Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Meaning and Poetry

After the last couple of entries, I started to think about and try to sort out for myself again just how poems carry and impart meaning. This entry, and perhaps the next several, will be dedicated to that concept.

Using common words and expressions in poetry makes it more accessible to people, easier to understand. I suppose to a person with specialized interest or education, writings using the language or touching upon matters particular to that field can convey the sense and emotional response that any poetry does; it simply limits itself in its reach and application. It becomes almost esoteric, reserved for the knowing few. And that isn't really what poetry is about.

Poets such as the Romantics would refer to classic Greek and Roman mythology. That would resonate with the people with whom they were communicating, people with similar interests and levels of education. Certainly such references meant little to the labourers or shop clerks of the time. The meaning of those words and phrases was not part of their lives. When the general population became more literate and better educated they wanted writings, fiction and poetry, that used their concepts and feelings, but especially their language.

So we find most modern poetry does not try to hide what it might be about in foreign phrases or obscure images any more. The language is direct. Certainly, sometimes more is meant than is directly expressed. Often the language seems indirect. But the words and phrases used have one meaning common to the poet and the reader/listener and understood by both.

And that is just the obvious, the surface meaning of a poem. A good poem can carry so many different levels of meaning in several ways.

We'll look at that later.

Friday, February 20, 2009

Form: the "Bones" of poetry

Listening to Laurie Miller's presentation on George Herbert gave me cause to think about form and shape in modern poetry, poetry that is so singly attached to "free verse." Herbert made use of form and shape in his poetry to enhance it, to create another layer of meaning. I often think that multiple layers of meaning, something that makes you go back to a poem again and again, is evident only in the more uncommon poems I come across.

Be asured I'm not talking about concrete poetry. If you want to format your poem about an infant in the shape of a baby's stroller, that's one thing. That just assumes the ignorance of the reader("See, this is what I'm talking about.") and makes no difference to the hearer. What I'm talking about is the basis of good poetry, its rhythm and its sound.
Rhythm and sound come down to two pertinent and important poetic tools: meter and rhyme. The simplest and purest form of this is the heroic couplet, two lines of iambic pentameter that rhyme perfectly. It's the first thing a budding writer of rhyme tries for. It is one seldom achieved and mastered. How often have you read a line and known the rhyme ending the following line long before you reach it? Even then it is often either trite or forced, and leaves you with tasteless doggerel.

Good poems depend on good patterns of rhythm, not in a boring strictness. Good poems depend on a pattern of sound (in the ear or in the mind) not on simple "sounds like" line endings. Free verse, free from the age-old traditions, needs to be the result of two things: the poet's mastery of form in all its classical presentation and his ability to carry pattern and sound beyond that captured by such forms, not away from it.

Two old adages come to mind. First, to achieve freedom, you must first know your bonds. And second, it is better to make a small step forward than to slide a long way off the trail.

Saturday, February 14, 2009

George Herbert - Poetic Technique

At the meeing of the Tower Poetry Society today, Honorary Life Member Laurie Miller gave a presentation on George Herbert (1593 - 1633) the poet/priest who was a favorite of King James the First. Even now, four centuries later, we can be surprised at his work and the 'contemporary' stylings he used.

Although his main preoccupation is with explaining himself to God and God to mankind, we find him using language as more than a vehicle to carry meaning. He is a master of form and shape. We comfortably enjoy his sonnets; we look for and understand his rhyme schemes. The simplicity of his imagery and language stand out as much as the regular repetitions in scansion and rhyme. But more than occasionally he hits home with an irregularity that doesn't grate enough to irritate the first time it is read, but then,on closer study, presents a new level of meaning we had not perceived before.

He injects an extra quatrain into a sonnet and tells you, if you look closely, why. He scrambles rhythms and end rhymes into an unrecognizable mish-mash and uses that to directly signify the chaos he writes about. A perfect and formal rhyme scheme is broken slightly as the poet emphsizes that only God can create perfection. And so he continues. The depth of his material he treats with an everyday informality that seems to deny the well-reasoned arguments offered. His addresses to God for mankind are made of the words used daily to speak and reason. His lines explaining God and all His aspects to his listeners and the profession of his faith, resonate in the common heart and soul. It becomes related directly to the everyman in us.

At least three levels of meaning can be discovered as you read his poems. On the surface is the preacher explaining God and His love. Within that is the sense of the poet, using common conceits to illuminate the abstractions of holiness. And throughout that, like an unholy imp, runs Herbert's love of puzzle and trick as emphasis.

Examined in a new clear light, the man is still astounding.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Art to Art

An encounter with an old friend I hadn't seen in some time caused me to think about the relationship between different artistic disciplines, especially as they occur in the one individual. My friend and I had, some years ago, both been active writing and publishing poetry, reading at literary and progressive events. I had continued with my poetry; he had gone on to try drama and then make a name for himself as a sculptor. We spoke of the old times and before I could even raise the question, he offered an answer.

It wasn't that he was not sincere about his poetry, he explained, but it was one of several ways of self expression that he was exploring at the time. He mentioned a turn at stand-up comedy and a stint with a rock band that I had forgotten. For reasons of his own he chose sculpture as his medium of choice.

I wished him well with his current and future projects. Over coffee at home I pondered how an artist moves from one metier to another. Sticking with literary figures, I thought of how writers like Atwood and Ondaatje put their excellent poetry aside for the novel, how a century ago Thomas Hardy gave up novels for poetry. Moving from literary to plastic arts would be even more difficult, unless, as my friend had explained, it was a part of finding your personal method of expression.

