Tuesday, January 12, 2010

"Thoughts on Poetry"

The following is used with the permission of its author, Todd Eliot, with whom I moderate the Yahoo "Queer Poets" group.
Todd was responding to a new group member on the original Gay Poetry group, who had written:

Why is it "poets" frown upon any poem that uses rhyme? Why is it dismissed as "trivial" or "not meaningful"?  These are words I've heard.

 Todd's response closely echoed my own thoughts on the matter.   I'm including it in its entirety:

 (So, I've been reading the posts of late with great interest, and the recent "Randall" series is awesome [as are many of the other pieces here] ... and herewith are my noodlings on the subject of rhyme, prose, poetry, and such-like:)

In younger days, I wrote reams
Of poetry, spun from fears and dreams;
Despising meter I freely ranged,
Piling image on image in compressed prose
Until a day when everything changed
And structure and rhyme before me rose
Like a glittering beacon, a poet's Grail
Before which my previous poems pale.

Yadda, yadda, yadda ... I like rhyme. I like meter, and structure, and the musical use of language ... and it's become more of a challenge for me to express myself within a defined and limited space.

Madeleine L'Engle, in "A Wrinkle in Time," touches on this briefly ... that a sonnet is a defined structure -- and that within its tight confines, one can express anything one wants. That requires craftsmanship. It's "artificial," as any "art form" is.

Craft and art are sometimes innate talents, but both can be developed through various disciplines ... including study of the various types of stanzas, meters, scansions, and other poetic forms. In the long run, writing a non-rhyming poem that still holds a sense of rhythm and brings out a dazzling use of language and imagery (that uses musical devices like consonance, assonance, etc.), is just as difficult as writing one that rhymes. Sometimes classic forms produce poems that are stilted and stiff ... they don't flow. And, just as often, non-rhyming poems can be just an interesting collection of thoughts and images ... but they remain chopped prose.

Either way is difficult ... and when someone really brings off something that speaks to me deeply, s/he has my greatest admiration. Even when people string together rhyming couplets and quatrains (like my example above), the result can be just doggerel (also like my example above).

I don't think it's the use of rhyme that's trivial ... but sometimes rhyme can be concentrated on to the point that something achieves a nice form, but "says" very little.

And, too, there are a lot of lazy "poets" out there who love the idea of being a poet, but don't want to do the hard work of tackling an idea and hammering it into a classic form. It's good that they've developed the discipline of writing regularly, and of developing images, and of playing with language ... but they're either not
ready -- or unwilling -- to challenge themselves further. A discipline takes work and effort. Some of them are moving toward it, and some are content to remain where they are. Those who wrestle with formal poetic concepts usually learn something ... and if they choose to leave them behind, their non-rhyming works are usually made richer for the effort of having explored the discipline.

Picasso was a masterful draftsman who CHOSE to paint as he did because he wanted to explore beyond traditional forms. James Joyce and Samuel Beckett mastered the use of their own languages and traditions before moving onto others, exploring, and returning to explode their native tongues with masterful works that transcended limitations (not "ignored" -- transcended).

In the end, I'm a former "free-verser" who's a formalist at the moment ... and I am free to abandon formalism if it limits me ... or to embrace it if it acts as a lens -- a device that focuses my intent and my ability to express what I want to say. Others began with formalism and moved beyond it and then returned to it ... and so it
goes. In either case, anything that helps someone find his/her own poetic voice is fine by me. It's a process that's as individual as the poet.

Sorry for the length of this ... it's prose, so I've rambled. The poetry version would have been shorter: I would have toiled over selecting just the right words to get the idea across ... to convey as much meaning as possible in the least space. To paraphrase [and mangle] Judson Jerome:  Almost anyone can write a sprawling novel ... short stories are more difficult ... and poetry compresses it all down even more tightly. (That's why poems can pack more emotional wallop than many a long book).

-- T --

And there you have it.  

There's another piece he wrote in response to a member of the older group decrying the lack of responses to the many, many (too many, I think, to take them all in) pieces he'd posted.

But that's a tale for another time, another posting.

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