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The Language of Poetry

Music can not only make an emotional statement convincing; it can also give an emotional content (and a clarity) to a statement that without it is nonsense and has neither.

The sun is ten feet high

Adding a line that rhymes with it to this nonsensical statement can give it feeling and meaning.

The sun is ten feet high
Suzanne walks by

Evidently, the speaker is in love. Suzanne’s presence dazzles him like the sun, it makes the sun feel that close to him. The lines have meaning—the reader has an experience—a sort of miracle has taken place, all because of the sound equivalence of high and by; without it, not much would happen:

The sun is ten feet high
Suzanne walks past

This is just a senseless statement followed by an irrelevant one. An equivalent in ordinary language to such a musical failing in poetry language might be a subject and verb that aren’t in agreement; so that one can’t “make sense” of what is said, as one can’t here with high and past but can with high and by.

Along with its emphasis on music, poetry language is also notable for its predilection for certain rhetorical forms such as comparison, personification, and apostrophe (talking to something or someone who isn’t there), and for its inclinations toward the imaginary, the wished-for, the objectively untrue. Music either simply comes with these predilections or is a main factor in inspiring them. The sensuousness of music arouses feelings, memories, and sensations; and its order and formality promise a way to possibly make sense of them.

Ordinary language is of course where the language of poetry comes from. It has the words, the usages, the sounds that a poem takes up and makes its own. It constitutes, along with thoughts and feelings, what may be called the raw materials of poetry. If you think of each word as a note, this ordinary language is like an enormous keyboard, and wherever it is, the poet has a medium, just as the painter has one wherever there are paints, the sculptor wherever there is wood or stone. On the poetic keyboard, each note (each word) refers to or stands for something that is not physically present and that is not it itself. This is easiest to see in regard to nouns. Here, on this page, is the word horse and over there, beside that tree, is a horse. The word horse can make a reader see, smell, touch, even feel as if riding on a horse. Since it isn’t really a horse, it can’t really be ridden or engaged to pull a cart; but it has advantages for the writer that its real-life counterpart lacks. It’s lighter and infinitely more transportable; it can be taken anywhere and put with anything—“the horse is in the harbor”; “the silence was breathing like a horse.”

Words can be handled this way and the material world they represent can’t be. As space yields to nouns, time may yield to verbs and their agile tenses—“The Russian army marched through Poland” is said in an instant; as is “I have loved you for ten thousand years.” Wishes, spoken or on a page, are as physically real as facts: “Would that it were evening!” The future is easy to manage—“Once out of nature I shall never take/My bodily form from any natural thing” (Yeats, “Sailing to Byzantium”). With pronouns, identity can be altered: “I am you.” Adjectives are there to make possible every sort of modification hardly existent outside: an eighteenth-century sleep, mild sandals. Language also has syntactical structures in place that make it easy to say subtle and complex things: “If Napoleon hadn’t lived, we might not be here tonight.” Another great gift of language is the enormous quantity of its words, and their variety—colloquial words, scientific words, slang, archaic words, etc. It’s a huge medium, so much larger than any possible palette or keyboard that comparison seems foolish.

Given such a medium, it is hard to imagine not wanting to play tricks with it, to experiment to see what might be said with it, to take its powers, as it were, into one’s own hands. Bringing out its music is the first step in doing this. The language, musically inert but filled with promise, is there waiting. The poet comes at it somewhat like a translator, as Valéry said, a “peculiar kind of translator, who translates ordinary language, modified by emotion, into the language of the gods.” I would call it the language of poetry, which may or may not help us to speak to the gods but does enable us to say great things to one another.

Poetry can do this because of one extraordinary characteristic of language, which is that it is without any impediment to saying things that are not true. Language has no truth- or reality-check. You can say anything. The only things it’s strict about are grammar and spelling, and, in speech, pronunciation. You can say “Russia is on my lap,” but not “Russia my lap am on.” (Gertrude Stein’s poetry challenges even this assumption.) The conventional use of language does have restrictions: what we say must be clear (understandable) and possibly true (verifiable) or, at least, familiar. A wild statement if it is sufficiently familiar will be allowed: “Life is a dream,” but not “Life is two dreams.” Poetry can say either one. Language is like a car able to go two hundred miles an hour but which is restricted by the traffic laws of prose to a reasonable speed. Poets are fond of accelerating: “In the dark backward and abysm of time” (Shakespeare); “They hurl with savage force their stick and stone/ And no one cares and still the strife goes on” (John Clare); “I effuse my flesh in eddies and drift it in lacy jags” (Whitman).

