Sunday, 23 February 2014

I don't know much about poetry but I know what I like


Since with one exception my readers maintain a silence worthy of a class of sullen fourth-year juniors, I have to be a detective to work out what might please them. Looking back over the past week, I see that readership was highest on the 19th of February and lowest on the 22nd. Reasoning that this might be related to what I had written about on the days before (‘Oh, that was interesting; I’ll look again tomorrow’, or ‘Oh, that was tedious, I won’t bother tomorrow’,) I find that on the 18th I wrote about the Greek poet Nikos Kavvadias, and on the 21st about unusual Greek idioms. I come to the paradoxical conclusion that you like to read about Greek poets but have little interest in the oddities of the Greek language.

Paradoxical? Yes, because as Mallarm√© said to Debussy ‘Poetry is made of words, not ideas.’ Sure, words have meanings. Most of them, and usually, although just now News Media and TV ‘Personalities’ are doing their best to render certain words —‘Crisis’ and ‘Literally’ for example —Meaningless, (incidentally ‘Personality’ as just used is a word that has reversed its meaning, TV ‘Personalities’ having as little personality as possible) er — where was I? Oh yes, poetry being made of words, not ideas, but on the other hand words very often having meanings and being commonly used to express ideas.

But in poetry the word’s meaning — in any case a slippery term — is not usually the most important of its properties. Even if we take the the clearest and most straighforward poem, which says what it means and means what it says — something by, say, Eleanor Farjeon, or the Byron of ‘Don Juan’ — could we take a dictionary of synonyms and change lots of the words into others that meant ‘The same’? Would the result be just as good a poem? Only someone who can’t see the point of poetry at all would say ‘Yes’ to that.

If you say to a poet ‘But what does your poem mean?’ he is quite likely to explode with rage and chase you away. If he is more mild-mannered and Clark Kentish he might shrug and say ‘Search me, guv.’ At the very least he will frown, think hard, and say ‘Well, perhaps…’ or ‘I suppose…’ He will never (Unless he is merely a versifier and not a poet) say ‘Oh, it means…’ and come out with something perfectly straightforward. That would imply that he never needed to write a poem at all; he could have just said what he meant, straight off.

What I’m trying to get at is that poets are the pioneers of language — they are using language to say things that could not be said in other ways; in ‘normal’ language. If you want a metaphor for this, you might think of a clearing in the forest. Within the clearing people go about saying things like ‘Good Morning, Percy’ or ‘A pound of butter please’ or ‘What time does Doctor Strabismus’s lecture on Epistemology start?’ and are generally understood. Meanwhile the pioneers are hacking away at the edges of the language-clearing, increasing its size and finding strange new growths; coming home and talking a bit oddly. Some of them stray too far into the forest and if they come back at all we have difficulty understanding what they’re talking about, though it may in time seem very interesting.

So if one is really interested in poetry, one is interested in language’s oddities.

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