Tuesday, June 09, 2009

Changing Tastes in Poetry Part 1

Ahhh poetry--some folk love it; others can't abide it.
Me--I'm in the "love it" camp.
But I do recognize that part of what pushes people into the "can't abide it" camp has to do with not understanding how it works.

So, I'd like to do two things in this post: explore the changing taste in poetry, and begin to explain how modern poetry works.

There may be some of you who remember memorizing poetry in school. If you did memorize, you have identified yourself with an older generation. Such memorization has gone by the wayside. In part, that may be due to the fact that the poems you memorized are no longer fashionable. You memorized poetry that had used external patterns as the means to achieve poetic cohesion: it had distinct rhythm, meter and rhyme.

Even if you don't know what those words mean, you recognize them when you say a poem, and allow it to fall into the sing-song measures. Here's an example:

In Xanadu did Kubla Khan
A stately pleasure-dome decree:
Where Alph, the sacred river, ran
Through caverns measureless to man
Down to a sunless sea.

(From Samuel Taylor Coleridge's Kubla Khan)

Let "da" represent an unstressed syllable, and "dum" represent a stressed syllable.

So, here's how a line in the verse sounds rhythmically:

Da dum da dum da dum da dum

That is rhythm. And counting each da dum is meter. And the sound of words matching at the end of the line--that is rhyme.

Older poetry uses these tools quite a lot to bind the poem together. In fact, many people feel as though they are not reading a poem unless they can identify these elements. And when they read the poem, likely these elements are exaggerated, so the sing-song effect is magnified.
In fairness, the external elements DO aid in memorizing.

I have never been fond of this type of poetry. Sometimes the external elements so overpower the internal meaning of the poem. A prime example of this would be Poe's The Raven. I mean, you all remember the line "Quoth the raven nevermore"--but, honestly, do you remember anything else about the poem?

Around the end of the 19th century, some poets began to experiment more with poetic form. Some dispensed with the external cohesive elements altogether--think Walt Whitman or Emily Dickinson. Other poets could use the external elements of rhythm, meter and rhyme, but they began to push the form.

You can look to some of the 19th century poets to begin to see this shift in poetic form. Someone such as William Butler Yeats, who lived in both the 19th and 20th century, embodies the shift. You have a wonderfully traditional poem in his When You Are Old, and the beginnings of a modern poem in Sailing to Byzantium. Sailing to Byzantium observes the conventions of rhythm, meter and rhyme, but each line pushes the content over into the next line, so that the effect of the external element disappears.

Read the poem out loud. First, read it stopping at the end of each line. Then read it out loud, reading with the sentence--so that "the young in one another's arms" becomes the spoken line, not where the external break occurs.

THAT is no country for old men. The young
In one another's arms, birds in the trees
- Those dying generations - at their song,
The salmon-falls, the mackerel-crowded seas,
Fish, flesh, or fowl, commend all summer long
Whatever is begotten, born, and dies.
Caught in that sensual music all neglect
Monuments of unageing intellect.

An aged man is but a paltry thing,
A tattered coat upon a stick, unless
Soul clap its hands and sing, and louder sing
For every tatter in its mortal dress,
Nor is there singing school but studying
Monuments of its own magnificence;
And therefore I have sailed the seas and come
To the holy city of Byzantium.

O sages standing in God's holy fire
As in the gold mosaic of a wall,
Come from the holy fire, perne in a gyre,
And be the singing-masters of my soul.
Consume my heart away; sick with desire
And fastened to a dying animal
It knows not what it is; and gather me
Into the artifice of eternity.

Once out of nature I shall never take
My bodily form from any natural thing,
But such a form as Grecian goldsmiths make
Of hammered gold and gold enamelling
To keep a drowsy Emperor awake;
Or set upon a golden bough to sing
To lords and ladies of Byzantium
Of what is past, or passing, or to come.

(Sailing to Byzantium by William Butler Yeats)

Here endeth the lesson. Next time, I will show how modern poetry uses internal elements to achieve cohesion in a poem.


Jayne said...

I tend to be in the camp of wanting meaning and clarity rather than form. I don't really want to have to infer meaning and then get to the end scratching my head. Huh? Some poetry starts out OK for me and then, I am lost. It becomes so esoteric, I lose interest. I wish I liked poetry more, I do.

Lynne at Hasty Brook said...

Donna, I struggle so with poetry. I always have. I do understand that the content moves on itno the next line in your example above, but I do not understand the content of that poem. It seems to go everywhere at once and I lose track of it. I keep trying but find myself frustrated. I've never cared for rhyming poetry either. I love to read but feel that poetry tells a story (if Ican understand it) in such a confining way.
I would love to have a better understanding and appreciation.

possumlady said...

I'm with both Jayne and Lynne. I WANT to like/love poetry but feel if I only had a good teacher (YOU!) at an earlier age, I might appreciate it more.

What I really can't stand are poetry readings--auggghh!! I attend a few local art shows/openings due to a friend who is a painter. The shows inevitably have readings of local artists poetry and I've just learned to make my exit before it starts--it's THAT painful for me.

dguzman said...

VERY COOL POST! And nice way to illustrate meter. Ever done Matthew Arnold's "Dover Beach?" The irregular line length and the meter make it seem like you're hearing the irregularly crashing waves on the beach. Very cool.

from a lifelong poetry lover, even T.S. Eliot's poems

NCmountainwoman said...

I don't recall having to memorize poems, but I do recall the class reading them out loud. I memorized poems for no reason other than loving them. I have always been a lover of poetry and I can still recite "The Raven." My love for poetry began when I first heard James Whitcomb Riley poems. In my young mind they were perfect...rhythm, meter, and rhyme (though I didn't know they were called that) along with a great story and a bit of suspense. As I grew, so did my taste in poetry, but there remains something so comforting in the meter of Poe. I still sit in our little library and read some of my favorite poems aloud and I am amazed at how many poems I can still recite from my youth. The first poem I learned to recite without the external break was "She Came and Went" by James Russell Lowell. It still brings tears to my eyes.

Great post! Put me in the poetry lover's camp.

Dog_geek said...

Wait a minute... we had to memorize poetry in school. So, that means... oh dear!

You can put me in the camp that enjoys poetry, probably because of a few awesome English teachers I had along the way!

Ruth said...

I agree with Possum Lady...poetry readings leave me cold.(like the poem read at Obama's inauguration) But I love to read words that are beautifully put together and create a picture in my mind, whether metered verse, modern verse or prose. I had teachers who had us analyze poems til I hated them (the poems that is)

Tossing Pebbles in the Stream said...

I guess I am old school. I like traditional poetry. I do remember "learning" poems. I thought having to learn poems, like reading out loud, was abandoned so children would not be embarassed with their performance. I still am impressed with individuals who can quote poetry at length.

Liza Lee Miller said...

Loving this! I do like old school poetry and newer poetry as well. I love Shakespeare's sonnets and the eerie dark moodiness of Poe's The Raven (I read it to my students around Halloween each year). But, Yeats stuff, Whitman, and especially Dickinson. LOVE them too. William Carlos Williams is a favorite but I really love Cummings. Yup. I love poetry. As a writer of poetry, I've gotten lazy lately (read busy with kids and career) and lean heavily on poetic forms which force a structure to my writing and make it easier to say what I want to say. Not happy with it but it's what I can do right now. Life happens. :) Thanks for these lessons . . . I feel like I'm back in my favorite lit classes! :)