It is understandable that poets, sitting down to write in such a language, would be as stirred as painters are entering their studios, as composers are touching their pianos; and that readers would be stirred in a similar way by reading what they have written. To be so affected, of course, one has to learn the language.

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Learning the language of poetry may be described as getting a “poetry base.” Once one has it, good things follow: one can read better, and, if one is a poet, write better. The difficulty of learning it, however, may seem overwhelming. It is a language that, in its English version, has existed for at least five hundred years, has been used by persons of great intelligence and sophistication, and has been changed to some extent by every one of them. It is full of references, innovations, complexities and might take more than a lifetime to learn if not for the fortunate fact that one can pick it up in its most advanced state by reading the works of poets who use it, who use it now, and who have used it in the past. A transfer takes place: by reading, a young poet can possess what has taken hundreds of years to develop. Keats wrote Endymion when he was twenty-two years old. Endymion is all Keats, but the Keats who wrote the poem is made up partly of Shakespeare, Spenser, and Milton. Poets can use what they haven’t invented in order to invent what they want to invent. “Ode to the West Wind” is pure Shelley but without Dante’s terza rima it would be much less so, as it would be without Miltonic phrasing—“Thou, from whose unseen presence the leaves dead.” Poets “cut in” on other poets and whirl partners away into their own poems. They are able to pick up the steps from their new (stolen) partners and do variations on them in what seems no time at all.

Almost always this process happens more than once in a poet’s life, sometimes even dozens of times.

What the poetry language actually is for a poet amounts to what he or she knows of it at any particular moment. At first a poet is likely to be an imitator, an aspiring candidate stammering out the equivalent, in poetry language, of grammar exercises. To give an idea of how this process of learning the language works, I’ll give two examples—my own, and that of the children I taught to write poetry. The first part of the language I learned was rhyme. I had been read nursery rhymes. I noticed that, along with rhyming, there was rhythm, a bouncing along in a regularly repeated way. That was meter, though I didn’t know its name. I was able, however, to imitate it, to do it on my own. And that, at the age of six or seven, is all I knew about poetry, or was, rather, the part that I was aware that I knew. In the first poem I remember writing, however, when I was seven, there are other poetic characteristics noticeable to me now that I wasn’t aware of then:

I have a little pony
I ride him up and down
I ride him in the country
I ride him in the town

It rhymes, it’s metrical; it also uses repetition with variation in a quite sophisticated way. Riding up and down is not parallel with riding in the country and in the town. United by rhymes as by the words “I ride him,” the unlikeness becomes a likeness that is a pleasant surprise. This intention was certainly (one hundred percent) not conscious. I had no idea of what parallel or nonparallel meant. My little work shows another predisposition of poetry: it’s a lie. I did not have a pony. I am not sure that I really wanted to have a pony, there in the fairly urban suburb of Cincinnati, Ohio, where I lived. But the shadow of such a wish had come to me at least a few times, when I saw some other child riding a pony or when I read a story about such a child. So my work was characteristic in this way, too, that it expressed a wish, and, even more characteristically, a momentary or fleeting one.1

Much of what I have learned about poetry since writing that poem has come about in the same way, unconsciously, without my knowing it, as a result of my reading and of my feelings. This combination, working in secret, accomplishes a lot for a writer, but at a certain moment, for me it was when I was fifteen, another factor appears, which may be called the deliberate will to do some particular thing. This happened for me when I read Shelley. I very quickly wanted to write like Shelley—I think, in fact, I wanted to be Shelley, with his open collar, his flowing hair, and most of all his incomprehensible ability to put something like this on a page:

  1. 1

    My poem probably has another odd poetic characteristic, that of being influenced by another poem and even of appropriating part of it. In a book of nursery rhymes I recently came on the following poem. I have no memory of seeing it before, but I wonder—

    I had a little pony

    His name was Dapple-Grey

    I lent him to a lady,

    To ride a mile away.

    She whipped him, she lashed him,

    She rode him through the mire;

    I would not lend my pony now

    For all the lady’s hire.

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