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?
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.
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:
I met a traveler from an antique land
I arise from dreams of thee
In the first sweet sleep of night Life, like a dome of many- colored glass
O wild West Wind, thou breath of Autumn’s being
Reading Shelley, over and over, without understanding too much, but picking up some of the spirit of it, I added certain things to my “poetic language.” I learned “O!,” the knack of evoking and talking to no matter what or whom; and personification—if the wind is talkable to, it’s a person, and so is autumn. I was also trying grand, bold, distant comparisons (“Life, like a dome”). I wrote “serious,” aspiring poems, poems about grand things beyond my knowledge and experience, intricately rhymed poems about war, cancer, youth and age:
And as a growing eaglet feebly tries
To spread his new-formed wings and soar through space,
Alas! he cannot leave his nesting place
Adolescence was a part of this, too. It was my age and Shelley together that led me to write what I did write. Emotionally, I was “ready” for the language of “Ozymandias” and “Indian Serenade.” I used for the first time “lofty” language—lofty syntax: “And as…,” “So I…,” and lofty words and phrases: “growing eaglet,” “new-formed wings,” “soar through space,” “Alas!” No one I knew spoke this way—it seemed to me something like the language of the gods. Speaking it, I was instantly aloft, in a realm of thought and feeling that connected me to the other speakers of that language, the mighty dead; speaking it, I felt far from school, from friends, from sports, from Avon Fields Place, where I and my parents lived. Two years later, when I read William Carlos Williams, I found the new pleasure of being able to include the familiar things in my life in my poems, without losing any of the exaltation:
Little girls smearing
the stolen lipstick
of overheard grown-up talk
into their conversations
as graceful as milkweed
in the wind
are beginning to drift
over by the drinking fountain
where they will skip rope
(“Schoolyard in April”)
Lofty language and distant subjects, for me, came first, however; and with them, at fifteen, “wisdom,” the power to define and to pronounce, and omniscience far beyond my years, since I was, as my eaglet poem concluded, “Not yet a man, and still no more a child!” Reading Shelley significantly advanced my knowledge of the poetic language. It was as though I had bought a much more complex and up-to-date poetry machine. Still not “state-of-the-art,” because discoveries were being made and had already been made in poetry that I knew nothing about (by Williams, just for example), but sophisticated enough for me to keep going. When I did discover “modern,” nonrhyming, nonmetrical, nonhifalutin poetry, it transformed my poetic language like a happy virus. The eaglet gave way to my dog, Cokey; “nesting place” was “nest,” if it was there at all; “space” was “sky”; “Alas!” became “Too bad!”
What I had learned before (in the pony and Shelley phases) wasn’t gone, only altered. The metrical regularity—the da DUM da DUM—of “I HAD a LITtle POny/I RIDE him UP and DOWN” and “And AS a GROWing EAGlet FEEBly TRIES” gave way to the nonmetrical DUM da DUM DUM da/ da DUM da DUM da of “LITtle GIRLS SMEARing/ The STOLen LIPstick.” Instead of complete rhymes, like down and town or space and place, there were partial rhymes—mitts, drift, skip—and words with the same rhythmical patterns: LIPstick, converSAtions, FOUNtain. Altogether this made a music that was more like the way I talked.
As for subject matter and tone, the April poem wasn’t less serious than the eaglet one (both poems are about youth and age), was perhaps even more serious, because it was nearer (I had seen little girls but no eaglets desiring to soar). Comparison was still there, though this time to things I was familiar with—milkweed and lipstick—and still my new poem kept the omniscience, the declamatory confidence, that I already knew how to have in writing a poem:
While little boys
Scoff over ball-mitts.
The teachers themselves
Stare out of windows
The “wisdom” in this poem is certainly a wisdom I didn’t have as I went about my seventeen-year-old life but, as I believe is characteristic of much of the wisdom of poetry, is what might be called a “wisdom breeze” that blew on me as I was writing. Clearer perhaps is to say that it was a wisdom created largely by the language of poetry I had learned so far, which was encouraging me to be musical, to make comparisons, to concentrate on sensuous details (smearing, drift, graceful) and on feelings (scoff, stare, remembering) and to use beautiful and unexpected combinations of words (“remembering April”), and also to balance things and to complete them.
