What is this Thing––Poem?

Poetry Appeals to the Imagination :
When we read in a novel that the heroine, as she looked out into the moonlit winter night, quoted softly to herself :
Deep on the convent-roof the snows
Are sparkling to the moon,

it does give us pleasure if we recognize the poem ; but it gives us pleasure even if we do not. The reason is not far to seek. Poetry stimulates the imagination. It enables us to see in our imagination the beauty of the snow ‘sparkling to the moon’ and to feel the cold stillness of the winter night. It recreates for us the beauty of ‘October’s Bright Blue Weather’ :
When on the ground red apples lie
In piles like jewels shining,
And redder still on old stone walls
Are leaves of woodbine twining.
In the dead of winter ‘The Vision of Sir Launfal’ carries us back to June when
The cowslip startles in meadows green, and
The buttercup catches the sun in its chalice.
There is no wonderland to which poetry cannot take us through the imagination, whether it be deep under the sea in
Sand-strewn caverns, cool and deep
Where the winds are all asleep ;
Where the spent lights quiver and gleam
Where the salt weed sways in the stream
or in that ideal land of
Magic casements, opening on the foam
Of perilous seas, in faery lands forlorn.
Poetry takes us back into the Middle Ages with Keats in ‘The Eve of St. Agnes’ or leaves us
Alone, alone, all, all alone,
Alone on a wide, wide sea
with the Ancient Mariner. It transports us to a snowbound New England homestead,
Content to let the north-wind roar
In baffled rage at pane and door,
with Whittier, or brings us once more to the time when
A boy’s will is the wind’s will,
And the thoughts of youth are long, long thoughts.
Small wonder, then that poetry is universally read. Through its appeal to the imagination it offers us the surest escape from the stern reality of facts.
Appreciation of Great Poetry Comes Gradually :
Of course, the inexperienced reader need not expect to get an emotional reaction from all great poetry as soon as he reads. There are certain stages along this journey toward appreciation of imaginative beauty, and it is far better to begin with spontaneous enjoyment of Longfellow, Lowell, and Whittier than to give up poetry in disgust just because one can see nothing to ‘Lycidas’, ‘Comus’, ‘Prometheus Unbound’, or ‘Saul’. If you have never cared much for poetry, why not begin with some popular story poem ? Almost every boy likes Kipling, and who is to blame a boy if he gets a thrill out of ‘Gunga Din’ ? On the other hand, who is to blame you if, having been dragged to the Pierian spring of Milton, you refuse to drink thereof ? It is not without preparation that one comes to enjoy :
Hence, vain deluding Joys,
The brood of Folly without father bred !
How little you bested,
Or fill the fixed mind with all your toys !
Dwell in some idle brain,
And fancies fond with gaudy shapes possess,
And thick and numberless
As the gay notes that peoples the sun-beams,
Or likest hovering dreams,
The fickle pensioners of Morpheus’ train.
But, hail ! thou Goddess, sage and holy !
Hail, divinest Melancholy !
It is useless to tell you to hail ‘divinest Melancholy’ if you cannot, from your perspective, see that ‘II Penseroso’ is a better poem than ‘Gunga Din’. But there are fine poems that everyone can enjoy : ‘Fuzzy-Wuzzy,’ the ‘big black boundin’ beggar’ who broke a British square ; ‘Danny Deever,’ whom ‘they’re hangin’ in the mornin’; ‘The-Highwayman,’ who ‘rode with a jewelled twinkle…under the jeweled sky’—to say nothing of Dauber, Right Royal, The Everlasting Mercy, and Enslaved, or Chesterton’s superb ‘Lepanto’ with its
Dim drums throbbing, in the hills half heard,
Stiff flags straining in the night-blasts cold
In the gloom black-purple, in the glint old-gold,
Torchlight crimson on the copper kettle-drums,
Then the tuckets, the trumpets, then the cannon, and he comes
Don John laughing in the brave beard curled,
Spurning in his stirrups like the throne of all the world,
Holding his head up for flag of all the free.
Love-light, of Spain—hurrah !
Death-light of Africa !
Don John of Austria
Is riding to the sea.
