poetryless, adj.
/poh"i tree/, n.
1. the art of rhythmical composition, written or spoken, for exciting pleasure by beautiful, imaginative, or elevated thoughts.
2. literary work in metrical form; verse.
3. prose with poetic qualities.
4. poetic qualities however manifested: the poetry of simple acts and things.
5. poetic spirit or feeling: The pianist played the prelude with poetry.
6. something suggestive of or likened to poetry: the pure poetry of a beautiful view on a clear day.
[1350-1400; ME poetrie < ML poetria poetic art, deriv. of poeta POET, but formation is unclear; prob. not < Gk poiétria poetess]
Syn. 2. POETRY, VERSE agree in referring to the work of a poet. The difference between POETRY and VERSE is usually the difference between substance and form. POETRY is lofty thought or impassioned feeling expressed in imaginative words: Elizabethan poetry. VERSE is any expression in words which simply conforms to accepted metrical rules and structure: the differences between prose and verse.
Ant. 2. prose.

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U.S. poetry magazine founded in Chicago in 1912 by Harriet Monroe, who became its longtime editor.

It became the principal organ for modern poetry of the English-speaking world and survived through World War II. Because its inception coincided with the Chicago literary renaissance, it is often associated with the raw, local-colour poetry of Carl Sandburg, Edgar Lee Masters, Vachel Lindsay, and Sherwood Anderson, but it also championed new formalistic movements, including Imagism. Ezra Pound was its European correspondent; among the authors it published were T.S. Eliot, Wallace Stevens, Marianne Moore, D.H. Lawrence, and William Carlos Williams.

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       literature that evokes a concentrated imaginative awareness (aesthetics) of experience or a specific emotional response through language chosen and arranged for its meaning, sound, and rhythm.

      Poetry is a vast subject, as old as history and older, present wherever religion is present, possibly—under some definitions—the primal and primary form of languages themselves. The present article means only to describe in as general a way as possible certain properties of poetry and of poetic thought regarded as in some sense independent modes of the mind. Naturally, not every tradition nor every local or individual variation can be—or need be—included, but the article illustrates by examples of poetry ranging between nursery rhyme and epic. This article considers the difficulty or impossibility of defining poetry; man's nevertheless familiar acquaintance with it; the differences between poetry and prose; the idea of form in poetry; poetry as a mode of thought; and what little may be said in prose of the spirit of poetry.

Attempts to define poetry
      Poetry is the other way of using language. Perhaps in some hypothetical beginning of things it was the only way of using language or simply was language tout court, prose being the derivative and younger rival. Both poetry and language are fashionably thought to have belonged to ritual in early agricultural societies; and poetry in particular, it has been claimed, arose at first in the form of magical (magic) spells recited to ensure a good harvest. Whatever the truth of this hypothesis, it blurs a useful distinction: by the time there begins to be a separate class of objects called poems, recognizable as such, these objects are no longer much regarded for their possible yam-growing properties, and such magic as they may be thought capable of has retired to do its business upon the human spirit and not directly upon the natural world outside.

      Formally, poetry is recognizable by its greater dependence on at least one more parameter, the line, than appears in prose (prosody) composition. This changes its appearance on the page; and it seems clear that people take their cue from this changed appearance, reading poetry aloud in a very different voice from their habitual voice, possibly because, as Ben Jonson (Jonson, Ben) said, poetry “speaketh somewhat above a mortal mouth.” If, as a test of this description, people are shown poems printed as prose, it most often turns out that they will read the result as prose simply because it looks that way; which is to say that they are no longer guided in their reading by the balance and shift of the line in relation to the breath as well as the syntax.

      That is a minimal definition but perhaps not altogether uninformative. It may be all that ought to be attempted in the way of a definition: Poetry is the way it is because it looks that way, and it looks that way because it sounds that way and vice versa.

Poetry and prose (prose poem)
      People's reason for wanting a definition is to take care of the borderline case, and this is what a definition, as if by definition, will not do. That is, if a man asks for a definition of poetry, it will most certainly not be the case that he has never seen one of the objects called poems that are said to embody poetry; on the contrary, he is already tolerably certain what poetry in the main is, and his reason for wanting a definition is either that his certainty has been challenged by someone else or that he wants to take care of a possible or seeming exception to it: hence the perennial squabble about distinguishing poetry from prose, which is rather like distinguishing rain from snow—everyone is reasonably capable of doing so, and yet there are some weathers that are either-neither.

