What is the Nature of a Poem?

There has been so much written about the Nature of Poetry, much of it of academic origin and inconsquentially repetitious, that I thought to approach the situation on a new track, steering away from much of what has been said before. None of this is meant as a last word, even as a first word in a new criticism, but perhaps a slanting view from the side to get a better view of the scene.

The word "Poem" is such a commonly used word in the English language, that it may come as a surprise to trace the word back to the Greeks who first coined the term. The word is a noun form taken from the verb "poi-eo" which means "to make, to do", and that is all it basically means . But it is used in Greek for anything that is made, for any construction or any product that is put together, and this can range from the result of any general human activity, or it can be also what in restricted sense we call a Poem.

For such a common word in our vocabulary, this seems an oddly loose term, but there is a special meaning to it after all. It is the act of making or creating something new. This can be making things made of gold, bronze or iron for Herodotus, or for the Daedalean works of art in Plato, or for Arrian some six centuries later even the alluvial silting up of rivers. It is the whole process of making a result and not just the maker's conscious intent, which is at the heart of the word Poetry. The Greeks also felt this "making and constructing" to be central to this special art of words.

Poetry is found everywhere in the space and the history of man's world. It came long before writing and was part of a complex art of words-with-meaning, conceived and produced as sound. Much poetry worldwide is still unwritten and performed as an oral art, not because there is no system of writing to hold it, but because Poetry is initially an oral art and usually based on a sensitive performance. Much of this involves subtleties of tone, accentuation and gesture, which simply cannot be written down. Music faces the same problem where the written score represents only half of a well thought out and sensitive performance.

But for us in the West, poetry is quite different. We think of a poem as an artfully constructed set of ideas and impressions, usually written out as page long or less, and immediately recognized by the line breaks which are not found in other writing. It is often written in a sort of poetic dialect, which is actually a subset of our daily language but with special words and usages which mark it as a poem. Written down, heavily edited in general with careful use of the marking pen, it stands as a finished product which is normally read silently, or on occasion performed from text by the author in a public setting. Copyright assures that the text of a poem is fixed and finite, for some years if not forever. The use of improvisation in creating a new poem in live performance is almost unknown in the West, although it has become frequent these last years in theater, dance and film. Poetry for us is in the main a silent art, at times composed with little interest in rhythm or the interplay of the music of sounding vowels and stopped consonantal sounds. Some modern poems can be nothing more than a list of impressions and ideas.

If this sounds over-critical , let me note the huge amount of classical poetry which has been in print for centuries, beside the growing corpus of private and un-noticed poetry which is now appearing freely on the Internet. With so much available, poetry is becoming hard to define as a genre, but there are a few types which stand out as familiar and perhaps universal, which I will try to outline briefly as follows:

I: The Photograph Poem

Before the advent of photography and especially color photography, the Poem was an ideal way to describe a scene. This allowed people from a distance to appreciate and visually conjure up vistas from a world they would never visit. The poem could be like a Picture Postcard, but it also conveyed a subliminal portrait of the mind of the poet at work, as a second level of display. A poem could be a peep-hole into the poet's personality, and this could add to the force and intent to a poem. A colorful visual display could be nothing more than a backdrop or an illustration to the poet himself and his thoughts.

Much poetry is of this kind, it is as interesting as a sundown seen over the mountains (Wordsworth), a deep forest scene (Frost) or the giddy shimmer of light dancing on the waves (Catullus). But it has another element built-in, which is the identity of the poet as the viewer who viewed this particular scene. This makes the postcard poem into a message of personal communication from someone who is not there , as for example Sappho. Trivial poems with a slim message when read thoughtfully may not be trivial at all on a personal level. This two level construction of the poem although easy to be missed in casual reading, is not trivial at all.

But if the poem is all verbal-scenery, without that small percent of the personal capsule which holds it together, the poem becomes just a nice illustration. A photograph taken by a tourist to take home later is different from a view through the eye of an Ansell Adams or a road described by Robert Frost. And nice lilt poem can be nothing more than a nice poem in the end, somehow not enough without a twist which gives a second level, which can change the picture into a poem.

It seemed to be so bright and sunny over there, like a
picture postcard of the market under the great shadow tents
where you might see children pulling this way and that
asking for icecream and maybe go for another ride
while mother fingers a hand loomed scarf thinking
it is so nice but do I really need it at the price?
Color everywhere in stripes and flags and wares,
over which floats a breeze from the oceanside
where you could wander down to see the beach
as tide goes out leaving little red crabs
scrambling at the wave or digging into the sand.
Beyond in the blue were sailboats moving out
under the tilt of the gentle wind, young ones on board
waving shorewards to everyone. It was a lovely scene

This would be a perfect example of a picture-postcard poem, it shows a nice scene very nicely described. But I cut off the rest of the poem to make an example, and when you read it was written below, you will see how the picture-postcard approach can be used as part of something quite different, becoming a thoughtful poem and more interesting in its involved complexity:

