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The Language of Poetry


Poetry is often regarded as a mystery, and in some respects it is one. No one is quite sure where poetry comes from, no one is quite sure exactly what it is, and no one knows, really, how anyone is able to write it.

The Greeks thought, or at least said, that it came from the Muse, but in our time no one has been able to find her. The unconscious has been offered as a substitute, but that, too, is hard to locate. How anyone is able to write it is explained in this way: the poet is a genius who receives inspiration.

One way to get a little more clarity on the subject was suggested to me by a remark of Paul Valéry’s. Thinking about what could be expressed in poetry but not elsewhere, he said that poetry was a separate language or, more specifically, a “language within a language.” There would be, in that case, the ordinary language—for Valéry French, for us English—and, somehow existing inside its boundaries, another: “the language of poetry.” Valéry let it go at that; he went on to talk about other things. I thought it worth taking literally and seeing where it might lead; I thought it might explain something important about how poems are written and how they can be read.

According to this idea, a poet could be described as someone who writes in the language of poetry. Talent is required for doing it well, but there are things that can help this talent to appear and to have an effect—for example, you have to learn this particular language, which you do by reading it and writing it. The language itself helps to explain inspiration, which is always, at a certain point in its development, the appearance of some phrase or sentence or other in the poetic language. You may be moved by the West Wind, but until the words come to you, “O wild West Wind,” the inspiration is still in an early, pre-verbal phase. Once “wild West Wind” is there, it leads to more of this oddly useful language; once the tone, the channel, the language level is found, the poem can take off in a more purely verbal way.

A poet learns the language of poetry, works in it, is always being inspired by it. It’s a language that it gives pleasure to use. I don’t remember clearly that time in my childhood when to speak was an adventure, but I’ve seen it in other children; and I do remember the first year I spent in France, when to speak the French language gave me the same kind of nervous sense of possibility, ambition, and excitement that writing poetry has always done.

If we take the idea of a poetic language seriously, it can be defined first as a language in which the sound of the words is raised to an importance equal to that of their meaning, and also equal to the importance of grammar and syntax. In ordinary language, the sound of a word is useful almost exclusively in order to identify it and to distinguish it from other words. In poetry its importance is much greater. Poets think of how they want something to sound as much as they think of what they want to say and in fact it’s often impossible to distinguish one from the other. This is an odd position from which to speak, and it’s not surprising that strange things are said in such a language. The nature of the language can be illustrated by the way a nonsensical statement may, simply because of its music, seem to present some kind of truth, or at least to be something—even, in a certain way, to be memorable. For example:

Two and two
Are rather blue

No, no,” one may say, “two and two are four,” but that is in another language. In this (poetry) language, it’s true that “two and two are rather green” has little or no meaning (or existence), but “two and two are rather blue” does have some. The meanings are of different kinds. “I don’t know whether or not to commit suicide” has a different kind of meaning from that of “To be or not to be, that is the question.” Repetition and variation of sounds, among other things, make the second version meditative, sad, and memorable, whereas the first has no such music to keep it afloat.

The nature of prose, Valéry said, is to perish. Poetry lasts because it gives the ambiguous and ever-changing pleasure of being both a statement and a song.

The music of language needs to be explained, since most often in reading prose or in hearing people talk we aren’t much aware of anything resembling music. There are no horns, no piano, no strings, no drums. However, words can be put together in a way that puts an emphasis on what sound they make. You might call this the physical quality of the words. “To sleep” means to rest and to be unconscious, and usually that is all it means, but it also has a physical nature—the sounds SL and EEP, for example—that can be brought to the reader’s attention, like the sounds hidden inside a drum that emerge when you hit it with a stick. Once you are listening to the sound as well as to the meaning—as you won’t, say, if you read “Go to sleep” but will, almost certainly, if it is “To sleep, perchance to dream” (Shakespeare)—then you are hearing another language, in which that sound makes music which in turn is part of the meaning of what is said.