Poetry Sharpens Appreciation of Nature :
Once you have acquired a taste for poetry, however, you should not miss the pleasure that comes from reading poems that have nothing to do with stories at all, poems that picture in words the world about you. Perhaps it is ‘Sea-Fever’ with :
a gray mist on the sea’s face and a gray dawn breaking,
a windy day with the white clouds flying,
And the flung spray and the blown spume, and the sea-gulls crying.
or the woods of Robert Frost, so ‘lovely, dark and deep,’ or Kew in lilack time where
The cherry-trees are seas of bloom and soft perfume and sweet perfume.
Perhaps it is Rupert Brooke’s ‘Grantchester’ :
Ah God ! to see the branches stir
Across the moon in Grantchester !
To smell the thrilling-sweet and rotten
Unforgettable, unforgotten
River-smell and hear the breeze
Sobbing in the little trees,
Or Amy Lowell’s ‘The Garden by Moonlight’ with
A black act among roses,
Phlox, lilac-misted under a first-quarter moon,
The sweet smells of heliotrope and night-scented stock,
or Walter De la Mare’s ‘April Moon,’ that bring,
More lovely shade than light.
That, setting silvers, lonely hills
Upon the verge of night.
Poetry Intensifies Enjoyment of Common Experiences:
At other times, human sympathy is so direct and artless that it meets with immediate and universal human response. That is why most of us understand at once the feeling of Rupert Brooke’s ‘The Great Lover’ :
These I have loved :
White plates and cups, clean-gleaming,
Ringed with blue lines ; and feathery, faery dust ;
Wet roofs, beneath the lamp-light ; the strong crust
Of friendly bread ; and many-fasting food ;
Rainbows ; and the blue bitter smoke of wood ;
And radiant raindrops couching on cool flowers ;
And flowers themselves that sway through sunny hours,
Dreaming of moths that drink them under the moon :
Then, the cool kindliness of sheets, that soon,
Smooth away trouble ; and the rough male kiss
Of blankets ; grainy wood ; live hair that is
Shining and free ; blue-massing clouds ; the keen
Unpassioned beauty of a great machine ;
The bension of hot water ; furs to touch ;
Voices in laughter, too ; and body’s pain,
Soon turned to peace ; and the deep-panting train ;
Firm sands ; the little dulling edge of foam
That browns and dwindles as the wave goes home ;
And washen stones, gay for an hour ; the cold
Gravenness of iron ; moist black earthen mold ;
Sleep ; and high places ; footprints in the dew ;
And oaks ; and brown horse-chestnuts, glossy-new ;
And new-peeled sticks ; and shining pools on grass—
All these have been my loves.
All these are very simple poems about simple experiences, and yet they have given a great deal of pleasure to many people, a pleasure which you, too, can easily share.
Cleanth Brooks, in the Preface to his book, Understanding Poetry, writes ;
Poetry gives us knowledge. It is a knowledge of ourselves in relation to the world of experience, and to that world con­sidered, not statistically, but in terms of human purposes and values. Experience considered in terms of human purposes and values is dramatic—dramatic in that it is concrete, in that it involves a process, and in that it embodies the human effort .to arrive—through conflict—at meaning. We know that to con­ceive of poetry as knowledge is not the only possible way of conceiving it. It is, however, our basic assumption, clung to for many years, and it would be disingenuous not to state it as the assumption behind this book.
What Brooks insists here is that the effect of a poem should be viewed in the context of the whole. We can get at the effect of this “whole” by finding “a way to contemplate, and perhaps to comprehend, our human urgencies.”
In poetry, the poet attempts to communicate attitudes, feelings, and interpretations, including ideas. It is in this matter that poetry can be differentiated from the ordinary speech. This does not, however, imply that poetry relates to things other than those relating to our ordinary life. In fact, it can be based on the incidents of our ordinary life. Brooks says that it is a “specialization of, thoroughly universal habits of human thinking and feeling.”
Poetry is not a substitute for a particular emotion in our life. A poem about grief would not help the reader to get rid of his tears. It is just not the case. It is only an attempt to portray a particular experience which can evoke different responses from different readers. When we define poetry as “an expression of pure realization or of emotion”, what the critic aims is a bit of getting away from the moralistic approach to the understanding of poetry. The use that the poet makes of certain emotions and attitudes is important in poetry, not the emotions and attitudes themselves.