      Sensible things have been said on the question. The poet T.S. Eliot (Eliot, T.S.) suggested that part of the difficulty lies in the fact that there is the technical term “verse” to go with the term “poetry,” while there is no equivalent technical term to distinguish the mechanical part of prose and make the relation symmetrical. The French poet Paul Valéry (Valéry, Paul) said that prose was walking, poetry dancing. Indeed, the original two terms, prosus and versus, meant, respectively, “going straight forth” and “returning”; and that distinction does point up the tendency of poetry to incremental repetition, variation, and the treatment of many matters and different themes in a single recurrent form such as couplet or stanza.

      Robert Frost (Frost, Robert) said shrewdly that poetry was what got left behind in translation, which suggests a criterion of almost scientific refinement: when in doubt, translate; whatever comes through is prose, the remainder is poetry. And yet to even so acute a definition the obvious exception is a startling and a formidable one: some of the greatest poetry in the world is in the Authorized Version (King James Version) of the Bible, which is not only a translation but also, as to its appearance in print, identifiable neither with verse nor with prose in English but rather with a cadence owing something to both.

      There may be a better way of putting the question by the simple test alluded to above. When people are presented with a series of passages drawn indifferently from poems and stories but all printed as prose, they will show a dominant inclination to identify everything they possibly can as prose. This will be true, surprisingly enough, even if the poem rhymes and will often be true even if the poem in its original typographical arrangement would have been familiar to them. The reason seems to be absurdly plain: the reader recognizes poems by their appearance on the page, and he responds to the convention whereby he recognizes them by reading them aloud in a quite different tone of voice from that which he applies to prose (which, indeed, he scarcely reads aloud at all). It should be added that he makes this distinction also without reading aloud; even in silence he confers upon a piece of poetry an attention that differs from what he gives to prose in two ways especially: in tone and in pace.

Major differences
      In place of further worrying over definitions, it may be both a relief and an illumination to exhibit certain plain and mighty differences between prose and poetry by a comparison. In the following passages a prose writer and a poet are talking about the same subject, growing older.

Between the ages of 30 and 90, the weight of our muscles falls by 30 percent and the power we can exert likewise . . . . The number of nerve fibres in a nerve trunk falls by a quarter. The weight of our brains falls from an average of 3.03 lb. to 2.27 lb. as cells die and are not replaced . . . . (Gordon Rattray Taylor, The Biological Time Bomb, 1968.)
Let me disclose the gifts reserved for age
To set a crown upon your lifetime's effort.
First, the cold friction of expiring sense
Without enchantment, offering no promise
But bitter tastelessness of shadow fruit
As body and soul begin to fall asunder.
Second, the conscious impotence of rage
At human folly, and the laceration
Of laughter at what ceases to amuse.
And last, the rending pain of re-enactment
Of all that you have done, and been . . . .

(T.S. Eliot, Four Quartets.)

      Before objecting that a simple comparison cannot possibly cover all the possible ranges of poetry and prose compared, the reader should consider for a moment what differences are exhibited. The passages are oddly parallel, hence comparable, even in a formal sense; for both consist of the several items of a catalog under the general title of growing old. The significant differences are of tone, pace, and object of attention. If the prose passage interests itself in the neutral, material, measurable properties of the process, while the poetry interests itself in what the process will signify to someone going through it, that is not accidental but of the essence; if one reads the prose passage with an interest in being informed, noting the parallel constructions without being affected by them either in tone or in pace, while reading the poetry with a sense of considerable gravity and solemnity, that too is of the essence. One might say as tersely as possible that the difference between prose and poetry is most strikingly shown in the two uses of the verb “to fall”:

The number of nerve fibres in a nerve trunk falls by a quarter
As body and soul begin to fall asunder

