem that includes rhythm, rhyme, poetic devices, structure, length etc. 

 In an essay on The Criticism of Poetry, James Reeves says ‘content determines form and form modifies content’. According to him both are inseparable in a poem. While composing a poem a poet doesn’t work on the content first and then on the form or vice versa. Both happen simultaneously. Reeves cites the example of Alexander Pope, the most celebrated poet of the 18th century, to reveal how the rigidity of form puts restrictions on the content of Pope’s poetry. Heroic Couplet was Pope’s favourite and probably it was required for the content that he sought to create. He was ‘laying down the laws of thought and conduct in the polite society of his time. In one of his well known poems, An Essay on Criticism, Pope uses the following Heroic couplet to express:

Good nature and good sense must ever join;
To err is human, to forgive, divine.

Fifty years after Pope’s death Wordsworth and Coleridge set new norms for a new age called Romantic Age of English Poetry. This was also the period of French Revolution when all over Europe the ideas of Freedom and Equality were taking shape. Wordsworth and Coleridge collaborated to produce a manifesto for this new school of Poetry through their book of poems called Lyrical Ballads. Their range of content had widened and also the range of their form. James Reeves says, ‘The novel ideas which he (Wordsworth) had to express in his poems could not be expressed in stereotyped forms. Nature was an integral part of Wordsworth’s poetry. The following lines have been taken from his two different poems:

Come forth into the light of things,
Let Nature be your teacher.
The Tables Turned

I listened, motionless and still;
And, as I mounted up the hill,
The music in my heart I bore,
Long after it was heard no more.
The Solitary Reaper

Great poets are known for the experiments they make both with content and form. One of the leading American poets of twentieth century, E E Cummings, is known for several experiments in Poetry. An extract from his poem, [as freedom is a breakfastfood], below reveals how he did away with punctuation marks in his poems:

as freedom is a breakfastfood
or truth can live with right and wrong
or molehills are from mountains made
— long enough and just so long
will being pay the rent of seem
and genius please the talentgang
and water most encourage flame

Cummings is known also for many of his shape poems.

In modern Hindi poetry Suryakant Tripathy Nirala is well-known for his experiments. His poems, भिक्षुक or तोड़ती पत्थर are pathbreaking both in terms of content and form. He must be the first to have chosen a beggar or a woman worker as the subject of his beautiful poems, creating a new convention of using the deprived section of the society as the theme of his poems. He was also the pioneer of free verse in Hindi poetry. 

वह आता–

दो टूक कलेजे को करता, पछताता

पथ पर आता।


वह तोड़ती पत्थर

देखा मैंने उसे इलाहाबाद के पथ पर

          वह तोड़ती पत्थर

Nirala is followed by several other contemporary poets like Muktibodh, Nagarjun, Kedarnath Singh, Alok Dhanwa in Hindi poetry who broke the existing boundaries of content and form. 

Poetry & civilization

A civilization is measured by the greatness of the poets associated with that. Elizabethan period in England, the periods of Guptas, Harsha, Akbar in India or Tang dynasty in China are known for the poets and other artists who were active during those times. Poetry used to be an essential part of social life during Tang dynasty. In order to be eligible for their civil services exams it was necessary for the candidates to be the masters of Poetry.

Great poems are those that stand the test of time. People don’t get tired of reading them even after hundreds or thousands of years. The poems of Kalidasa, Tulsidas, Kabir, Rahim, Subramaniam Bharti in Indian literature or those of Homer, Virgil, Chaucer or Shakespeare in European literatures and several others in Chinese, Japanese, Persian, Arabic have entertained and inspired the mankind for years together. They will continue to do so in the years to come.

Poets are gods

A contemporary Indian poet, Ashok Bajpei, says in a recent interview that poets are gods. Their work is to create works of art for posterity. God is known to be the greatest Creator. Bajpei says that through this process of creation the poets become one with god. One can certainly perceive a tone of arrogance in his statement.

But a similar sentiment can be observed in the following lines of a Shakespearean sonnet:

Not marble nor gilded monuments
Of princes shall outlive this powerful rhyme
Sonnet no 55

The sonnet is available here.

Shakespeare composed this sonnet to immortalise his love for a friend. He says that war, death, or time can destroy the magnificent monuments built in the memory of princes, kings but nothing can erase the words that I create to celebrate my love. They will remain forever. He was so prophetic. Even after five hundred years, I and a large number of English teachers were teaching this poem in CBSE schools until recently, thousands of kilometers away from the place of Shakespeare’s birth.

A stanza from Longfellow’s A Psalm of Life is also relevant in this context:

Lives of great men all remind us
We can make our lives sublime,
And, departing, leave behind us
Footprints on the sands of time

You can read the complete poem here:

Great poets do leave their footprints on the sands of time. The average ones just wither away.

©arunjee, 23.11.20

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