Brooks points to this difficult problem of defining a poem in the following lines :
“……a poem is not to be thought of as merely a bundle of things which are “poetic” in themselves. Nor is it to be thought of, as the “message hunters” would seem to have it, as a kind of box, decorated or not, in which a “truth” or a “fine senti­ment” is hidden……”
There have been various popular misconceptions about the nature of poetry. Some of these have been pointed out by Professor Kreuzer in his book, Elements of Poetry :
……To some people, poetry is an unimportant luxury enjoyed only by “high-brows” with plenty of time to waste. To others, poetry is pleasantly rhythmical writing concerned with such trivial matters as daffodils fluttering in the breeze. To still others, poetry is merely something to be written when one is in the early stages of adolescent love. There are those, too, who believe that poetry consists of needlessly obscure verbiage that can be understood only by an odd few who set themselves apart. To many people, poetry is that which is recited with gestures by children or by politicians at flag-day ceremonies and ele­mentary school commencements. Finally, there are those who regard poetry as writing to be read in the same way as the daily newspaper is read.
Poetry is an art which appeals to man’s aesthetic sense, his awareness of and pleasure in beauty. Poetry creates beauty through rhythm and through sound through the pictures it produces, through the feelings it stimulates, through the thoughts it evokes, through the characters it portrays, through its special use of language, through what it says and what it leaves unsaid.
It would be better to refer to some of the important statements on poetry to get a clear idea of what a poem is. These statements include the pronouncements of those who were either poets or critics or both. Such a collection of statements will have an additional advantage in so far as these would help the student to take note of the shifting perspectives on the nature of poetry, or for that matter, of a poem.
Only the poet……lifted up with the vigor of his own Invention, doth grow in effect another nature, in making things either better than Nature bringeth forth, or quite anew, forms such as never were in Nature, as the Heroes, Demi-gods, Cyclops, Chimeras, Faries, and such like……Nature never set forth the earth in so rich a tapestry as diverse poetry have done, neither with pleasant rivers, fruitful trees, sweet-smelling flowers, nor whatsoever else may make the too much loved earth more lovely. Her world is brazen, the poets only deliver a golden.
—Sir Phillip Sidney : An Appologie For Poetrie (1595)
The poet’s eye, in a fine frenzy rolling,
Doth glance from heaven to earth, from earth to heaven;
And, as imagination bodies forth
The form of things unknown, the poet’s pen
Turns them to shapes, and gives to airy nothing
A local habitation and a name.
—William Shakespeare : A Mid-summer Night’s Dream
A poem should be palpable and mute
As a globed fruit
As old medallions to the thumb
Silent as the sleeve-worn stone
Of casement ledges where the moss has grown
A poem should be wordless
As the flight of birds
A poem should be motionless in time
As the moon climbs
×         ×         ×         ×
Leaving, as the noon releases
Twig by twig the night-entangled trees,
Leaving, as the moon behind the winter leaves,
Memory by memory the mind––
A poem should be motionless in time
As the moon climbs
×         ×         ×         ×
A poem should be equal to ;
Not true
For all the history of grief
An empty doorway and a maple leaf
For love
The leaning grasses and two lights above the sea––
A poem should not mean
But be.
—Ars Poetica : Archibald Macleish
A poem is that species of composition, which is opposed to works of science, by proposing for its immediate object pleasure, not truth ; and from all other species— (having this object in common with it)—it is discriminated by proposing to itself such delight from the whole, as is compatible with a distinct gratification from each component part……It (a legitimate poem) must be one, the parts of which
mutually support and explain each other ; all in their proportion harmonizing with, and supporting the purpose and known influences of, metrical arrangement. The poet, described in ideal perfection, brings the whole soul of man into activity, with the subordination of its faculties to each other according to their relative worth and dignity.
—S.T. Coleridge
The experience of a poem is the experience both of a moment and of a life time. It is very much like our intenser experiences of other human beings. There is a first, or an early moment which is unique, of shock and surprise, even of terror (Ego dominus tuus) ; a moment which can never be forgotten, .but which is never repeated integrally; and yet which would become destitute of significance if it did not survive in a larger whole of experience; which survives inside a deeper and calmer feeling. The majority of poems one outgrows and out ives, as one outgrows and outlives the majority of human passions: Dante’s is one of those which can only just hope to grow up to at the end of life.