By seventeen I had learned some of the poetic language, enough to write in a way that was recognizably poetry. Everyone learns this language somewhat differently.
In 1967, I worked in a New York public school looking for a way to teach schoolchildren to write poetry. Thinking of what children might be good at doing, I gave them a series of writing assignments (I called these “poetry ideas”): wish poems, comparison poems, dream poems, lie poems, and so on. What I called “poetry ideas” I realized later were something more like the elements of a sort of grammar of poetry. I noticed that after writing their wish poems, children sometimes put wishes into their comparison poems, and, later, comparisons in their dream and lie poems, and so on. They were in fact learning the poetry language and seemed excited more each time they used it. For music, the most essential aspect, I limited my suggestions to some simple forms of repetition, such as starting every line with “I wish” or putting a different comparison in each line. This provided two ways of “disrupting” the flow of ordinary prose: division into lines, and repetition of words. This disruption made music, gave a little lilt to what was said, and replaced the pleasure of continuity with the pleasures of repetition and variation.2
Given the means to make verbal music without the strain of looking for rhymes, and being given as subjects various other features of the language of poetry—write wish poems, write lie poems, write comparison poems—my students wrote well enough to show they were learning the language, not just practicing or doing exercises:
A breeze is like the sky is coming to you…
(Iris, fourth grade)
I was given a piece of paper made of roses,
I have a red, blue and white striped rose…
(Eliza, third grade)
I used to be a design but now I’m a tree
(Ilona, third grade)
These lines are in one way already “accomplished”; the whole poems they’re in aren’t as good as the individual lines are. Later, when my students knew more, they were sometimes able to put together whole poems,
The Dawn of Me
I was born nowhere
And I live in a tree
I never leave my tree
It is very crowded
I am stacked up right against a bird
But I won’t leave my tree
Everything is dark
I hear the bird sing
My eyes, they open
And all around my house
Slowly I get down in the water
The cool blue water
Oh and the space
I laugh swim and cry for joy
This is my home For Ever.
(Jeff, fifth grade)
The “poetry idea” for this poem was to tell a lie. Having already written poems about wishes, comparisons, dreams, and contrasts of the present and the past, Jeff was ready to be in the ambiance of these things when he started to write. His line endings are reinforced by the repeated words tree, sing, water; and there are also the nice variation/repetition of house/home and the striking short last line “For Ever,” and the breathlessly incomplete line “Oh and the space.” Where did all this come from? From Jeff, obviously; he wrote it. He told me, though, that he didn’t know what it was about, that he “just wrote it.” It’s to take nothing away from the author, I think, to say that his poem came from his intelligence, his feelings, and from the language of poetry he had learned—as he was able to use it, on this lucky, inspired afternoon.
The poetry “ideas” I used in my classes were ideas extracted from poems. The next year I used poems directly (by Donne, Blake, Lorca, and others). I explained and dramatized them and found poetry ideas in them for the children to follow. Their new poems showed other acquisitions from the language of poetry. In this poem by Chip, inspired by Blake’s “Tyger,” there are things that seem affected by the earlier experience of writing about colors, comparisons, and dreams, but there is also something of the grand tone of Blake’s language and something of its strangeness and intensity:
Giraffes, how did they make Carmen? Well, you see, Carmen ate the
prettiest rose in the world and then just then the great change of heaven occurred and she became the prettiest girl in the world and because I love her.Lions, why does your mane flame like fire of the devil? Because I
have the speed of the wind and the strength of the earth at my command.Oh Kiwi, why have you no wings? Because I have been born with the
despair to walk the earth without the power of flight and am damned to do so.Oh bird of flight, why have you been granted the power to fly?
Because I was meant to sit upon the branch and to be with the wind.Oh crocodile, why were you granted the power to slaughter your
fellow animal? I do not answer.
Carmen was a girl in the class Chip apparently was fond of, which was part of the inspiration that enabled him to use so well what he already knew, and what he had just learned, from reading Blake.
In learning the poetry language, both I, at the age of seventeen, and my students, at the age of eleven, had a long way to go, but we had begun.
Whatever knowledge of the poetic language one has is there ready to combine with feelings, ideas, events, anything one “has to say.” It is affected by inspiration, like a mirror catching the light of what comes in. Shelley, when he wrote his “Ode to the West Wind,” knew Dante’s terza rima and Shakespeare’s exhilarating iambic pentameters. They were part of what enabled him to create his world-sweeping wind.