It seemed to be so bright and sunny over there, like a
picture p0stcard of the market under the great shadow tents
where you might see children pulling this way and that
asking for icecream and maybe go for another ride
while mother fingers a hand loomed scarf thinking
it is so nice but do I really need it at the price?
Color everywhere in stripes and flags and wares,
over which floats a breeze from the oceanside
where you could wander down to see the beach
as tide goes out leaving little red crabs
scrambling at the wave or digging into the sand.
Beyond in the blue were sailboats moving out
under the tilt of the gentle wind, young ones on board
waving shorewards to everyone. It was a scene
which reminded me, living alone in a prairie state now,
like a memory bright and clear from long ago.
Yes I had seen it, here it all was in the scrapbook,
a picture postcard a little faded over the years.
But when I turned it over to see where it had come from,
it had no return, was from someone I didn't know saying:
Why don't you come out for a visit, it's lovely here.

But that's not the end of it. I have since writing this been working with what I think of as "performed-poetry", in opposition to poetry read in silence as we usually do, or spoken by the writer to class or a TV laureate ceremony ----- always in a flat and pedestrian voice. So I went back and recorded the above poem carefully, and am inserting it here as preface to other similar essays which you can find appearing on my Humanities webpage. Listening you will immediately hear the difference.

Listen. . .

In a similar protest against dry l8th c. verse which ahd dominated England, Wordsworth in his earlier years got the notion of what he called fastening upon "a spot in time" and was able to inject into the early poems a sense of something real and immediate. How this happened was a mystery even to himself, he guarded it as special when sending a page or two to friends over the years, but when he wrote more and edited more and became famous he lost the original talent. Reading aloud the early and unedited Prelude now, we can still sense an immediacy which comes not from beyond the words or the phrases or the setting of the poem itself. Now two centuries later we sense very clearly with a sort of wonderment how he produced an evanescent quality in his early poetry. When a poem has a touch of this quality, it creates a sense of being at a special point in the passing course of things. There is always a first level of the scene in the mountains or along the road, but without saying more there is also William Wordsworth behind the poem watching in an invisible mode. Reading the Prelude we may not see this quality at first, probably because it is so unusual and so rare.

II: The Worker Poem

At the opposite end of the poetic spectrum we have a kind of poetry which the Greek who despised the banausic hand-laborer as one step up from the world of the slave population. Depending as Athens was on the production of all sorts of wares for export with their fleet of trade ships, the idea of production and commerce was always disfavored when compared to abstract thought in philosophy, mathematics and the study of society as a field in itself. But it was not until the development of the 'camera obscure' in the 16th century that Dutch artists began to depict ordinary citizens in agricultural and business situations. The 19th century invention of the photographic camera gave the working class of the West a new identity and an important place in the modern world, something the Greeks would have found unthinkable.

In the latter half of the 20th century there was a change when working people appeared in the lyrics of Pete Seeger and Woody Guthrie as the core of the American tradition. This was a great shift of focus and attracted attention as well as criticism on the basis of having a communist tinge, and it was only later that worker poetry began to appear worldwide, although often unknown to an isolated Western culture. National feelings about Communists, the role of the Labor Unions and just plain aversion to workers with dirty-hands were in the way of a developing worker-poetry. As an example of aversion to the worker in a college class of mine, I recall in a poetry writing class the apology of a girl who had spent a year in Russia and had translated some worker poems but was embarrassed to read them before a class, which was more comfortable with nature poems and complaints about the loss of spirituality in the West. After some apprehensions accompanied by tears, she read this unusual piece in her English translation. The other students liked it but they seemed uncomfortable, a mark of class identity in America:

Up from the depths of the mine dug world
the chains grumbled in the coal black night
raising the elevator slowly up through the hole
to the platform where men throw black coats in a pile.
He turned on valves to let the hot water wash
soot dirt sweat off from his bone white skin
into a drain down to a sour place below.
Combed hair, warm clothes on and arms thrust
into a greatcoat, he lit a cigarette at the door,
paused as it slammed shut, stood a moment there
under the surrounding coal black sky. Then he looked up,
he had forgotten about the stars, the stars, the stars.

There must a libraries of worker poetry in the former Communist countries, and everywhere there is always material from daily life at hand for a poetic experiment. But with vast inter-cultural difference much of it may not be understandable to countries outside the original location, much may not be translatable at all. But a prime caution is that the poem to be real must not be political backup for a society or a regime; it must serve the deity of the art and the circle of the Muses first. Beyond that there is rich material to be mined from the world of working men and women, whom we are still not prepared to admit to the society of artists. In our fast changing world the bluecoat is still reminiscent to many people of the grease-monkey in the oil drenched garage pit, and most people would not want their son to be a plumber or their daughter to be an electrician. Not surprising that they would not be prepared to read poems from the economic underground. This will presumably change now as we learn the dangers of a banausic tilt to the stability of a society.

