Monday, February 2, 2015
Many poets nowadays tend to be as obscure as possible. Individual preferences differ, but I have met poets who contend that meaning doesn't matter at all; poets who eliminate prepositions and connecting verbs, or who want the listener to "feel" the work rather than comprehend it. Playing such mind games is all right as an exercise, I suppose; I find the individuals themselves entertaining (and I mean that in a positive sense); I enjoy them as people, but when they finish their reading and look around the small group expectantly, I panic. Each obviously expects some comment.
What reaction is best? To say,"I haven't any idea what you were talking about" seems rude, even when true. "Impressive imagery" can be used only a few times. "Wow" or "Fantastic" rarely measure up to even low levels of sophistication, and are too likely to invite further questions.
But whatever happened to meaning? When I take the time to travel to a writers' group, the literary equivalent of strobe lights or aroma therapy aren't enough to satisfy me. I want something I can retain and ponder, perhaps even recall word for word while I use my exercise bike, or lie awake in the night. Meter and rhyme used to have purpose, not only for any pleasure they bring in themselves, but as a means to imprint the poetry on my mind, to be recalled days or years later.
A poem need not have meaning, meter, and rhyme, all three, to make it memorable. Like the body's physical sense of balance (derived from inner ear, eyesight, and awareness of body position), one can be removed without loss. Remove two out of the three, and the mind in the one instance, or the body in the other, begins to stagger.
The time has come, the Walrus said, to talk of many things;
Of shoes and ships and sealing wax, of cabbages and kings.
And why the sea is boiling hot, and whether pigs have wings.
(Lewis Carroll, Through the Looking Glass.)
Utter nonsense, unless you suspect satire about pompous professors the author, Lewis Carroll, may have known. But Carroll descends further into meaninglessness in his poem Jabberwocky. It starts:
'Twas brillig, and the slithy toves
Did gyre and gimble in the wabe;
All mimsy were the borogoves,
And the mome raths outgrabe.
Even though there is little meaning in the words, the mind constructs a picture, carried on by the perfect rhythm and rhyme of his lines. The poem goes on to tell the tale of a man sending his son to kill a forest monster, and the poem became so famous that it has planted several new words in the English language (e.g. chortle, galumphing, beamish.)
Ancient Hebrew poetry, translated into English, has no rhyme, and no definite rhythm,but depends instead on a repeat of a phrase in different words. But the meaning has inspired readers for three thousand years:
Whither shall I go from thy Spirit?
Or whither shall I flee from thy presence?
If I ascend up into heaven, thou art there.
If I make my bed in hell, behold, thou art there.
If I take the wings of the morning, and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea;
Even there shall thy hand lead me, and thy right hand shall guide me.
Contemporary poetry, on the other hand, is easier to remember because the similarly inspiring thoughts also scan and rhyme. Consider:
Though the cause of evil prosper, still 'tis truth alone is strong.
Though her portion be the scaffold, and upon the throne be wrong.
Yet that scaffold sways the future, and behind the dim unknown
Standeth God within the shadow, keeping watch above his own.
(Lowell, Once to Every Man and Nation)
Finally, poetry can be simply enjoyed for its wit and humor. Starting as nursery rhymes long ago, limericks were made popular by Edward Lear in the nineteenth century. He, however, usually ended the first line and last line with the same word, robbing the verse of any surprise. Later limericks are more imaginative, greatly improving their popularity:
The humor may be gentle:
A Canadian fisher named Peck
Fell through the ice up to his neck.
When asked, "Are you froze?"
He said, "Yes, I suppose,
But we don't call this cold in Quebec."
Or merely ridiculous:
There was a young lady from Natchez
Whose garments were always in patchez.
When comment arose
On the state of her clothes,
She would drawl, "When ah itchez, ah scratchez."
In our writers group in Kellogg, Idaho, there is a man, Jeff Simonson, who can produce original limericks almost without effort - sometimes as a narrative poem of five or six verses, each verse a faultless limerick, expressing his mood or a recent event. I envy his skill, but poetry is not my major literary interest. I have rarely tried to compose any poetry since high school class assignments long ago.
My favorite form remains the limerick. It permits satire, surprise, rhythm and rhyme, and is brief enough to memorize. Mind games and cross-cultural poetry have their appeal, but I still treasure the traditional forms that can be easily recalled and retained in the mind.