— T.S. Eliot : The Experience of Poetry
Poetry is not the expression of personality, but an escape from personality…… The poet has not a ‘personality’ to express, but a
particular medium, which is only a medium and not a personality, in which impressions and experiences combine in peculiar and unexpected ways.
—T.S. Eliot
The poet is the father who begets the poem which the language bears.
— W. H. Auden
The rudiment of criticism is the ability to select a good poem and reject a bad poem ; and the most severe test of its ability to select a good new poem, to respond properly to a new situation. The experience of poetry, as it develops in the conscious and mature persons, is not merely the sum of the experiences of good poems. Education in poetry requires an organization of these experiences. There is not one of us who is born with or who suddenly acquires at puberty or later, an infallible discrimination and taste. The person whose experience is limited is always liable to be taken by the sham or the adulterate article ; and we see generation after generation of untrained readers being taken in by the sham and the adulterate in its own time––indeed preferring them, for they are more easily assimilable than the genuine article. Yet a very large number of people, I believe, have the native capacity for enjoying some good poetry, how much, or how many degrees of capacity may profitably be distinguished is not part of my present purpose to inquire. It is only the exceptional reader, certainly, who in the course of time comes to classify and compare his experiences, to see one in the light of others ; and who, as his poetic experiences multiply, will be able to understand each more accurately. The element of enjoyment is enlarged into appreciation, which brings a more intellectual addi­tion to the original intensity of feeling. It is a second stage in our understanding of poetry, when we no longer merely select and reject, but organize. We may even speak of a third stage, one of reorgani­zation ; a stage at which a person already educated in poetry meets with something new in his own time, and finds a new pattern of poetry arranging itself in consequence.
—T.S. Eliot : The Appreciation of Poetry
It is important to hold fast to this : that poetry is at bottom a criticism of life ; that the greatness of a poet lies in his powerful and beautiful application of ideas to life.
—Matthew Arnold
The end of poetry is to produce excitement in co-existence with an overbalance of pleasure.
—William Wordsworth
All good poetry is the spontaneous overflow of powerful feel­ings.
—William Wordsworth
Poetry is the breath and finer spirit of all knowledge ; it is the impassioned expression which is the countenance of all science.
—William Wordsworth
Poetry, in a general sense. may be defined to be ‘the expression of the imagination’ and poetry is connected with the origin of man.
—P.B. Shelley
A poem is the very image of life expressed in its eternal truth.
—P.B. Shelley
Poets are the trumpets that sing to battle, they are the un­acknowledged legislators of the world.
—P.B. Shelley
Poetry should be brief, passionate, intense.
—Edgar Allan Poe
The poet is a man who has a greater knowledge of human nature and a more comprehensive soul than are supposed to be common among mankind.
—William Wordsworth
Primarily poetry is an exploration of the possibilities of lan­guage. It does not aim directly at consolation or moral exhortation ; nor at the expression of exquisite moments, but at an extension of significance ; and it might be argued that a too self-conscious con­cern with ‘contemporary’ problems deflects the poet’s efforts from his true objective.
––Michael Roberts
I would say that the poet may write about anything provided that that thing matters to him to start with for then it will bring with it into the poem the intellectual or moral significance which it has for him in life.
––Louis Marneice
A Poet ! — He hath put his heart to school,
Nor dares to move unpropped upon the staff
Which Art hath lodged within his hand—must laugh
By precept only, and shed tears by rule.
Thy Art be Nature ; live current quaff
—William Wordsworth
Poetry means the best words in the best order.
—S.T. Coleridge
What is poetry ? The suggestion, by the imagination, of noble grounds for the noble emotions.
—John Ruskin
No man was ever yet a great poet, without being at the same time a profound philosopher.
—S.T. Coleridge
The business of a poet, said Imlac, is to examine, not the individual, but the species ; … he does not number the streaks of the tulip or describe the different shades in the verdure of the forest.
—Samuel Johnson
To pass on to posterity one’s own language more highly developed, more refined and more precise than it was before one wrote it, that is the highest possible achievement of the poet as poet.
––T.S. Eliot
A good poet is someone who manages, in a lifetime of standing out in thunderstorms, to be struck by lightning five or six times ; a dozen or two dozen times and he is great.
—Randall Jarrell

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