      It should be specified here that the important differences exhibited by the comparison belong to the present age. In each period, speaking for poetry in English at any rate, the dividing line will be seen to come at a different place. In Elizabethan times the diction of prose was much closer to that of poetry than it later became, and in the 18th century authors saw nothing strange about writing in couplets about subjects that later would automatically and compulsorily belong to prose—for example, horticulture, botany, even dentistry. Here is not the place for entering into a discussion of so rich a chapter in the history of ideas; but it should be remarked that the changes involved in the relation between poetry and prose are powerfully influenced by the immense growth of science, commerce, and number in man's ways of describing, even of viewing, the world.

poetic diction and experience
      Returning to the comparison, it is observable that though the diction of the poem is well within what could be commanded by a moderately well-educated speaker, it is at the same time well outside the range of terms in fact employed by such a speaker in his daily occasions; it is a diction very conscious, as it were, of its power of choosing terms with an effect of peculiar precision and of combining the terms into phrases with the same effect of peculiar precision and also of combining sounds with the same effect of peculiar precision. Doubtless the precision of the prose passage is greater in the more obvious property of dealing in the measurable; but the poet attempts a precision with respect to what is not in the same sense measurable nor even in the same sense accessible to observation; the distinction is perhaps just that made by the French scientist and philosopher Blaise Pascal in discriminating the spirits of geometry and finesse; and if one speaks of “effects of precision” rather than of precision itself, that serves to distinguish one's sense that the art work is always somewhat removed from what people are pleased to call the real world, operating instead, in Immanuel Kant's (Kant, Immanuel) shrewd formula, by exhibiting “purposefulness without purpose.” To much the same point is what Samuel Taylor Coleridge (Coleridge, Samuel Taylor) remembers having learned from his schoolmaster:

I learnt from him, that Poetry, even that of the loftiest and, seemingly, that of the wildest odes, had a logic of its own, as severe as that of science; and more difficult, because more subtle, more complex, and dependent on more, and more fugitive causes. In the truly great poets, he would say, there is a reason assignable, not only for every word, but for the position of every word. (Biographia Literaria, ch. I.)

      Perhaps this is a somewhat exaggerated, as it is almost always an unprovable, claim, illustrating also a propensity for competing with the prestige of science on something like its own terms—but the last remark in particular illuminates the same author's terser formulation: “prose = words in the best order, poetry = the best words in the best order.” This attempt at definition, impeccable because uninformative, was derived from Jonathan Swift (Swift, Jonathan), who had said, also impeccably and uninformatively, that style in writing was “the best words in the best order.” Which may be much to the same effect as Louis Armstrong's (Armstrong, Louis) saying, on being asked to define jazz, “Baby, if you got to ask the question, you're never going to know the answer.” Or the painter Marcel Duchamp's (Duchamp, Marcel) elegant remark on what psychologists call “the problem of perception”: “If no solution, then maybe no problem?” This species of gnomic (gnomic poetry), riddling remark may be determinate for the artistic attitude toward definition of every sort; and its skepticism is not confined to definitions of poetry but extends to definitions of anything whatever, directing one not to dictionaries but to experience and, above all, to use: “Anyone with a watch can tell you what time it is,” said Valéry, “but who can tell you what is time?”

      Happily, if poetry is almost impossible to define, it is extremely easy to recognize in experience; even untutored children are rarely in doubt about it when it appears:

Little Jack Jingle,
He used to live single,
But when he got tired of this kind of life,
He left off being single, and liv'd with his wife.

      It might be objected that this little verse (doggerel) is not of sufficient import and weight to serve as an exemplar for poetry. It ought to be remembered, though, that it has given people pleasure so that they continued to say it until and after it was written down, nearly two centuries ago. The verse has survived, and its survival has something to do with pleasure, with delight; and while it still lives, how many more imposing works of language—epic poems, books of science, philosophy, theology—have gone down, deservedly or not, into dust and silence. It has, obviously, a form, an arrangement of sounds in relation to thoughts that somehow makes its agreeable nonsense closed, complete, and decisive. But this somewhat muddled matter of form deserves a heading and an instance all to itself.

Form in poetry
      People nowadays who speak of form in poetry almost always mean such externals as regular measure and rhyme, and most often they mean to get rid of these in favour of the freedom they suppose must follow upon the absence of form in this limited sense. But in fact a poem having only one form would be of doubtful interest even if it could exist. In this connection, the poet J.V. Cunningham speaks of “a convergence of forms, and forms of disparate orders,” adding: “It is the coincidence of forms that locks in the poem.” For a poem is composed of internal and intellectual forms as well as forms externally imposed and preexisting any particular instance, and these may be sufficient without regular measure and rhyme; if the intellectual forms are absent, as in greeting-card verse and advertising jingles, no amount of thumping and banging will supply the want.

