'Bread in the pockets of the hungry' or what’s so special about poetry?
By Vanessa Kirkpatrick
One of the most common questions I am asked when I say that I write poetry is ‘what is poetry?’ Often people will comment that they do not understand contemporary poetry, or that they were put off by studying poetry at school.
The word ‘poetry’ comes from a Greek verb poein meaning to make, build, create or compose. Poetry began as song, and emerged in our culture from the need to remember things – to transfer information about history and culture between generations through the spoken word. Poetry therefore leaned heavily on the devices that would assist memorisation. The Old English epic, Beowulf, for example was composed in alliterative verse – that is alliteration, or the repetition of the initial sound of a word – was the main device used to indicate the rhythmical structure of the composition.
When we changed from an oral to a literate culture and started to transcribe words onto the page, poetry for a long time was still metrical – that is, it maintained patterns of rhythm and rhyme. For many centuries, poets wrote sonnets, villanelles, pantoums or invented their own patterns of metrical verse. The form, therefore, dictated, to a certain extent, the content of the poem.
Since the modernist poets of the early twentieth century decided to break away from metrical verse, and to ‘make it new’ – in whatever form that might take – poetry has been written in a more organic way – that is, the content has dictated the form, rather than the other way around. And although a lot of many accomplished poets such as Carol Ann Duffy and Seamus Heaney still embrace forms, those same poets tend to write in a way that is close to the rhythms of natural speech – so that there seems to be very little artifice in their sonnets, the words flow and the rhyme is present but is not made obvious or foregrounded.
The earliest poet in English is said to be Caedmon. According to Bede’s History of the English Church and People, Caedmon was an illiterate herdsman who was working in the monastery at Whitby when, as the legend goes, he had a dream calling him to sing of the greatness of creation. He was accepted by the monks as a lay brother and went on to found a school of Christian poetry.
The American poet, Denise Levertov, writes about this story in her poem, Caedmon, in which she explores the transition towards being a poet:
All others talked as if
talk were a dance.
Clodhopper I, with clumsy feet
would break the gliding ring.
Early I learned to
close by the door:
then when the talk began
I’d wipe my
mouth and wend
unnoticed back to the barn
to be with the warm beasts,
dumb among body sounds
of the simple ones.
I’d see by a twist
of lit rush the motes
of gold moving
from shadow to shadow
slow in the wake
of deep untroubled sighs.
munched or stirred or were still. I
was at home and lonely,
both in good measure. Until
the sudden angel affrighted me—light effacing
my feeble beam,
a forest of torches, feathers of flame, sparks upflying:
but the cows as before
were calm, and nothing was burning,
nothing but I, as that hand of fire
touched my lips and scorched my tongue
and pulled my voice
into the ring of the dance.
Being a poet, of course, starts with being a listener – and you can interpret that broadly also as being an observer. While Caedmon is initially shut out of the dance of ‘talk’ – being a clodhopper with clumsy feet – he hunched himself close by the door.
When I first fell in love with poetry, I fell in love with the sounds of the words before I understood their meaning. I would read the poetry of Keats, enveloped in the rhythms and sounds – loving the musicality of it all before I had the emotional maturity to fully comprehend the meanings of the poems.
Like Caedmon, I was drawn also to the simple life of the natural world – the world of the body – the rhythms and sounds of the ‘warm beasts’ and to the beautiful details of life – the dust motes hanging on a beam of light.
It is through listening and watching that we learn – it is through feeling the world through our senses – and through imitating the things that we admire and feel drawn to.
Seamus Heaney comments on this initial process of learning through imitation in his essay, Feeling into Words. He writes:
How … do you find your poetic voice? In practice, you hear it coming from somebody else, you hear something in another writer’s sounds that flows in through your ear and enters the echo-chamber of your head and delights your whole nervous system in such a way that your reaction will be, ‘Ah, I wish I had said that, in that particular way.’ This other writer, in fact, has spoken something essential to you, something you recognize instinctively as a true sounding of aspects of yourself and your experience. And your first steps as a writer will be to imitate, consciously or unconsciously, those sounds that flowed in, that in-fluence.’
So, the first step of being a poet is to read as much as possible – to listen to poetry, and to observe what is around you.
The moment when you feel that you can accurately express your own experience and imagination in words – that moment indicates that you have found your own poetic voice – no longer a clodhopper, you have been drawn ‘into the ring of the dance’.
A poem can be a book-length narrative in verse, or it can be a simple observation in a few short lines. And while contemporary poems most often do not observe the rules of metrical verse, poems draw the reader or listener’s attention towards their musicality – they aim for a coherence between sound and sense.
While a poem needs its own interior logic, it does not belong to the world of linearity and rationality, of chronological time or of complete sentences. It is free to move between the past, present and future, to use metaphor to make sudden and illuminating leaps of thought – and in doing so, poetry can be one of the most powerful expressions of our inner worlds, of our emotions, of our thoughts and feelings about what it means to be human, right now, in this world.
Sylvia Plath wrote, “The blood jet is poetry/There is no stopping it.” In a similarly intense way, Rilke claimed that a true poet needed to write in order to live. While I disagree with Rilke that a person is only a poet if they need to write in order to survive, for me, reading and writing poetry is one of the things that makes me feel most alive. It is a form of concentration, of focus and meditation, of paying attention.
It is this intensity of observation – as William Blake wrote “to see the world in a grain of sand” – that is one of the features of poetry. And it is the power of detail that links poetry into the wider picture of life and what gives life meaning. And so we can compose a long and sweeping narrative, or choose to write about “the motes/of gold moving/from shadow to shadow”. And what better thing to write about than dust motes suspended in a shaft of light – for it is an apt metaphor for the brevity and fragility of our own lives – and it is that brevity that imbues our lives with meaning.
It is poetry that is read at weddings, at funerals, that people write when they fall in love. It is poetry that people reach for when other words seem inadequate to express life’s most intense experiences.
And poetry, finally, is a form of nourishment. As Mary Oliver, the American poet who died in January this year, wrote: “Poetry is a life-cherishing force. For poems are not words, after all, but fires for the cold, ropes let down to the lost, something as necessary as bread in the pockets of the hungry.”