Speaking in Poetry

The purpose of rhythm, it has always seemed to me, is to prolong the moment of contemplation, the moment when we are both asleep and awake.

—William Butler Yeats

in the western tradition, it has generally been assumed that the purpose of poetry is to delight, instruct, console, and commemorate. But it might be more accurate to say that poems instruct, console, and commemorate through the pleasures of enchantment. The power of poetry is to affect the emotions, touch the memory, and incite the imagination with unusual force. Mostly through the particular exhilaration and heightened sensitivity of rhythmic trance can poetry reach deeply enough into the psyche to have such impact. (How visual forms of prosody strive to achieve this mental state requires a separate inquiry.) When poetry loses its ability to enchant, it shrinks into what is just an elaborate form of argumentation. When verse casts its particular spell, it becomes the most evocative form of language. ‘Poetry,’ writes Greg Orr, ‘is the rapture of rhythmical language.’

Poetry is a distinct category of language—a special way of speaking that invites and rewards a special way of listening. Poetry is often subtle and sometimes even occult in its meaning, but it is rarely shy about announcing its status as a separate kind of language. In oral culture, poetry needs to sound different from ordinary speech in the very form of its saying to earn its special attention and response. The purpose of sonic features, such as meter, rhyme, alliteration, is partially to make verse immediately distinguishable from speech or prose. ‘I came to poetry,’ said Donald Hall, ‘for the sound it makes.’ Poetry is not merely different in degree from ordinary language—more images, more metaphors, more rhythm—it differs fundamentally in how it communicates. All poetic technique exists to enchant—to create a mild trance state in the listener or reader in order to heighten attention, relax emotional defenses, and rouse our full psyche, so that we hear and respond to the language more deeply and intensely. Camille Paglia speculates that ‘poetry subliminally manipulates the body and triggers its nerve impulses, the muscle tremors of sensation and speech.’ To borrow Franz Kafka’s more violent metaphor about literature in general, poetry is ‘the axe to break the frozen sea within us.’

The aim of poetry—in this primal and primary sense as enchantment—is to awaken us to a fuller sense of our own humanity in both its social and individual aspects. Poetry offers a way of understanding and expressing existence that is fundamentally different from conceptual thought. As Jacques Maritain observed, ‘poetry is not philosophy for the feeble-minded.’ It is a different mode of knowing and communicating the world. There are many truths about existence that we can only express authentically as a song or a story. Conceptual language, which is the necessary medium of the critic and scholar, primarily addresses the intellect. It is analytical, which is to say, it takes things apart, as the Greek root of the word ana-lyein, to unloosen, suggests. Conceptual discourse abstracts language from the particular to the general. Poetic language, however, is holistic and experiential. Poetry simultaneously addresses our intellect and our physical senses, our emotions, imagination, intuition, and memory without asking us to divide them. The text may be frozen on the page for easy visual inspection and analysis, but the poetic experience itself is temporal, individual, and mostly invisible. As Wallace Stevens wrote, ‘Poetry is a pheasant disappearing in the brush.’

Adapted from http://www.thedarkhorsemagazine.com/danagioiapoetrya.html

2 Comments


  1. The purpose of poetry = to enchant. Poetry = distinct category of language.

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  2. poetry language = enchant emotion and humanity

    Reply

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