      Form, in effect, is like the doughnut that may be said to be nothing in a circle of something or something around nothing; it is either the outside of an inside, as when people speak of “good form” or “bourgeois formalism,” or the inside of an outside, as in the scholastic saying that “the soul is the form of the body.” Taking this principle, together with what Cunningham says of the matter, one may now look at a very short and very powerful poem with a view to distinguishing the forms, or schemes, of which it is made. It was written by Rudyard Kipling (Kipling, Rudyard)—a great poet at present somewhat sunken in reputation, probably on account of misinterpretations having to do more with his imputed politics than with his poetry—and its subject, one of a series of epitaphs for the dead of World War I, is a soldier shot by his comrades for cowardice in battle.

I could not look on Death, which being known,
Men led me to him, blindfold and alone.

      The aim of the following observations and reflections is to distinguish as clearly as possible—distinguish without dividing—the feelings evoked by the subject, so grim, horrifying, tending to helpless sorrow and despair, from the feelings, which might better be thought of as meanings, evoked by careful contemplation of the poem in its manifold and somewhat subtle ways of handling the subject, leading the reader on to a view of the strange delight intrinsic to art, whose mirroring and shielding power allows him to contemplate the world's horrible realities without being turned to stone.

      There is, first, the obvious external form of a rhymed, closed couplet in iambic pentameter (that is, five poetic “feet,” each consisting of an unstressed followed by a stressed syllable, per line). There is, second, the obvious external form of a single sentence balanced in four grammatical units with and in counterpoint with the metrical form. There is, third, the conventional form belonging to the epitaph and reflecting back to antiquity; it is terse enough to be cut in stone and tight-lipped also, perhaps for other reasons, such as the speaker's shame. There is, fourth, the fictional form belonging to the epitaph, according to which the dead man is supposed to be saying the words himself. There is, fifth, especially poignant in this instance, the real form behind or within the fictional one, for the reader is aware that in reality it is not the dead man speaking, nor are his feelings the only ones the reader is receiving, but that the comrades who were forced to execute him may themselves have made up these two lines with their incalculably complex and exquisite balance of scorn, awe, guilt, and consideration even to tenderness for the dead soldier. There is, sixth, the metaphorical (metaphor) form, with its many resonances ranging from the tragic through the pathetic to irony and apology: dying in battle is spoken of in language relating it to a social occasion in drawing room or court; the coward's fear is implicitly represented as merely the timorousness and embarrassment one might feel about being introduced to a somewhat superior and majestic person, so that the soldiers responsible for killing him are seen as sympathetically helping him through a difficult moment in the realm of manners. In addition, there is, seventh, a linguistic or syntactical (syntax) form, with at least a couple of tricks to it: the second clause, with its reminiscence of Latin construction, participates in the meaning by conferring a Roman stoicism and archaic gravity on the saying; remembering that the soldiers in the poem had been British schoolboys not long before, the reader might hear the remote resonance of a whole lost world built upon Greek and Roman models; and the last epithets, “blindfold and alone,” while in the literal acceptation they clearly refer to the coward, show a distinct tendency to waver over and apply mysteriously to Death as well, sitting there waiting “blindfold and alone.” One might add another form, the eighth, composed of the balance of sounds, from the obvious likeness in the rhyme down to subtleties and refinements beneath the ability of coarse analysis to discriminate. And even there one would not be quite at an end; an overall principle remains, the compression of what might have been epic or five-act tragedy into two lines, or the poet's precise election of a single instant to carry what the novelist, if he did his business properly, would have been hundreds of pages arriving at.

      It is not at all to be inferred that the poet composed his poem in the manner of the above laborious analysis of its strands; the whole insistence, rather, is that he did not catalog eight or 10 forms and assemble them into a poem; more likely it “just came to him.” But the example may serve to indicate how many modes of the mind go together in this articulation of an implied drama and the tension among many possible sentiments that might arise in response to it.

