Introduction To English Poetry Essay, Research Paper
Blazing canonEnglish poetry begins whenever we decide to say the modern English language begins, and it extends as far as we decide to say that the English language extends. Some people think that English poetry begins with the Anglo-Saxons. I don’t, because I can’t accept that there is any continuity between the traditions of Anglo-Saxon poetry and those established in English poetry by the time of, say, Shakespeare. And anyway, Anglo-Saxon is a different language, which has to be learned. Anglo-Saxon poetry may be extremely exciting and interesting, but it excites and interests me in much the same way as do the Norse sagas. It is somebody else’s poetry. What, then, of poems written in a language that is semi-comprehensible as English, the language, for instance, of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (which was written some time around 1375)? What about the poems of Geoffrey Chaucer (c1343-1400)? Surely these count as English poetry? My answer is that they do indeed, if you wish. But they fall slightly outside the limits I would propose. The language of the Gawain poem comes and goes, baffling and comprehensible by turns: Queme quyssewes then that coyntlych closed, His thik thrawen thyghes with thwonges to tachched; And sithen the brawden bryné of bryght stel rynges Umbeweved that wyy, upon wlonk stuffe, And wel bornyst brace upon his both armes, With gode cowters and gay, and gloves of plate . . . (lines 578-83) A part of the meaning of this can be guessed. But who, without specialist help, could arrive at the conclusion that someone is here putting on his armour, and who could guess the meaning of “queme quyssewes” (pleasing thigh-pieces) or “wlonk” (noble, glorious, fine)? Who could guess their pronunciation? With Chaucer we are much nearer home, both linguistically and in terms of poetic practice. Owt of thise blake wawes for to saylle – O wynd, O wynd, the weder gynneth clere – For in this see the boot hath swych travaylle Of my conning that unneth I it steere. This see clepe I the tempestous matere Of disespeir that Troilus was inne: But now of hope the kalendes bygynne. (Troilus and Criseyde, Book Two, lines 1-7) Most of this can be guessed, although there is a word-order problem in lines 3-4: “For in the sea the boat of my ability (’Of my conning’) has such difficulty that I can scarcely steer it.” Even when this has been pointed out to us, we find it hard to know whether the strange word order came naturally to Chaucer or was a sign of his incompetence. We need to acquire certain skills in order to read and appreciate such verse. Some time around the reign of Henry VIII (1509-47), English poetry – some of it – becomes graspable in a newly direct way. We no longer need to look everything up, or worry too much about pronunciation (and therefore scansion). With 16th-century poetry we recognise much more of the language we still speak, and this is encouraging. The simplest poems in most languages are its songs, and many of the earliest English poems we can most easily grasp are Elizabethan lyrics: Followe thy faire sunne, unhappy shaddowe: Though thou be blacke as night, And she made all of light, Yet follow thy faire sunne, unhappie shaddowe. Follow her whose light thy light depriveth: Though here thou liv’st disgrac’t, And she in heaven is plac’t, Yet follow her whose light the world reviveth. Follow those pure beames whose beautie burneth, That so have scorched thee, As thou still black must bee, Til her kind beames thy black to brightnes turneth. (A Booke of Ayres, 1601, No IV) These verses are from a song by Thomas Campion (1567-1620). The music survives, so we can tell exactly what rhythm was intended, that “scorched” was pronounced with two syllables, “beames” with one, and so forth. But we could easily have guessed such things even without music. This does not mean, of course, that the poem holds no mysteries for us, and no opportunities for misunderstanding. The characteristic Elizabethan contrast between the whiteness of the loved one and the blackness of the lover does not imply a lover of African origin. It implies only an unfortunate lover, a melancholy man whose suit has so far been rejected, but whom the poet encourages to persist. The simple lyrical idea of following the sun was used in the last century by the Beatles in the song I’ll Follow the Sun. The contrast of black and white was used by WH Auden (1907-73) in one of his imitations of the Elizabethan poetry for which he had a great fondness: O lurcher-loving collier, black as night, Follow your love across the smokeless hill; Your lamp is out, the cages all are still; Course for her heart and do not miss, For Sunday soon is past and, Kate, fly not so fast, For Monday comes when none may kiss: Be marble to his soot, and to his black be white. (Twelve Songs, II) This was written in 1935, for a documentary film about the coal industry. Like the Campion, it is a song. Both Benjamin Britten and Lennox Berkeley set it to music, the former giving it to a female chorus. The charm of Madrigal, as the poem was once called, comes from the contrast between its centuries-old idiom and its grimy contemporary (1930s) setting. Black is used in Campion’s manner, but without his meaning. Let us say that we have about five centuries of English poetry behind us. This poetry did not emerge out of nowhere, but the fact is that beyond those five centuries it becomes increasingly difficult to comprehend. It is true that to understand Shakespeare (1564-1616) in detail, we need the help of notes, and it has been true at certain times in the past that readers have found large parts of Shakespeare incomprehensible or barbaric. The current assumption that all the plays are in principle both performable and worth performing is comparatively new. But the really striking thing about, say, Baz Luhrmann’s 1996 film Romeo + Juliet, is the effectiveness with which the poetry communicates, and does so when delivered at great speed. Leonardo DiCaprio did not slow down in order to get a complex point across. He simply made sure that he understood the point and assumed that his understanding would be enough to carry the audience with him. This is what any actor has to do. When we study Shakespeare on the page, for academic purposes, we may require all kinds of help. Generally, we read him in modern spelling and with modern punctuation, and