III: The Video Poem

The very compact short story takes a slice of reality and presents it as an object in itself, but there is an even more compaction in poem which does the same thing but in a highly focused manner. If the photographic poem which I discussed above is a reflection of one reflection of the Kodak conscious modern eye, the "Slice of Life Poem" is analogous to the clipped video file which we now find everywhere on the Internet. People do like to see other people in their normal life, but even more in clipped moving segments which are interesting by themselves, or when they show something from a world which is socially or geographically distant. But to make this into a Poem requires something more , it must be a moving chunk cut out of a larger moving life-segment, and if it reveals something general about human nature, that will make it for the moment alive and if well done, very interrupting.

But this is nothing new. Catullus Poem 10 was already doing this in the 1st c. B.C. and this poem has all the earmarks of the slice-of-life genre already in full play. Let me condense the action of this 34 line poem slightly while changing the venue as I go along:

A friend of mine saw me strolling around downtown,
took me over to visit his girlfriend, when we got there
I saw right off she was not bad looking but a real slut.
There was some talk and she asked about Philly
where I had been working and how was it over there?
I said OK but there was nothing special going on
because the politicians were corrupt and the mayor,
he was a real bastard. Well I guess, says she, you must have
done well enough to get out of that something for yourself
a Lincoln or a Cadillac maybe? So to make myself
a little more special, I said: Well it wasn't so bad
but that I couldn't come out with a red Ferarri convertible.
In fact I had nothing but a rusty Chevvy on its last tires.
So she says, the bitch that she was: My old pal Johnny boy,
could you let me have it for the afternoon, I gotta go
over to Jersey to visit some high class friends?
So I says: Just a minute, I said it was mine but actually
belongs to Jerry, he owns it but lets me have it anytime.
We're real close, so what's the difference between pals?
But you are a real bitch, gotta be careful and watch out for
of every word when a person talks to a tramp like you. . . .

Why is this scene couched in a poem? Because it recounts the action without explanatory comment, relying on the speakers' words with just a few touches on the setting. Street language with rough words, an embarrassing situation and the writer-poet turning the edge of it on himself - - - these are universals and should be short to get the sense of the scene across. This scene all happened in the course of a minute in an afternoon, and that might be the time it takes to read and explore the poetic account of it. That is why it works as a poem, it represents a scene as it was as if taped!

Or there may be a poem which is a compressed thirty second scene in motion, presenting a social scene from a real life which you as reader have never seen. There are a thousand varieties of social status, of physical appearance and clothing and style of walking, and if they are different from you, they can be interesting and socially enlightening.

Joe turned the bulldozer still on the trailer off with a fart
from the diesel, rubbed his hands on a greasy red rag
before heading up the five steps to open the housedoor
and get himself a cold beer from the fridge. One hell of a day
when he heard someone knocking at the door. A man
with a pad and pencil from the state was asking something
about his accounts and would he please. . . .? You know
we gotta do this, not my choice to go asking questions.
Joe was standing on the steps looking down. when the man
asked again as politely as a sour faced state official can.
Maybe I should come back at another time. He looked
at his pocket watch, said it was getting pretty late now
thinking of Madge taking warm dinner off the stove
and laying out plates and silverware, he could smell
the aroma of beef stew arising from the cast iron pot.
Yes I'll just come back another time, is that OK with you?
Joe just stood in the doorway there with not a word,
but when the man got in his car and had turned it around,
he spat in the dust as state badge vanished down the road.

This is a complex example of non-communication between a working man and an official, between the individual and the state, between the man who says nothing and a talkative accountant who has on his mind getting his job done but at the same time thinking of getting along to go home for his dinner. It is this inequality of the two men which makes this uneven cut slice of life worth noting as different aspects of the human condition. There is something oddly antique about the accountant, his pocket watch, his wife Madge's name and the old style iron pot simmering the dinner. Joe is the opposite as the self-employed worker who can't deal with the state meddling in his affairs. Each "slice" has its hidden qualities, nothing about people is without wrinkles and that is what this kind of poem is good at unfolding.

IV: Language and Dialect

There is of course no such thing as a standard of speech for any language. We find localisms in vocabulary which set the tone for a regional basis. For example note "tonic" pronounced "taenic" in Boston for "sof' drink" in the Midwest, where "pop" can still be heard. Or it can proceed historically as in a time frame, with old-fashioned "toot" from the German in Pennsylvania, while in the East it is a "paper bag", itself an oddity in the 1950 Midwest where it was formerly a "sack" (Should I put it in a sack for you?) while in the East a sack is a cloth bag. The "frappe" in Boston was the standard word for a milkshake, now unknown to Bostonians under the age of fifty. Then there are differences in vowel pronunciations which can identify a speaker's origins within a range of two hundred miles to an expert ear. Add to this differences in gesture and the lead-in to a conversation, as well as city and country differences in manner and even regional traits of friendliness. And each generation has its new terms, from "cool" replacing an older "nice" which is much less cool, to modern "gay" as compared to the 18th century's Three Penny Opera of Rich and Gay, which "made Gay rich and Rich gay".