      In this way, by the coincidence of forms that locks in the poem, one may see how to answer a question that often arises about poems: though their thoughts are commonplace, they themselves mysteriously are not. One may answer on the basis of the example and the inferences produced from it that a poem is not so much a thought as it is a mind: talk with it, and it will talk back, telling you many things that you might have thought for yourself but somehow didn't until it brought them together. Doubtless a poem is a much simplified model for the mind. But it might still be one of the best man has available. On this great theme, however, it will be best to proceed not by definition but by parable and interpretation.

Poetry as a mode of thought: the Protean encounter
      In the fourth book of the Odyssey Homer tells the following strange tale. After the war at Troy, Menelaus wanted very much to get home but was held up in Egypt for want of a wind because, as he later told Telemachus, he had not sacrificed enough to the gods. “Ever jealous the Gods are,” he said, “that we men mind their dues.” But because the gods work both ways, it was on the advice of a goddess, Eidothea, that Menelaus went to consult Proteus, the old one of the sea, as one might consult a travel agency.

      Proteus was not easy to consult. He was herding seals, and the seals stank even through the ambrosia Eidothea had provided. And when Menelaus crept up close, disguised as a seal, and grabbed him, Proteus turned into a lion, a dragon, a leopard, a boar, a film of water, and a high-branched tree. But Menelaus managed to hang on until Proteus gave up and was himself again; whereupon Menelaus asked him the one great question: How do I get home? And Proteus told him: You had better go back to Egypt and sacrifice to the gods some more.

      This story may be taken as a parable about poetry. A man has an urgent question about his way in the world. He already knows the answer, but it fails to satisfy him. So at great inconvenience, hardship, and even peril, he consults a powerful and refractory spirit who tries to evade his question by turning into anything in the world. Then, when the spirit sees he cannot get free of the man, and only then, he answers the man's question, not simply with a commonplace but with the same commonplace the man had been dissatisfied with before. Satisfied or not, however, the man now obeys the advice given him.

      A foolish story? All the same, it is to be observed that Menelaus did get home. And it was a heroic thing to have hung onto Proteus through those terrifying changes and compelled him to be himself and answer up. Nor does it matter in the least to the story that Menelaus personally may have been a disagreeable old fool as well as a cuckold.

      A poet also has one great and simple question, simple though it may take many forms indeed. Geoffrey Chaucer (Chaucer, Geoffrey) put it as well as anyone could, and in three lines at that:

What is this world? what asketh men to have?
Now with his love, now in his colde grave,
Allone, with-outen any companye.

(“The Knight's Tale”)

      And a poet gets the simple answer he might expect, the one the world grudgingly gives to anyone who asks such a question: The world is this way, not that way, and you ask for more than you will be given, which the poet, being scarcely more fool than his fellowmen, knew already. But on the path from question to answer, hanging onto the slippery disguiser and shape-shifter Proteus, he will see many marvels; he will follow the metamorphoses of things in the metamorphoses of their phrases, and he will be so elated and ecstatic in this realm of wonders that the voice in which he speaks these things, down even to the stupid, obvious, and commonplace answer, will be to his hearers a solace and a happiness in the midst of sorrows:

When I do count the clock that tells the time,
And see the brave day sunk in hideous night;
When I behold the violet past prime,
And sable curls, all silver'd o'er with white;
When lofty trees I see barren of leaves,
Which erst from heat did canopy the herd,
And summer's green all girded up in sheaves,
Borne on the bier with white and bristly beard,
Then of thy beauty do I question make,
That thou among the wastes of time must go,
Since sweets and beauties must themselves forsake
And die as fast as they see others grow;
And nothing 'gainst Time's scythe can make defence
Save breed, to brave him when he takes thee hence.

      Like Menelaus, the poet asks a simple question, to which, moreover, he already knows the unsatisfying answer. Question and answer, one might say, have to be present, although of themselves they seem to do nothing much; but they assert the limits of a journey to be taken. They are the necessary but not sufficient conditions of what really seems to matter here, the Protean encounter itself, the grasping and hanging on to the powerful and refractory spirit in its slippery transformations of a single force flowing through clock, day, violet, graying hair, trees dropping their leaves, the harvest in which, by a peculiarly ceremonial transmutation, the grain man lives by is seen without contradiction as the corpse he comes to. As for the answer to the question, it is not surprising nor meant to be surprising; it is only just.

