Poetry withers and dies out when it leaves music, or at least imagined music.
The underlying musical nature of poetry is a primary reason why, as T. S. Eliot observed about Dante, ‘Genuine poetry can communicate before it is understood.’ Poetic language expresses itself as a totality, not as a transparent vessel for conceptual content—just as music and dance express meaning in ways that are physical and sensory rather than analytical. Listen to the opening lines of the most widely anthologized poem in the English language, William Blake’s ‘The Tyger’:
Tyger! Tyger! burning bright
In the forests of the night,
What immortal hand or eye
Could frame thy fearful symmetry?
In what distant deeps or skies
Burnt the fire of thine eyes?
On what wings dare he aspire?
What the hand, dare seize the fire?
Great scholars have riddled out the complex mythology and ideology of these lines, which Blake reportedly sang to a tune now lost, but the poem itself has been loved and cherished by millions of readers who have no idea what it means in conceptual terms. Readers (or perhaps it would be better to say auditors) recognize that ‘The Tyger’ is a ‘Song of Experience,’ not a philosophy or theory of experience. Listeners love the poem as a verbal tune or magic spell that summons powerful images and awakens deep emotions. They respond with pleasure and exhilaration to the experience the poem affords. They also sense intuitively how the poem radiates a range of meanings not all of which they are personally able to comprehend. The magical aspect of poetry does not diminish the value of critical scrutiny. Scholarship has clarified the meaning of Blake’s poetry. The point is rather that an essential part of poetry’s power has little connection to conceptual understanding. Poetry proffers some mysteries that lie beyond paraphrase.
It is significant that the Latin word for poetry, carmen, is also the word the Romans used for a song, a magic spell, a religious incantation, or a prophecy—all verbal constructions whose auditory powers can produce a magical effect on the listener. Ancient cultures believed in the power of speech. To curse or bless someone had profound meaning. A spoken oath was binding. A spell or prophecy had potency. The term carmen still survives in modern English (via Norman French) as the word charm, and it still carries the multiple meanings of a magic spell, a spoken poem, and the power to enthrall. Even today charms survive in oral culture. Looking at a stormy sky, surely a few children still recite the spell:
some other day.
Or staring at the evening sky, they whisper to Venus, the evening star:
Star light, star bright,
First star I see tonight,
I wish I may, I wish I might
Have the wish I wish tonight.
A rational adult understands that neither the star nor the spell has any physical power to transform reality in accordance with the child’s wish. But the poet knows that by articulating a wish, by giving it tangible form, the child can potentially awaken the forces of imagination and desire that animate the future. As André Breton proposed, ‘The imaginary tends to become real.’
Poetry recognizes the mysterious relationship between dream and reality. In tribal societies, the shaman navigates the paths between the worlds of sleep and waking, and modern poetry still claims some power to connect the conscious and unconscious minds. The central aim of Surrealism was both to connect and to reconcile dream and reality—a vision that haunted much of twentieth century poetry. The challenge was how to join the dreaming and waking worlds. Surrealism’s reliance on imagery to create its spell was innovative. Traditionally, poetry had relied primarily on recurring patterns of sound. Edith Sitwell maintained that ‘Rhythm is one of the principal translators between dream and reality’—an observation now confirmed by cognitive science about the impact of shamanistic chanting on the human mind and body. As Arthur Koestler wrote, ‘The witch-doctor hypnotizes his audience with the monotonous rhythm of his drum; the poet merely provides the audience with the means to hypnotize itself.’ Bringing dreams into waking consciousness is not an evasion of reality, but an illumination and exploration of reality. ‘In dreams,’ W. B. Yeats observed, ‘begin responsibilities.’
Adapted from http://www.thedarkhorsemagazine.com/danagioiapoetrya.html