All these and other variations can be used in a story or in a more tightly focused in a poem to create another sense of motion, which can "pan" as if with a cinema camera across a nation or even across the world globally. A formal Englishman with a Scots accent talking with a merchant from Bombay which is now Mombai, this could be compactly described ion terms of a social or national crack in the moving glacier of cultural misunderstanding. Such a framework gives the poet something new to work with, it is a background against which s/he might find an interesting play of words and ideas to work with, in creating a poem with a unusual style of implicit motion. Let me give an example which uses a generic rural speech-pattern in describing the wagon delivery of an cast iron wood burning kitchen stove:

The man with the two mules brought it, Pa.
it wasn't heavy so Janie and I skidded it in
Ma and Henery used the hatchet blade
to prise it open. It had the stovepipes all inside,
so we set it up where the old one used to be.
You like it, Uncle Joe? Wa'al I suppose
you can't get much for twelve dollars any more,
still we should be careful, myself don't know
if I'd have spent so much just on a kitchen stove.
Daddy, why does it say in big letters on the front
Home Comfort Stove but there on the back it's 1898 ?
Cause it's the old model stove from a few years back,
that's why this feller brought it over from St. Louis
figured he'd sell it to us country folk don't know better.
But I do like it fine here, all black with the nickel trim,
we needed a new one anyway, now Henery you go
out and get some wood, start a slow blaze first,
and Rob you run out to the buckboard behind the seat,
and bring in that case of whiskey. I paid a buck a quart Ma,
very useful to have around just in case someone's ill.
Nice warm fire, boy, I'll just settle down here a while
and enjoy a nip from that Southern Comfort bottle
in front of our brand new cast iron kitchen stove.

When I said above "generic rural" for the dialect, I meant that this piece is not a transcription of a actual setting which would be more of a document than a poem. Here the author's purpose was to create a rural setting in the early 20th century, centered about a cast iron vintage object which was once a marvel of cooking and hot water for a woodburning population. Again we have a scene in motion, from the crate on the floor through a flow of rural family talk to a warm corner of the house with a glass of whisky in Dad's hand. About two hours lapse of time all seen through a condensed twenty two lines of verse which define local area, date of the setting, and a sample of how rural people might have formerly been used to speak.

V: Obscurant Poetry

Of course there is no such things as Obscurantic Poetry, that is just the reaction of an uninformed reader on his first try at something he cannot understand. But there are people who do write in an obscure manner thinking that raises their level to some "metaphysical" importance, as Samuel Johnson remarked about Cowley. Writing obscurely is foolish and I dismiss it from this study , although you will find a mess of it in newly done examples on the Internet.

When Samuel Johnson in the Lives of the Poets coined the term "metaphysical" for the work of a range of writers from Donne to Cowley, he as usual came up with just the right word, which has stuck with poetry criticism for some two and a half centuries. Of course this had nothing to do with the real term metaphysical in philosophy, it just meant that it went beyond the range of the real and natural, verging into what lay beyond. The word was used by Drummond of Hawthornden in the 16 century to mean distant and outlandish, but in Donne it marks the development of a sense of Wit and what we now call Conceit in poetry, as a way of adventuring beyond the actual words of a poem into the thought-associations in the poet-author's mind. This could be seen as intentional Obscurantism and for many generations the work of the Metaphysical poets was ignored until revived list before 1900 when certain critics were exploring new ways of literary thinking. After Gosse earlier and then Grierson's edition in 1912 the long-ignored Donne became a standard part of the English literary scene and "conceits" were accepted as normal and usable in the future.

But there was another path into a new sense of what a poem can be, which came to public attention through the work of Gerard Manley Hopkins (1884-1889). Hopkins, involved as he was with personal and religious concerns, after being disillusioned by a few rejections, did not publish during his lifetime. But when the edition of his work appeared in 1918 it was in the right time for the new trends of Imagist and Impressionist writing which were surfacing at that junction.

Let me give an example first to clear the very complicated and complex Hopkins'' atmosphere. This is the first stanza of the second part of his early 1875 poem "The Wreck of the Deutschland" which shows the tenor of his developing style:

"Some find me a sword; some
The flange and the rail; flame,
Fang, or flood" goes Death on drum,
And storms bugle his fame.
But we dream we are rooted in earth -- Dust!
Flesh falls within sight of us, we, though our flower the same,
Wave with the meadow, forget that there must
The sour scythe cringe, and the blear share come.