      On this point—that the answer comes as no surprise—poets show an agreement that quite transcends the differences of periods and schools. Alexander Pope's (Pope, Alexander) formula, “What oft was thought, but ne'er so well expresst,” sometimes considered as the epitome of a shallow and parochial decorum, is not in essence other than this offered by John Keats: (Keats, John)

I think Poetry should surprise by a fine excess, and not by Singularity—it should strike the Reader as a wording of his own highest thoughts, and appear almost a Remembrance. (Letter to John Taylor, 1818.)

      In the 20th century, Robert Frost (Frost, Robert) is strikingly in agreement:

A word about recognition: In literature it is our business to give people the thing that will make them say, “Oh yes I know what you mean.” It is never to tell them something they dont know, but something they know and hadnt thought of saying. It must be something they recognize. (Letter to John Bartlett, in Modern Poetics, ed. James Scully, 1965.)

      And the poet and critic John Crowe Ransom (Ransom, John Crowe) gives the thought a cryptically and characteristically elegant variation: “Poetry is the kind of knowledge by which we must know that we have arranged that we shall not know otherwise.” Perhaps this point about recognition might be carried further, to the extreme at which it would be seen to pose the problem of how poetry, which at its highest has always carried, at least implicitly, a kind of Platonism and claimed to give, if not knowledge itself, what was more important, a “form” to knowledge, can survive the triumph of scientific materialism and a positivism minded to skepticism about everything in the world except its own self (where it turns credulous, extremely). The poet's adjustment, over two or three centuries, to a Newtonian cosmos, Kantian criticism, the spectral universe portrayed by physics has conspicuously not been a happy one and has led alternately or simultaneously to the extremes of rejection of reason and speaking in tongues on the one hand and the hysterical claim that poetry will save the world on the other. But of this let the Protean parable speak as it will.

      There is another part to the story of Menelaus and Proteus, for Menelaus asked another question: What happened to my friends who were with me at Troy? Proteus replies, “Son of Atreus, why enquire too closely of me on this? To know or learn what I know about it is not your need: I warn you that when you hear all the truth your tears will not be far behind . . . .” But he tells him all the same: “Of those others many went under; many came through . . . .” And Menelaus does indeed respond with tears of despair, until Proteus advises him to stop crying and get started on the journey home. So it sometimes happens in poetry, too: the sorrowful contemplation of what is, consoles, in the end, and heals, but only after the contemplative process has been gone through and articulated in the detail of its change:

When to the sessions of sweet silent thought
I summon up remembrance of things past,
I sigh the lack of many a thing I sought,
And with old woes new wail my dear time's waste;
Then can I drown an eye, unused to flow,
For precious friends hid in death's dateless night,
And weep afresh love's long since cancell'd woe,
And moan the expense of many a vanish'd sight.
Then can I grieve at grievances foregone,
And heavily from woe to woe tell o'er
The sad account of fore-bemoaned moan,
Which I new pay as if not paid before.
But if the while I think on thee, dear friend,
All losses are restor'd and sorrows end.

      This poem, acknowledged to be a masterpiece by so many generations of readers, may stand as an epitome and emblem for the art altogether, about which it raises a question that must be put, although it cannot be satisfactorily and unequivocally answered: the question of whether poetry is a sacrament or a confidence game or both or neither. To reply firmly that poetry is not religion and must not promise what religion does is to preserve a useful distinction; nevertheless, the religions of the world, if they have nothing else in common, seem to be based on collections of sacred poems. Nor, at the other extreme, can any guarantee that poetry is not a confidence game be found in the often-heard appeal to the poet's “sincerity.” One will never know whether Shakespeare wept all over the page while writing the 30th sonnet, though one inclines to doubt it, nor would it be to his credit if he did, nor to the reader's that he should know it or care to know it.

      For one thing, the sonnet is obviously artful—that is, full of artifice—and even the artifice degenerates here and there into being artsy. “Then can I drown an eye, unused to flow.” Surely that is poesy itself, at or near its worst, where the literal and the conventional, whatever their relations may have been for Shakespeare and the first reader of these sugar'd sonnets among his friends, now live very uncomfortably together (Ben Jonson's “Drink to me only with thine eyes” is a like example of this bathetic crossing of levels), though perhaps it has merely become unattractive as a result of changing fashions in diction.

