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WHAT IS POETRY

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By Juan Tomas

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The Montréal Review, December 2012

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Portrait of six Tuscan poets (1544) by Giorgio Vasari (Minneapolis Institute of Arts)

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To consider a question such as what is poetry, is tantamount to asking what art is, or what is music. Depending upon what period in man's linear history, and in which culture we examine, the answer might be as varied as the nuances of a sun setting, or the shape of waves rolling in over a beach. If we examine any poem from the past, we will inevitably impose upon it our own twenty-first century interpretation, which might not coincide with the original contemporary view of its origin. Inspite of these obstacles, this essay examines poetic language and why it has been interpreted as an expression of some higher truth. With that in mind, this essay will demonstrate, through one specific poem, that poetry uses language to express the emotion of the human soul. It is therefore a window to the essence of its author, and of mankind's collective soul.

If it can be said that poetry is a window to the essence of its author, then it is only proper that an examination be made of what constitutes a poet. Percy Bysshe Shelly makes a suggestion regarding that question in his remarks for an essay entitled, The Four Ages of Poetry from the opus A Defense of Poetry. Shelly writes that "In the infancy of society every author is necessarily a poet, because language itself is poetry; and to be a poet is to apprehend the true and the beautiful, in a word the good which in the relation, subsisting perception and expression."(348) We know that language is the medium, or the means by which a poet expresses poetry, however, we might also ask why poetry and not prose is so appealing. Do the elements of rhythm and rhyme found in poetry give it some magical credibility, some appealing attraction? Do we believe a pronouncement made in rhyme over simple prose?

Prose and poetry may use literary devices such as allegory, metaphor, satire and comparative analogies, to describe, create allusions, teach lessons, reveal inner deep truths, or to entertain. However poetry has some elements which set it apart: repetition of sounds through rhyme, and metrical rhythm similar to that which we find in music. To support this, consider that aficionados of popular songs will often quote a familiar phrase to support a prophetic life lesson. For example, Pete Seeger's repeated metaphorical verse "where have all the flowers gone", which is the fatalistic answer to "where have all the husbands gone", making the poignant case that war is a senseless repeated cycle of human tragedy. This anti war-poem-folksong makes its didactic lesson poignantly, not just because of the text of the lyric, but additionally through the repetition of words, the association with flowers and life and cadential rhythmic repetition. Thus poetry becomes a universal expression of its essence; the expression of man's soul.

Repetition is also an important element of language acquisition. According to Elizabeth Coelhl, 2004, in her Guide to Teaching in Multicultural Classrooms, she writes that "Repetition of a grammatical structure in a meaningful context helps learners recognize and understand the pattern. Songs, chants, games and children's books often feature repetitive patterns."(87) For this reason, effective speeches sometimes use repetitive literary devices, i.e. floating opposites such as JFK's famous line "Ask not what your country can do for you...ask what you can do for your country." Moreover, Winston Churchill's wartime speech regarding fighting on the beaches , at sea and in the air, effectively used rhetoric poetically as propaganda. From this we may conclude that when language is used intelligently with a repetitive cadence, or repeated sounds, it is likely to have a ring of truth about it.

Rhymes are easy to remember. After all, as children, some of the first things we memorize are set to verse. In relation to this, mnemonics is a term used to describe "a system such as a pattern of letters, ideas, or associations which assists in remembering something." As many nursery rhymes are learned at home and passed on from generation to generation, the association between mnemonics found in memorized verses bearing truthful lessons becomes part of Western culture. Is it therefore possible that poetry takes on an assumed truth because of our learned relationship between rhythm, rhyme, and nursery rhymes? Some obvious examples of early childhood acceptance of rhyme having a didactic truth comes from the alphabet song, and the lyrics to such nursery rhymes as "Jack and Jill went up the hill to fetch a pail of water, Jack fell down and broke his crown, And Jill came tumbling after." Thus as we learn truths through verse during childhood, poetry becomes seemingly more credible.

Shelly expresses very well the difference between story telling and poetry, and an eternal truth. There is something in the creation of the opus, which gives it a connection with Devine creation because it comes from the mind of man, whom God created in His image. "A poem is the very image of life expressed in its eternal truth. There is this difference between a story and a poem, that a story is a catalogue of detached facts, which have no other bond of connection than time, place, circumstance, cause and effect; the other is the creation of actions according to the unchangeable forms of human nature, as existing in the mind of the creator."(Shelly, 349) This is not saying that prose is never part of Devine creation, for if it also comes from the mind of man, then certainly it is equal in this respect to poetry. However, unlike prose, there is an element of emotion.that nuance of soul which may be found in well crafted poetry.

