Maximus Event: Understanding Poetry

Poetry is an art form. The expression of creative imagination. And like all its associated art forms, poetry answers questions about identity of people both real and assumed, life and death, purpose and objectives in life, relationship-sustainability, and many other topics. This is thought-provoking entertainment for readers, uplifting sometimes, offering learning, usually relevant, causing reflection in the words of William Wordsworth ‘Thoughts that do lie too deep for tears’.

Poetry is life distilled into a short story, if you like, always with a point. Without much room to manoeuvre and still endeavouring to make his mark, the poet works incredibly hard to align his imagined intent with his real language. So it can be abstruse and difficult to interpret whereas this is hardly a constraint in a novel. But if you enjoy reading, words, narrative, reading aloud, audio books, podcasts, radio, the odds are strong you will enjoy poetry. And because it is so diverse there is bound to be a poet or two with whom you can resonate. That’s how it starts.

What is Poetry About?

Emily Dickinson, a 19th century American poet, once said: ‘If it blows the top of my head off, then I know it’s poetry.’ The condensed nature of a poem also makes it powerful, memorable, sometimes for ever. People retain poems in their heads for decades. Joyce’s story. Daffodils.

I would like to discuss poetry around two outstanding poems. Diverse from each other, powerful. Absolute clarity of message.

The first poem is about arrogance, hubris, pride before a fall. It is titled Ozymandias and was written in the early 19th century by Percy Bysshe Shelley.

#1: Ozymandias by Percy Bysshe Shelley

I met a traveller from an antique land,
Who said — “Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. . .. Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them, and the heart that fed;
And on the pedestal, these words appear:
‘My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings;
Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!’
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal Wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.”

Ozymandias made the same assumption as Horace (monumentum aere perennius), but Horace was mild-mannered and courteous, Ozymandias was haughty and arrogant. His immense statue lies in ruins, collecting droppings from the desert birds. No despair from his competitors now!

The story of Shelley and Morris, his friend, the verse competition in the desert. Why does Shelley not report on the statue himself? Why does he introduce a traveller from an antique land to tell us the story? Further away? More mysterious? Fantastic? Hard to say.

#2: Desert Places by Robert Frost

Snow falling and night falling fast, oh, fast
In a field I looked into going past,
And the ground almost covered smooth in snow,
But a few weeds and stubble showing last.

The woods around it have it – it is theirs.
All animals are smothered in their lairs.
I am too absent-spirited to count;
The loneliness includes me unawares.

And lonely as it is, that loneliness
Will be more lonely ere it will be less –
A blanker whiteness of benighted snow
With no expression, nothing to express.

They cannot scare me with their empty spaces
Between stars – on stars where no human race is.
I have it in me so much nearer home
To scare myself with my own desert places.

Frost is driving somewhere, alone. He sets the scene quickly, superbly, full of atmosphere. The snow is falling and so is darkness. He is absent-spirited. All animals are smothered in their lairs. ‘The woods around it (the field?) have it – it is theirs’. What can the second ‘it’ refer to? The subject topic of the poem arrives in the fourth line of the second stanza – ‘it’ is loneliness. He is lonely.

And his loneliness is going to worsen. The snow will offer an even blanker whiteness, expressionless. Then, the punch. The fourth stanza – I am human, we invented loneliness. They cannot scare me with their descriptions of the empty spaces between stars, oh no, so much nearer home – as in now driving through snow and dark – I can scare myself with my own desert places. The title words of the poem are the very last ones. Frost leaves the punchline to the end, as many artists have done before him. Only a human being can know loneliness, and it can be awful, perhaps threatening, scary. Anyone who has ever felt lonely will identify with these words. As sparsely written as the lonely trees – except, not being human, they cannot know loneliness.

How Does Poetry Achieve its Effect?

Answer = by word effect and by sound effect. We have already considered the word effect; here are two lines from Inversnaid, a poem by Gerard Manley Hopkins, to illustrate the sound effect, another reason to read poetry aloud:

Degged with dew, dappled with dew
Are the groins of the braes that the brook treads through’

Alliteration, the ds in line 1 and the rs in line 2.

Emphasis – the metre, stress on syllables – degged, dappled

Vocabulary – degged

Rhyme – dew and through

Rhythm – TUM ti, TUM ti in line 1, ti ti TUM, ti ti TUM, ti ti TUM, TUM, TUM in line 2

Then its subject matter. Holocaust lest we forget, love, irony, compassion, praise, awe, depression, ending a relationship, starting a relationship, at 15 or 65. Courage, spirits up, love consists in the letting go, death and its various possibilities, authenticity and its opposite, kindness, journeys.

Metaphor and simile abound in poetry as the poet seeks to say as much as he can in a short as possible space. We have already noted ’They cannot scare me with their empty spaces’; some poems are a metaphor in their entirety. Take journeys for instance. Since journeys so resemble life, life as a journey, the sections of journeys – beginnings, milestones, way-stations, signposts, destinations – are used often to illustrate how it can be in a life. The poem Ithaka by CP Cavafy urges us to consider our life’s journey as the objective of our lives, not whether we have reached the destination or not. If the journey becomes the objective of our life, it does not matter if we have been successful or not, we have enjoyed our journey. That is success in itself.

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