      Moreover, while the whole poem is uniquely Shakespearean, the bits and pieces are many of them common property of the age, what one writer called “joint stock company poetry.” And the tricks are terribly visible, too; art is not being used to conceal art in such goings-on as “grieve at grievances” and “fore-bemoaned moan.” “He who thus grieves will excite no sympathy,” as Samuel Johnson (Johnson, Samuel) sternly wrote of John Milton's style in the elegy “Lycidas,” “he who thus praises will confer no honour.”

      Nor is that the worst of it. This man who so powerfully works on the reader's sympathies by lamenting what is past contrives to do so by thinking obsessively about litigation and, of all things, money; his hand is ever at his wallet, bidding adieu. He cannot merely “think” sweet silent thoughts about the past; no, he has to turn them into a court in “session,” whereto he “summons” the probable culprit “remembrance”; when he “grieves,” it is at a “grievance”—in the hands of the law again; finally, as with the sinners in Dante's Divine Comedy, his avarice and prodigality occupy two halves of the one circle: he bemoans his expenses while paying double the asking price.

      And still, for all that, the poem remains beautiful; it continues to move both the young who come to it still innocent of their dear time's waste and the old who have sorrows to match its sorrows. As between confidence game and sacrament there may be no need to decide, as well as no possibility of deciding: elements of play and artifice, elements of true feeling, elements of convention both in the writing and in one's response to it, all combine to veil the answer. But the poem remains.

      If it could be plainly demonstrated by the partisans either of unaided reason or revealed religion that poetry was metaphorical, mythological, and a delusion, while science, say, or religion or politics were real and true, then one might throw poetry away and live honestly though poorly on what was left. But, for better or worse, that is not the condition of man's life in the world; and perhaps men care for poetry so much—if they care at all—because, at last, it is the only one of man's many mythologies to be aware, and to make him aware, that it, and the others, are indeed mythological. The literary critic I.A. Richards (Richards, I.A.), in a deep and searching consideration of this matter, concludes: “It is the privilege of poetry to preserve us from mistaking our notions either for things or for ourselves. Poetry is the completest mode of utterance.”

      The last thing Proteus says to Menelaus is strange indeed:

You are not to die in Argos of the fair horse-pastures, not there to encounter death: rather will the Deathless Ones carry you to the Elysian plain, the place beyond the world . . . . There you will have Helen to yourself and will be deemed of the household of Zeus.

      So the greatest of our poets have said, or not so much said, perhaps, as indicated by their fables, though nowadays people mostly sing a different tune. To be as the gods, to be rejoined with the beloved, the world forgotten . . . . Sacrament or con game? Homer, of course, is only telling an old story and promises mankind nothing; that is left to the priests to do; and in that respect poetry, as one critic puts it, must always be “a ship that is wrecked on entering the harbor.” And yet the greatest poetry sings always, at the end, of transcendence; while seeing clearly and saying plainly the wickedness and terror and beauty of the world, it is at the same time humming to itself, so that one overhears rather than hears: All will be well.

Howard Nemerov

Additional Reading
The most convenient way to get to know poetry is to read poetry. It would be invidious for the writer of a general article on the subject to prejudice the reader by making a selection of poems or poets; in experience, anyhow, one's acquaintance with poetry comes about chiefly by love and accident, supported, when not undermined, by schools, colleges, and libraries. Beyond that, the bibliographical temptation is to put before the reader numerous learned works that are not poetry but about poetry; whatever their usefulness at various stages of study, and it may be great, they must not substitute for the reading of poetry itself. Therefore no such list is attempted.The beginning reader, however, may well be able to use some help in interpreting, such as a critical or explanatory anthology. Cleanth Brooks and Robert Penn Warren, Understanding Poetry, 4th ed. (1976), is still probably the best of its kind, as numerous imitations amply attest. See also Tzvetan Todorov, Introduction to Poetics (1981; originally published in French, 1973), a comprehensive introduction to modern poetics.

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Universalium. 2010.


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