Asking A Shadow To Dance

 

 The Lovers' Seat: Shelley and Mary Godwin, his future wife - William Powell Frith

 

Genuine poetry can communicate before it is understood. T S Eliot

Poetry is when an emotion has found its thought and thought has found its words. Robert Frost

Poetry is language at is most distilled and most powerful. Rita Dove

You will find poetry nowhere unless you bring some of it with you. Joseph Joubert

A good poem helps to change the shape of the universe, helps to extend everyone's knowledge of himself and the world around him. Dylan Thomas

In poetry, you must love the words, the ideas and the images and rhythms with all your capacity to love anything at all. Wallace Stevens

What is uttered from the heart alone, will win hearts to your own. Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

A thousand dreams within me softly burn. Arthur Rimbaud

Poetry is an echo, asking a shadow to dance. Carl Sandburg

Publishing a volume of verse is like dropping a rose petal down the grand canyon and waiting for the echo. Don Marquis

 

 

  Siren Song courtesy of Steven DaLuz

 

Once upon a time, when everyone had just a little more of it than they do now, there was a running debate in two literary forums about the nature of poetry, what it is  and how it can be distinguished in an age which seems to have difficulty locating its own pulse.

Our ancestors, right up to the 1950s, seemed to know what poetry was by instinct. Sound poetry always had, and always will have, a universal resonance. Verse, doggerel, limerick all had a place, usually humorous, that was lauded for its outlandish nonsense and astute comment. The chronicles of history sparkle with the light-hearted asides of versifiers. (Imagine that now! Maybe we are better bred, or, more likely, it's just that we have lost a sense of sportsmanship.) They were in rhyme because that made them memorable and somehow funnier and more piquant.

Rhyme has long gone out of fashion. This seems to coincide with the 'freedom' our Western civilisation claims to have gained after doing battle with tyranny in two World Wars. Added to that, the splitting of the atom, with its proliferation of consequences, has undermined integrity. These milestones in cosmic history have challenged scientific and moral will. There was once a prevailing view of what constitutes Good and Evil, whose vital shades of grey must, nevertheless, at some point resolve into monochrome and line-drawing. The Golden Rule was key.

So, the old framework is demolished. Since Nietzsche, it is commonplace to accept that God is dead, if, indeed, he ever existed. Whether God is merely notional, or a guiding light, the absence of a divine mind and will leaves no reference point, no order to which we can belong and prosper. It actually leaves nothing to rebel against except the supposed causes of our amorphous pain and offers no hope beyond a fateful redistribution of suffering.

In the wake of all this, our art forms could only become fragmented if they were to be expressive of reality, our vision self-absorbed. It's harder now to communicate in clear and eloquent terms despite our reach via the media.

Art, like life, requires a vehicle. Perhaps 'vessel' is more apt. It thrives upon a paring down of options. Ultimately, economic recession, focused horizons, can only be good for it. We are made in the Creator's image. We are compelled to create. There is nothing like repression for producing work that exalts us.

The principle is vividly illustrated by Brian Keenan, the Beirut hostage of the eighties, who suffered torture at the hands of his captors, yet is able to say:

"Captivity had recreated freedom for us. Not a freedom outside us to be hungered after, but another kind of freedom which we found to our surprise and relish within ourselves."

It is an extreme example. But art, in order to prove its value, requires a needle's eye.
  
All this has a bearing on how we regard poetry. The call to rhyme and rhythm tends to flag up bad poetry, not only because of the sophistication, or otherwise, of the rhyme scheme, but because of the discipline it demands in the use of crisp, telling, multi-layered imagery within a prescribed number of balanced syllables.

Fear not, this is by no means a plea to abandon free verse, nor to discredit it. We are of our times and must ply with the momentum. It is a plea on behalf of those readers who are finding their way through thickets of the self-conscious, imitative and arcanely subjective. Good communication is good manners. And yes, that can take place on many levels, not just the immediate, nor even the conscious. (The Eliot quote above is profoundly telling.) Something within the piece hooks and captivates the reader, who should be present in spirit during the writing. It needs to be authentic, to leave a wisp of air or poignant insight into other aspects of being.

We may take on board academic opinion, be dazzled and informed by it, but then have the wisdom to forget the vogue. Be still and hold counsel with yourself, listen to the rhythms of your soul, tap into the deep well of emotion and experience that is the unique You, be driven by the language, shuffle the images so that they fall into a new pattern in the mind's kaleidoscope. Latch on to a metre that matches your subject, as Robert Browning did, for one, in How They Brought the Good News from Ghent to Aix.

As Shelley maintained: 'Poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world.' Though I am sure he didn't mean the likes of me!