My voice goes after what my eyes cannot reach,
With the twirl of my tongue I encompass worlds and volumes of worlds.
– Walt Whitman, Leaves of Grass
The Art of Reading Poetry is just as important – and maybe even in the long run, more important that learning the craft itself. Why? Simple: to write a poem is to learn the difficult art of interpretation, or misprisioning, or echoing other great poems we’ve remembered consciously or without even the knowledge that we are doing so. And, by poetry I’ll include the great books of cultural reference from the Mahabharata, the Bible, the Iliad and Odyssey, the poems of Greece and Rome, India and China, down through whatever other cultural horizon you might share.
Poetry is both evocative and expressive, it is a compressed and concentrated form of what scholars term figurative language. All the major tropes of rhetoric go into this figurative language and can be seen in every poem in one form or the other: alliteration, hyperbole, imagery, irony, metaphor, Onomatopoeia, Personification, Simile, metonym… and on through all the little turns of the linguistic mill. Kenneth Burke the great rhetorician of the twentieth-century narrowed the focus of figuration down to just four basic: irony, synecdoche, metonymy, and metaphor.
Irony typically commits one to figurations of presence and absence, or in simpler terms the use of irony is to say one thing while meaning something else or its exact opposite.
Synecdoche is what most of us know as “symbol” in which the figure is typical about the substitution of part for whole, or about the use of the notion of incompletion of something within the poem pointing to something outside the poem. One might think of the old haiku or zen notion of the “finger pointing to the moon” a symbol of mind dependence, etc. Or in Hart Crane in which the Brooklyn Bridge becomes a synecdoche for the bridging power of the mind to fuse human insight and the transcendent in a symbolic form that resolves both into a symbol that is both concrete and clear.
Metonymy is a figuration that unlike a symbol is not based on resemblance but on contiguity, in which the name or prime aspect of anything is sufficient to indicate it, provided it is near in space to what serves as substitute.1
Metaphor is simply the transference of meaning or association of one word to another to allow it to emphasize a meaning that both reinforces the original intent and also allows for certain ambiguities, playful puns, and alternatives that take the word out of its common stock or cliché notions and gives it new life. One example is Hart Crane’s line “peonies with pony manes” which uses a pun on “peonies” and “pony” to bring about a typically unassociated meaning to awaken the mind to alternative sounds, pitches, and a strangeness that was not there before. It makes the line memorable.
As Bloom says in his short little book on The Art of Reading Poetry “figuration or tropes create meaning, which could not exist without them, and this making of meaning is largest in authenticate poetry, where an excess or overflow emanates from figurative language” (Bloom, 3). One of the better books on the study of craft is Owen Barfield’s Poetic Diction: A Study in Meaning which illustrates and details out much of the forgoing.
One could almost say that figuration is the concealed truth of poetry, for it goes on for the most part unrecognized as such as one is reading a poem; only later after one has finished reading the poem and begins to wonder how the poet was able to combine language in such a way to give meaning to the words in the form she did. Then one begins to analyze the poem, break it down into its linguistic units, its meter, its figures, its tropes. This takes time and patience and is not easily mastered overnight. It comes from careful study of past masters. Think of it this way: if one was to take up painting, what would be the first thing we’d need to do? Would we want to know about paintbrushes? What about the various easels, oil cloths, oils or acrylics or pastels, and the different approaches to either buying oils and pigments that had been prepared or whether one wants to learn the way the masters made oils on the spot, grinding down pigments from plants, seeds, etc. and mixing them with various oils, etc.? What about technique? Would one need to be apprenticed to someone who knew something about painting like the old Renaissance masters? Say a painting shop with other painters who share techniques and styles, or a school where a teacher can pass on the available knowledge of these various schools of painting and their history?
The point is that one could presume to take up painting and just say, “Oh, I’m just doing it as a hobby to have fun; I’m not out to perfect or know all the details of the craft.” Well, that’s fine, but would one ever grow? Would one have to stumble through most of the lessons of painting the hard way, have to reinvent the boat so to speak? Well, the same goes for poetry, one doesn’t just sit down and begin to write a poem as if -“Oh, that is so easy! And so fun, too.” Of course one could do that and have fun and all, but would one necessarily grow? Or would one begin to notice that one’s thoughts and rhythms didn’t seem to match up very well against the poetry one so much loves? One would begin to wonder why? Why is these poets seem so different? What is their secret? Well just like painting poets must learn the technique and styles of certain masters, depended on the traditions and valuations, cultural references and appropriation, etc. out of which one’s stock of language allows one to enter this realm.
