POETRY: IMAGE, SOUND, SENSE

I often mention the four approaches to verse:

1.  The subject (the writer)  treated subjectively (with the writer’s personal thoughts and opinions added);

Example (Emily Dickinson):

I died for beauty but was scarce
Adjusted in the tomb,
When one who died for truth was lain
In an adjoining room.

Even though Dickinson is talking about herself, she is doing so fancifully and abstractly (if she were dead, she would not be writing the poem), to make an “intellectual” point.  She (the subject) is writing about herself subjectively (from the mind rather than from the “external” world).

2.  The subject (the writer) treated objectively (without one’s personal thoughts and fancies and opinions added);

Example: excerpt from Qiu Wei (“Q” in modern Chinese transliteration is like “Ch” pronounced closer to the front of the mouth, so “Qiu” sounds somewhat like “Chyoo” and “Wei” like “Way”):

To your hermitage here atop the mountain
I have climbed, not stopping, these ten miles.
I have knocked on your door, but no one answered;
I have peeked at your room, at your seat beside the table.

Qiu Wei is talking objectively, without adding his fancies or abstract thoughts.

3.  The object (that which is written about) treated subjectively (with one’s personal thoughts and opinions added):
Example:  Stephen Moylan Bird:

Give me the hills, that echo silence back,
Save the harp-haunted pines’ wild minstrelsy,
And white peaks, lifting rapt Madonna gaze
To where God’s cloud-sheep roam the azure lea.

Bird is talking about hills and pines, but he is “smearing them over” with images and fancies from his imagination instead of just letting them be as they are.

4.  The object (that which is written about) treated objectively (without one’s personal thoughts and opinions added).

Example:  Charles L. O’Donnell:

From Killybegs to Ardara is seven Irish miles,
‘Tis there the blackbirds whistle and the mating cuckoos call,
Beyond the fields the green sea glints, above the heaven smiles
On all the white boreens that thread the glens of Donegal.

O’Donnell is presenting things without adding his own fancies and abstract thinking, with the exception of “above the heaven smiles,” which is a subjective way of saying the sky is clear, the sun shining.

The best hokku, as we know, treat the subject — the writer — objectively, without added thoughts and fancies, imagination and ornamentation.  And it treats the object — that which is written about — objectively as well.

Western poetry, by contrast, is often a mixture of objective and subjective.  In fact it seems that Western poets often introduce a subject objectively merely as an excuse to continue by treating it subjectively:

Example:  Mary Carolyn Davies:

Iron, left in the rain
And fog and dew,
With rust is covered. — Pain
Rusts into beauty too.
I know full well that this is so:
I had a heartbreak long ago.

And much Western poetry is simply intellection without a concrete thing-event as its subject:

Example:  Eunice Tietjens:

My heart has fed to-day.
My heart, like hind at play,
Has grazed in fields of love, and washed in streams
Of quick, imperishable dreams.

In addition to the four kinds of poetry just mentioned, we can further subdivide poems into first, those that are “musical,” that is, those using sound in combination with meaning for a great deal of their effect (they still fall into one of the four categories above, or often, in Western verse, a mixture of two of those categories); second, those that that rely on intellectual cleverness:

As an example of a musical verse, we have Robert Frost’s famous

Whose woods these are I think I know.
His house is in the village though;
He will not see me stopping here
To watch his woods fill up with snow
.

Frost mixes objectivity and musicality through the use of end rhyme and alliteration.

Sometimes the musicality of a verse can become so overwhelming that one may appreciate the music of a line even when the meaning may be difficult to grasp, which is often characteristic of the remarkable poems of Gerard Manley Hopkins:

I caught this morning morning’s minion, king-
dom of daylight’s dauphin, dapple-dawn-drawn Falcon, in his riding
Of the rolling level underneath him steady air, and striding
High there, how he rung upon the rein of a wimpling wing
In his ecstasy! then off, off forth on swing,
As a skate’s heel sweeps smooth on a bow-bend: the hurl and gliding
Rebuffed the big wind. My heart in hiding
Stirred for a bird,—the achieve of; the mastery of the thing!

One can appreciate the musicality of it even before the sense is clear.  So in poetry we can speak of a balance of sound and sense (meaning) or even of the predominance of sound (the musicality) over sense (meaning).   Everyone knows that certain sounds and combinations of sounds can be remarkably effective.  J. R. R. Tolkien knew that quite well, which is why he wrote that the words “cellar door” (pronounced with a British accent to sound like “selladoah”) have a great beauty of their own (compare the similar musical beauty of the American place name “Shenandoah”).

One must beware, however, of simplistic use of sound.  Many people think that musicality through end rhyme makes anything one writes a “poem.”  In fact, rhymed verse has long been the public concept of a poem.  But such “greeting card verse” is really poem only in name, not in poetic substance.

Then there is poetry that relies less on sound and more on meaning, on intellectuality, as in T. S. Eliot:

I do not know much about gods; but I think that the river
Is a strong brown god — sullen, untamed and intractable,
Patient to some degree, at first recognized as a frontier;
Useful, untrustworthy, as a conveyor of commerce;
Then only a problem confronting the builder of bridges.

Even Eliot cannot resist a bit of musicality however, as we see in the alliteration of “conveyor of commerce” and “builder of bridges.”

We may legitimately ask — given the Western tradition — whether poetry that puts meaning above sound can really be called poetry.  It can, if the images evoked are “poetic” enough in themselves.  However, the use of words simply to evoke images without coherent overall meaning often leads to poems that are simply a kind of mental regurgitation of whatever comes into one’s head.  This kind of “stream of consciousness” poetry is one of the great degeneracies in poetry of the latter half of the 20th and beginning of the 21st centuries.  It is a major reason why the general public has lost interest in poems by “poets.”

The other fault into which non-“sound” poems can fall is that of simply presenting prose with little or no poetic content as poetry by dividing it into lines, with perhaps some peculiarities of arrangement to make it “look” like a poem:

Like a heat pump
Heats
A home —
A heat pump
Water heater
uses
ELECTRICITY
To easily move
Heat
From one place
To another….

That, by the way, is simply a few lines in an advertisement that came with my last electric bill.  But all too often, modern poetry is simply this — prose disguised to make it LOOK like poetry when it is not.  This kind of thing has been rather common since the days of the “Beats” in the middle of the 20th century.  One finds a lot of it in the writings of Gary Snyder — prose arranged to make it look like poetry.  This is another development that has caused the general public to lose interest in poetry.

When we are writing, we should be aware of what kind of poetry we are writing, and of why we choose to write that way.  Knowing the four kinds of poetry, and knowing the effects of musicality and meaning — sound and sense — together or apart, helps us to better understand and evaluate not only our own verses, but also the poems of others, so that we may not be taken in by the hucksterism and pseudo-intellectual jargon and nonsense so remarkably prevalent in discussions about modern poets and modern poetry.

David


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