It all made me think back to what I had gone through to become so connected to poetry. In my youth, I too had tried other means. I had spent time on the stage. I had performed as a vocalist with a musical ensemble. Unable to draw or paint, I had however taken instruction in photography. Literature, and especially poetry, became my art of choice; not just poetry because I also write the occasional piece of short fiction.

We all have to channel our self-expression somehow. Some people lie and cheat and steal to feel good about themselves; others create things that reflect the beauty or ugliness of life. Writers put it into words that don't get blown away by the wind.

Each to each.

Friday, February 6, 2009

The Girl Who Would ...

I want to tell you a story, a parable of sorts. It is true in a way, the way poetry is true but not necessarily factual. The facts will have been distorted a little to emphasize clarity, so that meaning can shine through. The standard disclaimer about people living or dead may also apply. So, here we go.

Some time ago a young lady we'll call Z. was referred to me by her English teacher. He thought she had promise as a poet and needed somone outside the education system to show some interest, give her some pointers and encouragement. I was impressed by the material Z. was creating at her age, helped her identify several markets where she might find acceptance. I urged her to look closely at University creative writing programs and teachers. I was there to help her celebrate her first publication in a national literary journal. Then she disappeared.

I learned from my teacher friend that Z. had rebelled against her parents' wishes for a post-secondary education and taken off for New York to become an actress. That wasn't hard to understand. Still something about her tugged at my memory of her, something about her commitment and emotional connection to her writing, her poetry. Had she made a shift to drama, maybe?

Several weeks ago at a local cafe, I saw her come in with several friends. I caught her eye and waved to her. After making her excuses to her companions, she came over and sat with me. I asked her about her New York experience.

She told me about acting classes, casting calls; she'd had two amateur parts and an understudy for an Off-Broadway drama. Then I asked her, "What about your poetry? Do you still write?"

Her eyes lit up. She told me how she had become involved in some of the New York poetry activities, that perhaps her acting career had suffered because of it. "I didn't spend enough time sucking up and kissing the right assholes" was the way she put it. She'd come home and was working at Wal-Mart while she figured out what to do next.

I again mentioned creative writing programs. Her eyes darkened. "Sure, I want to continue writing, but I have this chance to go on tour singing with a country band." She looked at me as if she needed my approval. I smiled and shook my head.

"Z., do what you have to. Poetry already wrecked your acting career so don't be surprised if it ruins your music career. I think you were meant to be a poet and nothing can change that. If you became an astronaut, you would still be a poet. A banker and poet if that was your choice. A nun and a poet, a mother/poet."

There was a far-away look in her eyes. Then she took my hand. "Thanks, Mr. A." she said and rejoined her friends across the way.

I know she'll do more than write country songs. It's her spirit.

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Poetry Reading

Three days after the fact the experience still stays with me so I guess I should share it with you. It wasn't supposed to be anything out of the ordinary, just a regular reading. Lit Live on the first Sunday of February. A good, solid series but with no special "names" this time and the curse of competing with the Superbowl. I knew two of the readers; the other two I didn't.

The house was reasonable, not crowded. That was to be expected. What I hadn't expected was four poets instead of the usual mix of poetry, fiction, perhaps non-fiction. I hadn't paid any attention to the publicity; I just figured it would be, for me, a good antidote to the most over-hyped football game of the year.
But there was a magic that happened that night. I don't know if it was simply my percxeption or if it was shared by others, and that doesn't matter. This is what happened for me.

Each poet read from his own work, with his own voice, on his own themes. I realize that. What struck me was that the "voices" of these four poets, not the physical but the metaphysical, the presentation of the poetry blended so well. Each one, reading in his own space, became part of a common blend, a meld. Within me the whole experience became something other. The material, the personalities, the presentations, all seemed to build one on the other. At the end of the evening I knew something different had happened but was unsure of what it could be.

I thought I could compare it to a voice quartet, a barbershop piece perhaps, but that didn't quite fit. I was nosing through my recordings yesterday and came across something I hadn't listened to in many years. In the late 60s, early 70s, I was intrigued by an artist named Sandy Bull and how he layered different tones and instrumenst into one rich and full performance. I listened and recognized that what he had recorded musically had happened in my head and soul with sound and poetry. The realization provided a structure, a frame for this enigmatic happening, an anchor to hold it close as part of my personal knowledge.

God, let me never lose this memory.

Sunday, February 1, 2009

The Rise and Fall of Literacy

"I'd like to teach the world to read ..."

It's been going on for some time now, this push toward a literate world. Programs specifically designed to help young and old read, to work with written language, are found everywhere: among the disadvantaged in the developed world as well as the unlettered in the developing world. The order has rung out around the globe that the whole world shall read.

And when we learn to read, what happens? We move away from the simple magic so swiftly to embrace a technology that requires minimal effort. We translate knowledge, we transmit information, we experience our environment, through video screens. We move away from written language; wilfully we become 'a-literate.'

Some people travel by cruise ship to Alaska and watch the glaciers calve from the comfort of a bar/lounge on closed circuit TV. Only a meter or so away they could see it with the naked eye.

Why read newspapers? TV brings it quicker, adds motion and commentary, requires less thought and time. Why read books? The good ones will be out in a screen version soon. Magazines? Those are information shows on TV, aren't they?
And words transmitted on screens become abreviations, compressions, symbols. A new language that is non-language.

From unliterate to illiterate to literate to a-literate. And the world goes round and round.