Beyond figuration and craft is something even more important. Memory. “Memory is crucial for all thought, but particularly so for poetic thinking. Poetic memory… allows recognition, which is regarded as – Angus Flectcher tells us “the central modality of thinking, for literary purposes” (Bloom, 9). The point of this type of poetic memory is the way in which other poets or poems are hidden within poems. What I mean here is that as you read a poem there may come a moment of recognition, when something in the poem suddenly awakens a memory; yet, your still on the brink of discovery not quite able to place what it is this poem reminds you of, and then it dawns: it brings back a remembrance of another poem one had read, maybe in high-school or college or earlier/later. It’s images, metaphors, metonymies, ironies, synecdoche’s, etc., and even the rhythm of the meter, echoes or allusively alludes too or is evasive of some other poem. It’s this sudden recognition that is poetic memory. We all do it. We all have moments when reading poetry when we think, “Dam, I’ve read something or heard something like this? Where or when was that? Who was it said that?” Then we begin a little quest, or let it sit there bugging us till we finally wake up and a light goes off and the eureka moment happens… dam, I got it!
The whole art of reading poetry is just that: the mastery of this allusiveness, of discovering in a poet one is reading the figurations that lay hidden in her work, and then of tracing those through other poets or poems until that spark of recognition suddenly unveils the truth of it. This haunting of poetry by its long tradition is what we now term the state of being belated, of having come late into the game of language, of not being at its beginning, of having coined all the words, or discovered all the turns of phrase and figuration. So what is a poet to do? She in our time masters this subtle art of figuration through allusiveness, through a conscious grasping of the past, its memory of itself and making that her strength. That’s the key.
A great many poets have the feeling that if its all been done then what of me, why should I add more to the world of words if its all been done? Truth is that it hasn’t, poetry is always new, and evolving, ever-changing as is language, and will never be done with as long as people are free to speak and think. This is another key. Everything remains to be done.
What is a poet’s voice? In some way’s I tend to agree with Seamus Heaney’s estimation in which poetry is a form of divination, or revelation of the “self to the self, as restoration of the culture to itself; poems as elements of continuity, with the aura of authenticity of archeological finds, where the buried shard has an importance that is not diminished by the importance of the buried city; poetry as dig, a dig for finds that end up being plants”.2 The notion that one digs down into the traditions of poetry as if it was a sunken treasure, or city buried in the sands and once found the poems that one begets become bound up with that past and sprout seeds from it. Even the most mundane of poems might actually have a long heritage in the deepest worlds of lost traditions. Each poem worthy of the name will have a hidden spark, a small gathering of meaning, a knotting into rather than out of that pulls you in, lures you into its heterocosm, it’s own life and world. Within these alternate worlds of poems one discovers one’s inheritance and one’s voice. This is the loam of power and freedom, of love and death, of all the little things that awaken you to becoming a poet(ess).
In my next essay I’ll begin with the notion of the poet’s voice. All poet’s that become a part of that illusive tribe that people feel the ever apparent conflictual emotions over is the Canon. Yet, there are poets that seem to last. What this means is that certain poets seem to be republished and read over and over generation after generation while others seem to fall away and disappear without ever being heard of again. Why? Is there something unique about a poet’s “voice” that puts them into this special category? And, who decides this? Some critics? No. It’s the common or uncommon reader who returns again and again to these poets. And, it is also the poet’s themselves. Poet’s keep the traditions of poetry alive in the present of their poems. So the canon is built up out of our past confrontations with great poetry and hiding it or masking its presence in the present of one’s poetry through figuration and trope. What the greatest poetry does is to give you back your own voice, to allow you to find it, to enable it, to augment it into those poems that are your own unique being.
I’ll talk more on this next time. Stay tuned!
1. The Art of Reading Poetry. Harold Bloom. (Harper Collins, 2004).
2. Finder’s Keepers. Seamus Heaney. (Ferrar, Straus, Giroux, 2002)