Here we see the full range of his wording, his accentual scheme whichever way you read it as he marked it or free verse, as tracing back to Piers Plowman from the 15th century. The varied wording which calls up unusual combinations of images is the first thing one sees in a Hopkins poem. This second poem is direct in joining God's will which always occupied the poet's mind, with things in nature which god had made real. In a milder mood on the world of nature, but with the same strange intensity:

Glory be to God for dappled things --
For skies of couple-colour as a brinded cow;
For rose-moles all in stipple upon trout that swim;
Fresh -firecoal chestnut-falls; finches' wings;
Landscape plotted and pierced --fold fallow and plough;
And all trades, their gear and tackle and trim.

All things counter, original, spare, strange;
Whatever is fickle, freckled (who knows how?)
With swift, slow; sweet, sour; adazzle, dim;
He fathers-forth whose beauty is past change;
Praise him.

There is a direct line of inheritance into the twentieth century which became familiar to us after 1950 in the associative poetry of Dylan Thomas, who in his later work ventured even further into the recesses of his literary consciousness, using discrete phrases coupled with remarkable assonances, all of which reader might find at first inscrutable. I quote as an example the first stanza of Thomas' five-part modular acoustic poem "Lament", one of the last poems before his untimely death before the age or forty. It is here read as an example of a poem in acoustic-performance mode:

When I was a windy boy and a bit
And the black spit of the chapel fold
(Sighed the old ramrod, dying of women)
I tiptoed shy in the gooseberry wood,
The rude owl cried like a telltale tit,
I skipped in a blush as the big girls rolled
Ninepin down on the donkeys' common,
And on seesaw sunday nights I wooed
Whoever I would with my wicked eyes,
The whole of the moon I could love and leave
All the green leaved little weddings' wives
In the coal black bush and let them grieve

Listen. . .

The alliteration stands out immediately, a doubled initial pair in the first line, heavily interleaved in lines 8/9 and again in 10. But in lines 4 and 5 we have something more intricate. Starting with a dental consonant and a sibilant (I tiptoed shy), then shifting in -o- sounds (gooseberry wood), he continues in the next line with back mouth sounds (rude owl) and finishes the line with the same brittle consonantal sounds with which he had started line 4. Look at 9 again with its repeated -w- dominating the line. This kind of musical harmony pervades most of what Thomas wrote, and the summary of possibilities is seen in his late poem Over Sir John's Hill, there even more developed but also stanza-modular.

It is interesting that both Hopkins in the long poem Deutschland and Thomas in this poem use a modular stanza format. Hopkins traces the stages of the disaster of the ship at sea, while Thomas in this poem has five stanzas chronicling the stages of life from youth to old age. Both of the poems have unusual word choices, Thomas verging further into the obscurities of his mind and experience. Thomas's poem here has a regular "running meter" while Hopkins a century earlier was developing his idea of a "sprung rhythm" often marked with his own accents, for which is best known; although some have maintained that this is just another form of free verse. But both poets are deeply involved with sound, with assonances and semi-echoing phrases, which constitute a virtually polyphonic musicality in the words.

These three salient feature of Sound, Rhythm and Association of the words with apparently disparate wordings, are so well known in Hopkins art that there is little more to point out here. But this array of techniques was totally surprising when the work was posthumously published in 1918 in a traditional world used to a then acceptable poetry. Hopkins is now well known to the imaginative reading public, but there are thoughtless imitators who think that any word can be used in any place, while is up to the reader to figure out the meaning, if there is a meaning. There is a great difference between freedom to do something new and different, and license to do anything at all under the name of liberty.

Many years ago I wrote for my students in a Classics Drama course a poem in a new experimental mode, in which I wrote a first thought in the center of the line, and then worked out parts at the beginning and end. In some cases I wrote the start and finish and then wrote in the center section. Here is the text, which I read in a strong performance mode with gesture and intonation, to the class to see what the would say. At the time I was despondent over various academic matters and wanted dot see if I could couch this feeling in an poem of a different nature.


Alexandria, Egypt,
evening of 19th June 218 B.C.

Ever he Agamemnon dying, he never dead.
Deadly a blow nightly I am struck with
Twice in my ham dinner stomach, belching thrice,
Sauerkraut out there facing cabbage breath
Sweating hard an actor's life, stench of old armpits,
Proscenium, orchestra, the men's room floor,
Mosquitoes , June evening, Agamemnon on the boards
again. Classic Art, many years I study, classic flop.
For me bread and butter, them bored me their tickets,
glass retsina, gnat in my nose , sweating "0 kindly night"
Strutting fat ankled chorus reeking, sing try again.
After tonight, done. . . Green back to the countryside
Just get through THIS just get it done tonight,
Buskin coming (good god Zeus Hecate) what the hell off,
Stand right in the center, fake act talk standing still
Now "If I could only once thoroughly die" tonight.
Again I am a fatal blow hit by paper mach&eacture; acute
Breasty Clythemnestra hamming fake blow hack.
Die, say louder "I die", die fool. Harder trying
Someday, someday just die and cool earth below
No more painted Agamemnon Hecuba cardboard Zeus.
Earth is my pillow, one tear, one real tear
On some real cheek, for ever, for nothing, for me.

