Poetry Speaks Introduction by Elise Paschen and “The Figure a Poem Makes” by Robert Frost
In honor of National Poetry Month, we ask the question, What is Poetry?
“A poem can change your life,” says Elise Paschen, in her introduction to the 2007 edition of Poetry Speaks. “In poems, we discover the words and images to understand and interpret the world. Whether writing birth songs or elegies, love vows or political anthems, lyric outbursts or vast narratives, great poets throughout the ages transform ordinary experience, thought, and emotion into something memorable.
A poet regards the page differently than the prose writer. As the French poet Paul
Valéry wrote, “Poetry is to prose as dancing is to walking.” The poet, when writing, considers the borders of a right and left margin and chooses where to begin and end the line. “Verse” derives from the Latin versus, or “turn,” as in turn of the plough, furrow, or line of writing. Unlike the prose writer, who will continue writing the sentence until the typewriter or computer pulls the line over to the left margin, the poet “carves” the line onto the page.”
To appreciate the importance of the line carved out on the page, it may be useful to study a few vocabulary terms.
“In A Poetry Handbook, poet Mary Oliver says, “prose is printed (or written) within the confines of margins, while poetry is written in lines that do not necessarily pay any attention to the margins, especially the right margin.” Critic and poet James Longenbach, in his preface to The Art of the Poetic Line, also links the definition of poetry to lineation: “Poetry is the sound of language organized in lines.”
Line, End-stop and Enjambment:
Line: A line is a subdivision of a poem, specifically a group of words arranged into a row that ends for a reason other than the right-hand margin. This reason could be that the lines are arranged to have a certain number of syllables, a certain number of stresses, or of metrical feet; it could be that they are arranged so that they rhyme, whether they be of equal length or not. But it is important to remember that the poet has chosen to make the line a certain length, or to make the line-break at a certain point. This line-break, where a reader has to turn back to the start of the next line, was known in Latin as the versus, which translates as “turn”, and is where the modern English term “verse” comes from. It is one of the strongest points of a line, which means that words that fall at the end of a line seem more important to a reader (an effect that rhyme can intensify).
End-stop: A metrical line ending at a grammatical boundary or break—such as a dash or closing parenthesis—or with punctuation such as a colon, a semicolon, or a period. A line is considered end-stopped, too, if it contains a complete phrase. Many of Alexander Pope’s couplets are end-stopped, as in this passage from “An Essay on Man: Epistle I”
Then say not man’s imperfect, Heav’n in fault;
Say rather, man’s as perfect as he ought:
His knowledge measur’d to his state and place,
His time a moment, and a point his space.
If to be perfect in a certain sphere,
What matter, soon or late, or here or there?
The blest today is as completely so,
As who began a thousand years ago.
Enjambment: The running-over of a sentence or phrase from one poetic line to the next, without terminal punctuation; the opposite of end-stopped William Carlos Williams’s “Between Walls” is one sentence broken into 10 enjamed lines:
the back wings
will grow lie
in which shine
pieces of a green¹
Another term which may be of use in studying poetry is denouement.
1. the final part of a play, movie, or narrative in which the strands of the plot are drawn together and matters are explained or resolved. synonyms: finale, final scene, epilogue, coda, end.
Similarly, Robert Frost tacked the definition of poetry in his famous and often-anthologized essay “The Figure a Poem Makes.”
“No tears in the writer, no tears in the reader. No surprise for the writer, no surprise for the reader. For me the initial delight is in the surprise of remembering something I didn’t know I knew. I am in a place, in a situation, as if I had materialized from cloud or risen out of the ground. There is a glad recognition of the long lost and the rest follows. Step by step the wonder of unexpected supply keeps growing. The impressions most useful to my purpose seem always those I was unaware of and so made no note of at the time when taken, and the conclusion is come to that like giants we are always hurling experience ahead of us to pave the future with against the day when we may want to strike a line of purpose across it for somewhere. The line will have the more charm for not being mechanically straight. We enjoy the straight crookedness of a good walking stick. Modern instruments of precision are being used to make things crooked as if by eye and hand in the old days . . .”
Certainly one aspect of writing poetry is the act of rewriting or revision. The poet Elizabeth Bishop was famously known for her meticulous revision process. And here below is a glimpse into the revision process for the poet Anne Sexton, working on a draft of what would eventually become “45 Mercy Street”:
Yet as we discover in speaking about poetry, for most readers the process begins with delight. There is no analysis; only immersion. A poem must invite the reader in. We do not begin with the study of the bones of a poem; we only enter it and come away changed.
For those who would aspire to create their own poems on an on-going basis, a study of craft and structure or of seeing the scaffolds or the machine of the poem is certainly needed in order to know what one is doing. The reader and writer both find their delight.
How do you define poetry? Read Paschen and Frost in these excerpts below, and feel free to share your thoughts with us!
What is a poem?
Some poems our Wonderlings book club members shared for Poem in Your Pocket Day 2017:
¹ quote from The Poetry Foundation and Poets.Org.