In reading, knowledge of the poetic language enables one to understand (and to enjoy) the same things that, in writing, it enables one to do. For example, once blank verse (unrhymed iambic pentameter) is understood—“hearable,” really, as one might say the rhythm of a tango or a waltz is hearable—a reader can “read to it,” as a dancer can dance to the waltz. What “reading to” the meter means is giving the metrical beat and the ordinary spoken stresses of the words the proper amount of emphasis. If you read Othello’s line (at the time of his last hesitation before killing Desdemona), “Put out the light, and then put out the light,” as conversational prose, it won’t have much drama or emotion: PUT out the LIGHT and then PUT out the LIGHT. If you read it as a beginner in the poetic language, getting the meter right may give it a dull mechanical sound: Put OUT the LIGHT and THEN put OUT the LIGHT. Whereas fluency in this language will enable you to read it in a way that, by balancing the colloquial stresses against the metrical ones, fills the words with solemnity and terror, slows down the speaking of them so that it seems one can almost hear the heartbeat of the person who is saying them—almost every syllable has an emphasis: PUT OUT the LIGHT and THEN PUT OUT the LIGHT.
The music of nonmetrical poetry is indicated but not insisted on. There are line endings to cause pauses, like rests in music. And there may be rhetorical or syntactical parallels that give a musical pleasure one is used to in oratory or in Biblical prose but not in poetry—
Has anyone supposed it is lucky to be born?
I hasten to inform him or her it is just as lucky to die, and I know
it.(Whitman, “Song of Myself”)
It turns out that this music gives pleasure, which if it is not the
pleasure of poetry, then what is it? After reading four or five lines of it, you know it’s not a speech or a sermon but something else, which keeps you responding to it as music and not just as sense. William Carlos Williams’s more radically prosy music gives a jolt and another kind of pleasure. It may seem at first like prose, or like nothing at all—I have eaten
that were in
you were probably
(Williams, “This Is Just to Say”)
A reader gets broken into pausing at the end of a line no matter what the reason, taking in what’s already been said, and then going on. The ability to do this may be immediate or may take a while to learn. Some knowledge of poetry can slow down appreciation of poetry that is unlike the poetry one knows. An odd quality of poetry as a language is that every great speaker of it changes it—changes what other poets then can say and what readers can then experience. These new uses are sometimes not perceived, thought to be the “same old thing,” or may be perceived as violations of poetry completely—Jonson and Donne were accused by contemporaries of writing prose, not poetry; Bridges told Hopkins his sprung rhythms wouldn’t do; Frost famously dismissed nonmetrical poetry as playing tennis without a net. So it is possible that in learning the language readers may come to difficult crossings—where it pays to be alert, and to take chances.
Learning the language means not only getting to hear its music but also becoming used to its inclinations—its frequent comparisons, talking to things, exaggerations, speed, omniscience. Shakespeare’s “Love’s not Time’s fool” takes a second to read, but a reader unfamiliar with personification is unlikely to get much out of it and likely to skip over it as merely “Shakespearean language,” loftily unclear. There are other kinds of challenges to understanding in modern poetry; some poems resolutely don’t make sense in an ordinary way but they oblige us, if we’re familiar enough with poetry, to make sense of them in another way—“nobody, not even the rain, has such small hands” (cummings); “The academy of the future is opening its doors (Ashbery); “La terre est bleue comme une orange” (“the earth is blue as an orange,” Eluard).
Like other languages, the poetic language can be picked up starting anywhere. One can study it or just begin reading. Writing poetry is likely to improve reading, and this is true also the other way around. When I was twenty-two, reading Shakespeare gave me a passion for blank verse, and during the summer I wrote my first poem in it, about three pages long. After writing it, I went back to reading Shakespeare and found a lot that was new; I got more of the music and also more of the sense. Wallace Stevens once described writing as “a particularly intense form of reading.” Reading can also be an experience of many of the pleasures of writing, once one knows how to read.
Copyright © 1998 Kenneth Koch
May 14, 1998
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— ↩
See my article “Wishes, Lies, and Dreams: Teaching Children to Write Poetry,” The New York Review, April 9, 1970. It was later published by Random House in my Wishes, Lies, and Dreams (in print in paperback, HarperCollins). ↩