After I read this, there was a silence in the room and I noticed one student almost wiping away a tear. All in all, I found out what I wanted to see, that an experimental format can actually be used to carry the weight of an emotional experience, and that in a live performance this is a possible communication even with an unprepared audience who were not familiar with experimental techniques.

VI: Motion and the Electronic Age

There is a chapter in a new direction which has recently appeared in the world of Internet Poets. There are programs which randomly mix and select words to form new poems out of old work or even out of randomly selected prose. Some of these can be interesting, but many are done by unskilled poets who see such aleatory practices as a door into easy artistry, seduced by the fame of musical aleatorics of Cage and Boulez who write loosely and freely out of an intense philosophical purpose. When the world is in an intense world of change, it is hard to sift the serious from the purposeless, but any freedom is worth watching to see if it produces interesting results in a future art.

Already in the 19th century there was a move toward a new use of words. Mallarmé is a famous example with his pages of dissociated words floating on the pages of his " Un coup de dez n'abolira l'hazard". The title is in a way a denial of what he is talking about, the aleatory dice being the agent of change of "hazard", but the idea of breaking words from their matrices as words, and even using isolated characters as if they were words, was a clear break in the history of poetry, and the work has remained famous if quizzical for a century. One cannot actually describe the Coup de dez, it has to be seen and carefully considered. In the Dada period after 1920 words were often subsumed into the art of the new painting, sometimes with inner meaning but often as merely suggestive or decorative in intent.

Others in the 20th c. have worked with aleatory wording just as avant garde composers of the mid-century have envisioned, sometimes even slicing the lines of the pages of a book apart so that the reader could make up his own new poem by shifting from page to page. But this was a clumsy way of achieving change, it was not something an intelligent reader would enjoy as he flipped the diced pages of a book with his right hand while hold the volume open with his left. It was good as an idea but not suitable for an afternoon's reading.

But with the electronic age things have changed. Already in 1985 there were new ways of connecting parts of a story of discrete poetic segments in arranged or used-determined order, which went under the new name of HyperFiction. The work of Judy Malloy, one of the leaders in this field is well known and there are many good descriptions of her work on the web under her name. The idea of motion from one spot to another in a concerted series of story episodes or poems is fascinating. Just recently I have tried to go a step further by making individual lines of a group of some of my poems move in an order which becomes more complex as the poem repeats, presenting new configurations of the slowly moving words crossing the monitor-page. You can take a look at my movingHyperPoems, which are children of the new electronic era. There are clearly new areas to be explored in the electronic realm.

VII: Poetry and Sound

Poetry the world around has always been an acoustic art. Homer was read aloud at annual festivals centuries before anyone has the thought of the means to write his poetry down. Sappho's poems were written but with the understanding that they would be sung in a special mode accompanied by the complex music of the lyre. In some area in Africa all speech outside the range of daily communication, whether religious or even political, is still sung as the only way to note that it is important and worth hearing. Parmenides' important philosophical fragment which we still have, influenced Greek thought for centuries and it is couched in a dactylic hexameter format as a perfectly natural mode of expression.

But the success of printing from the 15th century onward changed the focus of poetry to the printed words on a page of rag paper, and we developed in the ensuing centuries a habit of reading poetry silently . Many people thought of a poem as something in print, rather than musical words voiced aloud, and in the last century we got in the habit of savoring our poems in silent appreciation. Only in the last decades have we started to have an author or a skilled performer read poems for a recorded tape or CD performance, only when the poet is famous or a laureate celebrity. We enjoy hearing poetry, but often ask later if we can see the printed text on the excuse that we can understand it better that way. Students in college are brought up on poetic print, and thus validate the silent approach.

I don't need to belabor the point. It is obvious that our readers are used to the silent print culture of our time, but when a writer takes this track and writes a poetry which is devoid of sound and unsuitable for performance, that denies the essential acoustic quality of the ancient poetic art. The worldwide raising of standards for Literacy is important socially, politically and economically, but it puts such emphasis on the written word that the artistic value of the spoken word tends to get lost or undervalued. Spoken English in the last fifty years in the U.S. has become softened and often mumbled, while cinema and TV often treat spoken sound as a minor part of the message, while imagery takes the lead. We now speak of Image Literacy and Computer Literacy as tools needed for dealing with the world we live in. But this is mis-worded. Literacy per se is concerned with the written word, and the acoustics of written material designed to be hear aloud are largely unknown.

