Thursday, April 9, 2009

Poetry and Proper Names

Some time ago a question arose in a workshop group about the use of proper names in a poem. The objection was that if the reader was unfamiliar with the location, the reference and any connotations would be irrelevant and thereby detract from the purpose of the poem. A generic reference such as "a park" rather than a specific park, or "the city" instead of Toronto would do as well and not clutter the poem with unwarranted reactions by the reader. This was only mentioned in passing because of time restraints, but the idea has bubbled around in the back of my mind since.I suppose that argument has its merrit but I tend to disagree. Throughout the history of poetry, the use of proper names has made poems stronger by their particularity and their emphasis. One example that keeps pushing to the forefront is that of Browning's "My Last Dutchess." In his poem, we never learn the lady's name; this lessens her importance and emphasizes the importance of the Duke himself. Compare that with the repeated naming of the artist, Fra Pandolf, and the impression left of the Duke as a rich man of fine artistic taste. The same still happens today: someone will claim to have a "Van Gogh" rather that a painting hanging on his wall.
By naming, by using proper names, the poet establishes a personal connection to the person/place/thing he names. In doing so he displays a connection which is important to the poem, more important than the thing named or the poet himself. It should be this connectedness that resonates with the reader; it then does not matter if the reader has knowledge of the thing/place in itself, as long as he can identify with that sense of connection in himself. Place, poet and reader become secondary to the poem and its expression; they become connotations of the primary idea.

Whew! Who thought simple poetry could become so philosophical! Anyway, continue to name that place; claim it and give it meaning.

1 comment:

annaken said...

I couldn't agree more!

I remember that comment as it pertained to my poem and Gore Park. I didn't say anything at the time but I kept the reference in my poem as it anchored it firmly in my mind and those Hamiltonians who knew the area at all.

As another example, I particularly enjoyed Nino Ricci's reading on Friday night at GRIT Lit as he had references to Montreal where I once lived. so it was very relevant to me.

I believe that people can relate to events and places in a poem or short story when they find something familiar in it.

Just my thoughts.