The hidden musical sounds that words have can be brought out and made hearable by repetition. In ordinary prose and in conversation they are subjugated for the benefit of practical aims: the sentence has a point unrelated to music and which in fact music would disturb if it became too audible. “No dogs are allowed on the beach” is, as far as music goes, pretty much of a blank; the purpose of the sentence is to keep dogs off the beach. If you read, instead: “No dogs, and no logs/Are allowed on the beach,” or “No poodle however so trim/And no dachshund unable to swim,” etc., you might smile, grow dreamy, or begin a little dance, but in any case might lose the practical message. Individual words in nonliterary prose and in conversation are like persons holding onto a rope and hauling a boat out of the water; the practical end, the beaching of the boat, matters infinitely more than the beauty or the graceful movement of the haulers. Poetry makes us aware of the beauty and grace of the words that are hauling in the meaning so that we have to respond to it both as music and as sense.

In the sentence “I was wondering if you’d like to go for a walk today” there is no word that stops us and makes us experience the words, nothing that makes a noticeable musical sound; the sentence has a practical purpose which is unimpeded by any distracting music, and the person responding to it is likely to say simply yes or no. This situation is changed by a translation into the language of poetry: “I wondered if you/Would like to go out/To walk in the park”—here all three lines have the same pattern of strongly and weakly stressed syllables: da DUM da da DUM; or, “The sky is so blue!/I wonder if you/Would like to go out/And wander about,” in which, along with the rhythmical pattern, the sound is repeated (rhyme). There is no beautiful music here, but the sounds of the words and phrases are audible, which marks the beginning of its being a possibility. An appropriate answer to the poetry-language question would be in the same language: “I very much would/So I will get dressed/And go walking with you.”

Rhythm is easier to understand once you realize that every word in the language already has one. Each word has a little music of its own, which poetry arranges so it can be heard. The rhythm in words is a matter of stresses: one syllable is emphasized—or, one might say, “pronounced”—either more or less than the syllable next to it: the word father is a DUM da—one pronounces it FATHer; the word before is a da DUM; CATalog a DUM da da; afterNOON is a da da DUM; one-syllable words can’t have a rhythm any more than one drum beat can, but in a rhythmic series they can be either DAs or DUMs, unstressed or stressed: TRY this; try THIS.

A rhythm is made hearable by repetition—as in “Father! Father! Laughter! Laughter!,” which is four DUMdas in a row; or as in “Alone beneath the shining autumn moon,” which is five successive daDUMs.

It is easier to write in rhythm than might be supposed. By saying any simple phrase and listening to where the strong stresses are, then saying three other phrases that “sound right” with it, that have stresses more or less in the same place, you have caught on to rhythm and have written four lines that have it—by continuing, for example, after “Is there any butter on the table?” with

Is there any sugar in the coffee?
Are there any comics in the paper?
Are there any dolphins in the sea?

Here there is pleasure in the music of sugar, coffee, comics, etc., because of the “unnaturally” regular order in which these words occur.

Music, which may distract from and even detract from the sense in prose, contributes toward it in poetry. In this Herrick poem, for example, there is something in the way things are said that makes Prudence Baldwin seem very, very light:

In this little urn is laid
Prudence Baldwin (once my maid)
From whose happy spark here let
Spring the purple violet.
(Robert Herrick, “On Prue His Maid”)

Of course, what is in the urn is not Prudence’s body but her ashes, and ashes are not “laid” but put. However the music—the rhyme of laid and maid—amounts to “making poetic sense” and so in reading it one accepts it as making sense altogether. The resulting exhilarating experience—the simultaneous one of Prudence’s lightness and of her definite physical reality (as “Prudence Baldwin”)—without the music, wouldn’t exist, if, for the rhyming word maid, for example, the word housekeeper were substituted.

Along with communicating a meaning, music may make whatever is said convincing, by the beauty of the way it is said—

Let me not to the marriage of true minds
Admit impediments. Love is not love
Which alters when it alteration finds
Or bends with the remover to remove.
Oh, no, it is an ever-fixed mark …

It’s possible that only a very few people have ever experienced the kind of noble unchanging love that Shakespeare refers to in these lines, but there are probably even fewer who don’t believe it exists when they read them. Thanks to the music, emotion becomes stronger than reason—who wouldn’t wish that such a feeling existed, or that one had felt it oneself?

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