There is another aspect of poetry and its connection to man's soul; the Biblical ties it has to prophecy and the Old Testament of the Hebrew Bible. "Modern scholarship and archaeology allow us insights into ancient life, and by comparing the cultures and languages of other kingdoms of the period we can conceive of the Bible's authors as professional poets from the educated classes, schooled in languages and world-literature-and not predominantly religious in outlook."(Rosenberg , xii ) Not surprisingly, poet-song writers such as Bob Dylan were considered as prophets of their time, and during the sixties, many people looked to the lyrics of bands such as the Beatles for meaning in their lives. The poem which this essay will incorporate to exemplify the thesis that poetry is a window to the essence of its author, and of mankind's collective soul, is one that every Canadian school teaches as curriculum at some point. It is the inspiration for why proud Canadians wear a red poppy close to November 11th.We know it as our hour of remembrance for the fallen, particularly in WWI and WWII. Not written by a learned poet, nor a man of particular poetic prowess, it was composed by an amateur poet and medical doctor working in a field hospital near Flanders Fields on the Western front during WWI. At the time it was written, the author thought little of it, and upon finishing it he simply handed it to the mail man . The poet did not survive the war, and it was only by a stroke of luck that the poem ever got published at all. It expresses the essence of man's soul and his connection with what it means to be human. The name of the poem is In Flanders Fields.

An examination of the text will be used to illustrate how it expresses the essence of the poet's soul. It reads as follows:

In Flanders Fields the poppies blow  
Between the crosses row on row,  
That mark our place; and in the sky  
The larks, still bravely singing, fly  
Scarce heard amid the guns below.

We are the Dead. Short days ago  
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,  
Loved and were loved, and now we lie  
In Flanders fields.

Take up our quarrel with the foe:  
To you from failing hands we throw  
The torch; be yours to hold it high.  
If ye break faith with us who die  
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow  
In Flanders fields.

Although this poem mentions graveyards melancholically, between the crosses row on row, and could therefore be considered as post - graveyard poetry, what sets itself apart from the genre, (i.e.) Grays' Elegy, is that its author speaks of himself as one of the dead rather than a living observer.

To be clearer, let us examine the line We are the Dead. Short days ago, which implies that the poet is himself writing from the grave. This is cryptically ironic because Lieutenant Colonel John McCrae, MD, Canadian Army, died in 1918, just before the war ended. One could interpret this as a given Devine inspiration in order to leave us a poignant message for the future. Was it a prophecy? That the poem expresses mankind's collective soul is evident in the lines, We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow, Loved and were loved and now we lie   In Flanders fields. Additionally, the line, If ye break faith with us who die, has a religious supplication that warns that the consequences of not heeding his advice will be, We shall not sleep, though poppies grow In Flanders fields.

The element of prophecy in poetry is alluded to by Shelly. "For he not only beholds intensely the present as it is, and discovers those laws according to which present things ought to be ordered, but he beholds the future in the present, and his thoughts are the gems of the flower and fruit of latest time."(348) From this we can sense through the language of poetry the essence of Lieutenant Colonel John McCrae's soul. It is not just his soul alone that is revealed here, but rather that of all mankind seeking peace.

To support what is poetry, Shelly asserts the importance of imagination. (348) Granted that the first line in McCrae's poem is descriptive, In Flanders Fields the poppies blow, the second line, Between the crosses row on row,  sets the mood of a Requiem for the dead and opens the imagination to what follows. Poetry differs from naked truth, in much the same way as a photograph might render something differently than a painting by Vincent Van Gough or Monet. Shelly writes that "Poetry enlarges the circumference of the imagination."(351) However, if Shelly believes that poetry turns all things to beauty, we must then ask ourselves if the poem In Flanders Fields holds anything of aesthetics. The answer is a resounding affirmative yes. Just as we find works such as J.S. Bach's St Mathew Passion, or W.A. Mozart's Requiem to be beautiful works of art that touch the very essence of man's soul, Mc Crae's opus offers us beauty through the use of simple language, expressed as an epiphany; a revelation of life after death. In terms of the spirit, or essence of poetry, Shelly writes that, "It transmutes all that it touches, and every form moving within the radiance of its presence is changed by wondrous sympathy to an incarnation of the spirit."(361) In other words, poetry is the physical embodiment of the spirit. Therefore, we can safely say that according to Percey Bysshe Shelly, poetry is the essence of the soul.

The one factor that seems to bring everything together is emotion. Rhetoric can also be emotional, however poetry's use of allusion, metaphor, and imagery make it especially effective as a communicator of the soul. That is why songs use poetry; it brings more emotion to the music. The repetition of sounds through rhyme, and metre hark back to our cultural childhood learning years. Simple rhymes seem to have a ring of truth about them. Moreover, there is an element of prophetic message in poetry that dates back to Biblical times. It is for these reasons that poetry is the physical embodiment of the spirit - because it comes from the creative mind of man, whom God created in His image. As for the future of poetry and all Art, we seem to be bent on a new course of technological aesthetics in which man only plays a supporting role.

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Bibliography

Coelho, Elizabeth. Adding English (A Guide to Teaching in Multicultural Classrooms) Pippin Publishing, Toronto, 2004.

Rosenberg, David. A Poet's Bible (Rediscovering the Voices of the Original Text). New York. 1991

Shelly, Percy Bysshe. A Defence of Poetry (The Critical Tradition, pp 346 - 351) ed. David H. Richter. New York. 2007

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