A word to the wise – September 2009

Verbum satis sapientibus: A word to the wise is sufficient

Nobody asked, but it’s about time for a column about poetry—what it is and what it is not. Actually, my dear wife did ask, and of course I’m happy to keep her happy.
Judging by their sales, books of poetry are not high on many of our reading lists. Why? A good part of the reason may be due to our perception. We tend to think of poetry as a rarified genre and full of “hidden meanings.” And another reason may lie in some poems themselves, in poetry that we deem simply confessional or maudlin and self-serving, or poetry that is full of hard words and seems to preach too loudly, or poetry that is dense and mysterious.
I pontificate here as one who has never satisfactorily penned, much less published, a pretty poem. Still, I do appreciate the efforts of many poets, both ancient and modern. Upon a time, when my mental powers were more acute, I memorized scores of verses here and there. I recollect these lines still and expect I will when I can no longer recall what I had for dinner last night.
A fresh morning often brings up Browning’s lines: “Morning’s at seven, the hillside’s dew-pearled. God’s in His heaven; all’s right with the world.” The thrush were plentiful in our woods this past summer, and I can hardly ever hear this sweetest of birdsong without remembering this, again from Browning: “That’s the wise thrush; he sings each song twice over, lest you think he never could recapture the first fine careless rapture.” Wordsworth rings in my ears when I enjoy the declining light of a fine evening: “It is a beauteous evening, calm and free, the holy time is quiet as a nun/ breathless with adoration.”
Emerging spring brings E. H. Housman’s verse to mind. He writes, “The loveliest of trees, the cherry now is hung with bloom along the bough, and stands about the woodland ride, wearing white for Eastertide.” In fall, it’s Keats’ turn, who tells of this “season of mists and mellow fruitfulness.” His mood changed a few months later: “In drear knighted December, too happy, happy tree, thy branches ne’er remember their green felicity.”
What makes all these “good” poetry? (And I hope you think so too.) Two qualities define for me the best of verse: first, lively and fresh language, rich in metaphor and in words that strike the senses, and second, a rhythm in harmony with the meaning.
For just one example, take Browning’s “first fine careless rapture.” He uses three stressed syllables in a row here, forcing us to slow down and savor the sense of it. Rhyme is agreeable too, if it comes naturally.
W.B. Yeats, that premier Irish poet of the twentieth century, says of poetry, “If it come not as the leaves to a tree, it had better not come at all.” Rhyme and rhythm together can be a delight. Isak Dinesen writes about reading poetry to children in Africa. They couldn’t understand a word, but they giggled with pleasure at the sound—the rhythm and the “clink of rhyme.” Lewis Carroll’s “Jabberwocky” illustrates as much: ‘Twas brillig, and the slithy toves did gyre and gimble in the wabe.” Nonsense, but fun.
As for language, we enjoy images, or pictures and sounds and even smells, while abstract language is better reserved, for the most part, for more didactic writing. A poem may have something to say, but it’s not meant to be a dissertation or even a sermon. T. S. Eliot, the St. Louis boy who became the quintessential umbrella-toting Londoner, tells us that meaning in poetry “is like the scrap of meat that the burglar brings along to feed the family dog.” Useful, but not the main object.
Or there’s e.e. cummings’ dictum: “A poem does not mean, but be.”

Word for the month
Insouciance (in-SOO-see-unce), a noun that sounds awfully starchy but means the opposite—a light-hearted attitude, nonchalance.
I read in the paper recently of an old woman who betrayed a definite insouciance about her funeral plans. She told her children, “Surprise me!”
—Gerald Waite

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