Let me lay out in very brief view the sounds of English as a background for understanding the musicality of written poetry. For more detail and an explanation of the quality of the various speech-sound of English, see this essay on Poetry and the Spectrograph .

THE VOWELS are musical sounds, on the Sound Spectrograph or SS the vowels appear on screen as middle frequency range in range of a musical A4 octave, with a stretchable length or duration. These are strong sounds and can be lengthened considerably. They are the carried of a speech segment and so called in German as "speech carriers". The usual list of -a-e-i-o-u- is only approximate since there are inter-stages which we call allophonic, but sometime phonematic as local or part of a dialect. Their musical value is strong, they are well defined and on the SS they are easy to read. Their sound is bright and distinctive with a good range from the tense -i- and -e- , down through the neutral --a-, to the low sonorous and hollow sounding -o- and the very low -u- . Diphthongs are sliding combinations of vowels each with a different attack and curve.

bumper, under: On the SS this will be in the lowest range. Note that the -er is a weak neutral vowel with no special character, which we call 'shwa' in phonetics, here with r-coloring rather than a separate -r- sound.
calm, ah! :This is the neutral -a- vowel, produced with the mouth slightly open above the vibrating voicebox .
rest, test :This goes higher on the SS readout, cheeks are pulled back as if with a slight smile, and the sound is tighter and shorter.
spit, rip" With tighter mouth as if more smile, these short vowels are at the top of the SS scale, phoneticall unlike tight, right is actually a diphthong -a+i despite the look of the spelling.
At the other end of the spectrum, a low diphthong is heard in Ouch which even looks like one. This high-low range has much to do with the feel of a word.

THE NASALS are -m- and -n- and show up on the SS as similar to the vowels. They can be extended for long duration, but are lower in frequency than most of the vowels. Formed with mouth closure and voice rumble, they are rich and in a sense chocolatey sounds, and give a special sonant character to a word when used.

murmur is perhaps the best example of a clearly defined nasal with a liquid, nicely repeated altrhough the final -ur is shwa with -r- coloring. rumble is another good example of nasal and its related liquid in a single word, with a low and hollow sound, perhaps almost menacing at time in certain situations. The nasals are rich sounds and are used in strong phrases; with so much sound generated in the configured mouth it is not surprising that they conjure up chocolate or other taste sensations.

The LIQUIDS are -l- and -r-, formed by the closure of the tongue against the front roof of the mouth for -l- and the side of the cheek near the teeth ridge for -r-. They do not have the duration of the nasals and are less dominant as sounds, they are normally short and depend in combination on a dominant vowel sound.

liquid, lip shows how a "liquid" can be drawn out and extended at the front of the mouth , tongue against upper lip. rolling has both of the liquids and since they are here lengthened, they almost feel to be rolling off the tongue. These are smooth but strong sounds with their own sustaining quality.

THE AIR SOUNDS which are -h- and -s-s- and -sh- show up on the SS as thinly represented in the upper frequency range but lightly drawn since they are weak and transient sounds. They are much harder to hear than the sound above noted, but they do have a special place in the hearing range as restrained or even subdominantly threatening. Series of words with these sibilants are often counterpoised to sequences with vowel plus nasal, and can be used artistically in contrasts.

silent serpent The hiss of an air -s- is weak acoustically but strong emotionally. Small and Little say the same thing, but have an entirely different feel and use in writing. An even weaker hiss has both varieties of air sounds, while silence! has an empty -s- sound at both ends, unlike the tight, lip-closed quiet!

Of course there are many other sounds and this description of the spoken sounds is far too brief, so you may want to peruse a longer technical study on the acoustics of the various sounds. I remind you of the paper on the Sound Spectrograph . But the point to remember is that the speech sounds which we use daily have a shape and a character of their own either singly or in combinations, and when we read poetry aloud, it is the configuration and performance of these basic sound-units which we are going to hear. These are a prime part of the ancient Poetic Art and if we are going to "read" poetry for our personal pleasure today, we must remember that the reading should be acoustic and clearly an out-loud performance

In fact the word "read" has several meanings. To "read" a Beethoven sonata means to have the score up while you play the piece out on the piano keys. It is the listening of the sound which is the music, and nobody reads the printed score silently for the pleasure of the un-sounded music. It is so with poetry, where the words are a score waiting to be interpreted by a sensitive reader into a beautiful performance experience. Verbum satis sapientibus!!

What to avoid. . . .

There is an accumulation of varied terminology which is usually listed all together in the traditional grammar books under the title "The Figures of Speech". You will notice that these generally have Greek names because they were devised by the academicians of the University at Alexandria in the period of 150 BC, and the terms were easily understood by Greek speakers throughout the Mediterranean world. But the Romans, anxious to copycat the high levels of Greek thought and writing, worked these terms into their own academic tradition, which was revived during the Renaissance as part of the ancient cultural and literary inheritance. Some of the terms are in the Greek form, others were crudely Latinized. One step further in American grammar books, and you have here a full list of everything you don't need to know about the writing and the interpretation of poetry.

