“Blasts from the Past” is a collection of re-published articles dating from wa-a-a-y back to the time when I was publishing sf fanzines (1970s), through to some more recent articles published on (and about) the early days of the web (1990s).
The Pleasures of Poetry
(First published in February 1996)
The trouble with a lot of high school courses, I suspect, is that rather than leading you down to the pool and inviting you to drink, they drag you down screaming and try to push you in, leading to a life-long aversion to water.
At least that seems to have been the way it was when I went to school, thirty years or so ago. But I’m not confident that things have changed since.
Among the subjects that seem to have been spoiled in this way for people are most of mathematics and literature. Being forced to digest either algebra or Dickens before you have acquired a taste for them is probably the main reason that most adults appear to suffer indigestion at the very mention of either.
In particular, I fear that many people have their taste for poetry spoilt by their experiences at school. Few adults, I imagine, nowadays read or re-read poetry for pleasure. If you have any books of poetry in your house, the odds are that they are the remnants of your school or university education rather than the result of a deliberate purchase.
I have to confess that this certainly applies to me, but on the other hand every few years or so I seem to re-discover the pleasures of poetry, and I start picking up my old school volumes and begin to dip here and there, rediscovering my old favourites and from time to time discovering new ones.
What exactly is ‘poetry’? It’s a curious word, suggesting that it can only be defined as the result of what poets do – as though all furniture could only be defined as ‘carpentry’ – that is, the result of what a carpenter does.
Poetry often but not always involves some kind of rhyme – an odd convention when you think about it. And poetry often uses rhythm, with or without rhyme. But neither of these is essential to what makes something poetry. Is the following a poem? I think it is, yet it has neither rhythm nor rhyme:
You say grace before meals.
But I say grace before the play and the opera,
And grace before the concert and the pantomime,
And grace before I open a book,
And grace before sketching, painting,
Swimming, fencing, boxing, walking, playing, dancing;
And grace before I dip the pen in the ink.
What seems to be constant, at least in the best poetry, is a heightened, almost ceremonial use of language, a precise care about how every word should sound.
More than anything poetry expresses a profound emotion, or tries to call up some deep feeling from us:
Ah, love, let us be true
To one another! for the world, which seems
To lie before us like a land of dreams,
So various, so beautiful, so new,
Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light,
Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain;
And we are here as on a darkling plain
Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,
Where ignorant armies clash by night.
This is in danger of starting to sound like one of those English Lit classes that destroy so many people’s love of literature! That is the opposite of my intention. What I want to show you here is why some poetry appeals to me and why I am drawn back to it. Poetry which works for me calls forth some profound sympathetic feeling, as when Yeats writes out for us the city dweller’s yearning to escape to a simpler life:
…for always night and day
I hear lake water lapping with low sounds by the shore;
While I stand on the roadway, or on the pavements grey,
I hear it in the deep heart’s core.
“I hear it in the deep heart’s core”. That is a phrase that strikes for me a resounding chord. To analyse why that phrase works, as one would do in school, would be to destroy it.
I have a poor memory for recalling whole poems. It is individual verses or phrases of great power and beauty that stay in my mind:
But at my back I always hear
Times winged chariot hurrying near.
And yonder all before us lie
Deserts of vast eternity.
How well that expresses the urgency of time, as Marvell urges his coy mistress not to waste it, in what must surely be the most famous of all come-ons in literature.
Or, another example in the same vein, the wry humour as Shakespeare debunks the overblown romantic nonsense of some poetic lovers:
My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun;
Coral is far more red than her lips’ red;
If snow be white, why then her breasts are dun;
…I grant I never saw a goddess go,
My mistress, when she walks, treads on the ground:
And yet, by heaven, I think my love as rare
As any she belied with false compare.
Or poetry can inspire in us a sense of magic and mystery:
Go and catch a falling star,
Get with child a mandrake root,
Tell me where all past hours are,
Or who cleft the Devil’s foot…
It can range from humorous playing with words and ideas…
O who shall from this dungeon raise
A soul enslaved so many ways?
With bolts of bones, that fettered stands
In Feet, and manacled in Hands…
…to the tragedy of modern times:
…Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
the ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity….
The subject of love poetry is a large one, but this poem is dear to my heart (it formed part of our wedding ceremony):
If questioning could make us wise,
No eyes would ever gaze in eyes.
If all our tale were told in speech
no mouths would wander each to each…
And then there’s poetry which one loves just because of the wonderful sound of it:
In Xanadu did Kublai Khan
A stately pleasure-dome decree
Where Alph the sacred river ran
Through caverns measureless to Man
Down to a sunless sea.
A great deal of the pleasure I find in reading poetry is re-discovering the context of magical fragments like these.
There is a delight in the sound and texture of this language on one’s tongue, and an upwelling of feeling that, for me, makes poetry well worth returning to again and again:
…I hear it in the deep heart’s core.
(1) G.K.Chesterton, untitled poem
(2) Matthew Arnold, “Dover Beach”
(3) W.B.Yeats, “The Lake Isle of Innisfree”
(4) Andrew Marvell, “To His Coy Mistress”
(5) W.Shakespeare, Sonnets CXXX
(6) John Donne, “Song”
(7) Andrew Marvell, “A Dialog Between Body and Soul”
(8) W.B.Yeats, “The Second Coming”
(9) Christopher Brennan, “Because She Would Ask Me Why I Love Her”
(10) S.T.Coleridge, “Kublai Khan”
(It may be objected, and with justice, that these examples are all drawn from the now fashionably-discredited white male-dominated Anglo-Saxon culture. That’s true. But while I have no objection to others celebrating their culture in their own way, the fact is that I am a white Anglo-Saxon male – this is my culture, and I see nothing wrong with celebrating it and, indeed, rejoicing in it.)