Here is a good list of what to avoid even thinking about when you read a poem. If writing poetry, a poet willwrite naturally what is in the mind with their own craft scrupulously avoiding thinking about items on this list. Poetry read while searching for grammatical terminology will be read as grammar not poetry. Poetry written with such prescriptive notions in mind will inevitably lead to poetic disaster.

accumulation: Summarization of previous arguments in a forceful manner.

adnominatio: Repetition of a word with a change in letter or sound

alliteration: A series of words that begin with the same letter or sound alike

anacoluthon: A change in the syntax within a sentence

anadiplosis: Repetition of a word at the end of a clause at the beginning of another

anaphora: The repetition of the same word or group of words at the beginning of successive clauses

anastrophe: Inversion of the usual word order

anticlimax: the arrangement of words in order of decreasing importance

antimetabole: Repetition of words in successive clauses, in reverse order

antistrophe: The repetition of the same word or phrase at the end of successive clauses (see epistrophe)

antithesis: The juxtaposition of opposing or contrasting ideas

aphorismus: statement that calls into question the definition of a word

aposiopesis: Breaking off or pausing speech for dramatic or emotional effect

apostrophe: Directing the attention away from the audience and to a personified abstraction

apposition: The placing of two elements side by side, in which the second defines the first

assonance: The repetition of vowel sounds, most commonly within a short passage of verse

asteismus: Facetious or mocking answer that plays on a word

asyndeton: Omission of conjunctions between related clauses

cacophony: The juxtaposition of words producing a harsh sound

classification (literature & grammar): linking a proper noun and a common noun with an article

chiasmus: Reversal of grammatical structures in successive clauses

climax: The arrangement of words in order of increasing importance

consonance: The repetition of consonant sounds, most commonly within a short passage of verse

dystmesis: A synonym for tmesis

ellipsis: Omission of words

enallage: The substitution of forms that are grammatically different, but have the same meaning

enjambment: A breaking of a syntactic unit (a phrase, clause, or sentence) by the end of a line or between two verses.

enthymeme: Informal method of presenting a syllogism

epanalepsis: Repetition of the initial word or words of a clause or sentence at the end of the clause or sentence.

epistrophe: The repetition of the same word or group of words at the end of successive clauses. The counterpart of anaphora (also known as antistrophe)

euphony: The opposite of cacophony - i.e. pleasant sounding

hendiadys: Use of two nouns to express an idea when the normal structure would be a noun and a modifier

hendiatris: Use of three nouns to express one idea

homographs: Words that are identical in spelling but different in origin and meaning

homonyms: Words that are identical with each other in pronunciation and spelling, but differing in origin and meaning.

homophones:Words that are identical with each other in pronunciation but differing in origin and meaning.

hypallage: Changing the order of words so that they are associated with words normally associated with others

hyperbaton: Schemes featuring unusual or inverted word order.

hyperbole: An exaggeration of a statement.

hysteron proteron: The inversion of the usual temporal or causal order between two elements.

isocolon: Use of parallel structures of the same length in successive clauses

internal rhyme : Using two or more rhyming words in the same sentence

kenning: A metonymic compound where the terms together form a sort of synecdoche

merism: Referring to a whole by enumerating some of its parts

non sequitur: a statement that bears no relationship to the context preceding

onomatopoeia: A word imitating a real sound (e.g. tick-tock or boom)

paradiastole: Repetition of the disjunctive pair "neither" and "nor"

parallelism: The use of similar structures in two or more clauses

paraprosdokian: Unexpected ending or truncation of a clause

parenthesis: Insertion of a clause or sentence in a place where it interrupts the natural flow of the sentence

paroemion: A resolute alliteration in which every word in a sentence or phrase begins with the same letter

parrhesia: Speaking openly or boldly, or apologizing for doing so (declaring to do so)

perissologia: The fault of wordiness

pleonasm: The use of superfluous or redundant words

polyptoton: Repetition of words derived from the same root

polysyndeton: Repetition of conjunctions

pun: When a word or phrase is used in two different senses

sibilance: Repetition of letter 's', it is a form of alliteration

superlative: Saying something the best of something i.e. the ugliest,the most precious

spoonerism: Interchanging of (usually initial) letters of words with amusing effect

symploce: Simultaneous use of anaphora and epistrophe: the repetition of the same word or group of words at the beginning and the end of successive clauses

synchysis: Interlocked word order

synesis: An agreement of words according to the sense, and not the grammatical form

synizesis: The pronunciation of two juxtaposed vowels or diphthongs as a single sound

synonymia: The use of two or more synonyms in the same clause or sentence

tautology: Redundancy due to superfluous qualification; saying the same thing twice

tmesis: Division of the elements of a compound word


William Harris
Prof. Em. Middlebury College