with notes. But any poetry that is performed – from song lyric to tragic speech – must make its point, as it were, without reference back. We can’t, as an audience, ask the actors to repeat themselves, or slow down, or share their notes with us. We must grasp the meaning – or enough of it – in real time. That Hamlet still works after 400 years is an extraordinary linguistic and poetic fact. English poetry extends back around 500 years, and its scope is the scope of the English language. That is to say, when a North American, an Australian, an Indian or a Jamaican writes a poem in English, that poem enters the corpus of English poetry. Of course it may be that the poet in question was intending to contribute to a national school of poetry. But the community of any English poem today is larger than any nation state. And besides, the geography of poetry is not the same as the geography of nation states. A Spanish poetry, written for Spanish-speakers in the United States, would enjoy a community with Hispanics everywhere. Some people have liked to emphasise the difference between English poetry as written in the UK and English poetry as written in the US. The Faber Book Of Contemporary American Poetry, edited by Helen Vendler, begins: “This anthology of American poetry will be able to extend its charm only to those who genuinely know the American language – by now a language separate, in accent, intonation, discourse, and lexicon, from English.” This is an absurd exaggeration, as even the anthologist in question seems to concede when she continues in the next sentence: “But the poems collected here can extend their command to anyone able to read English.” What is striking about English poetry is not the barriers to appreciation set up between national cultures, but the broad basis for comprehension and appreciation: Ah got pompanos! Ah got catfish! Ah got buffaloes! Ah got um! Ah got um! Ah got stringbeans! Ah got cabbage! Ah got collard greens! Ah got um! Ah got um! Ah got honeydew! Ah got can’lopes! Ah got watermelons! Ah got um! Ah got um! Ah got fish! Ah got fruits! Ah got veg, yes ‘ndeed! Ah got any kind o’ vittles, Ah got anything yo’ need! Ah’m de Ah-Got-Um Man! (The Book of Negro Folklore, edited by Langston Hughes and Arna Bontemps, New York 1958) The admirably cooperative, positive, not to say optimistic attitude of the Ah-Got-Um Man appeals at once to the imagination, and reminds us of European poets’ and composers’ delight in street vendors’ cries. It suggests to me as well that poetry itself begins in those situations where the voice has to be raised: the hawker has to make himself heard above the market hubbub, the knife grinder has to call the cook out into the street, the storyteller has to address a whole village, the bard must command the admiration of the court. The voice has to be raised. And it is raised in rhythm, as in those highly suggestive work-songs from the American south: Well she ask me – hunh – In de parlor – hunh; And she cooled me – hunh – With her fan – hunh; An’ she whispered – hunh – To her mother – hunh: “Mama, I love dat – hunh Dark-eyed man” – hunh. Well I ask her – hunh – Mother for her – hunh; And she said she – hunh Was too young – hunh; Lord, I wish I’d – hunh – Never seen her – hunh; And I wish she’d – hunh – Never been born – hunh. Well I led her – hunh – To de altar – hunh; And de preacher – hunh – Give his command – hunh – And she swore by – hunh – God that made her – hunh; That she’d never – hunh – Love another man – hunh. (The Book of Negro Folklore) The last “hunh”, the last stroke of the hammer, is eloquent: the young bride has been unfaithful. And that is why the singer, the poet, is in trouble. That, we understand, is why he is working in a gang. He raises his voice to coordinate the work, and the song he sings can be expected to command the attention and the sympathy of his fellows. Poetry carries its history within it, and it is oral in origin. Its transmission was oral. Its transmission today is still in part oral, because we become acquainted with poetry through nursery rhymes, which we hear before we can read. And we learn an analysis of these rhymes, a beating of rhythm, a fitting of word to pitch, a sense of structure, long before we can read. And, for the most part, this analysis is itself never expressed, never codified. It is passed on from parent or other teacher to child. If I had money as I could spend I never would cry old chairs to mend. Old chairs to mend! Old chairs to mend! I never would cry old chairs to mend. Who tells the parent where to place the stresses in the line? The parent of the parent does so. And the rhyme, if it still gets passed on, comes with its information about days gone by, for of course it is a long time since our streets have resounded to pedlars’ cries. (But marketplaces still have their barkers, and auctioneers their patter, and there are places in the world where all these traditional practices are still common.) For the most part, in the reading – and I would say in the writing – of poetry, the handling of rhythm and form is instinctive rather than codified. We think of a line that sounds well, and only later try it out against a template, to see if it actually fits into our schema. Or we start something, and then look at what we have so far, and then we try to repeat, with variations, what we have already done. We write a line, and then try to compose another to match it. Or we compose a whole stanza and then see how many such stanzas we can devise in order to complete the poem. How many, or how few. We feel our way forward. Take this poem, Break, Break, Break, by Alfred, Lord Tennyson, composed in his grief for his dead friend Arthur Hallam: Break, break, break, On thy cold gray stones, O Sea! And I would that my tongue could utter The thoughts that arise in me. O, well for the fisherman’s boy, That he shouts with his sister at play! O, well for the sailor lad, That he sings in his boat on the bay! And the stately ships go on To their haven under the hill; But O for the touch of a vanished hand, And the sound of a voice that is still! Break, break, break, At the foot of thy crags, O Sea! But the tender grace of a day that is dead Will never come back to me. This is as clear a case as you could find of a poem whose form grows with its composition. The first line seems to be the given, the starting point for the creation of the form. But what kind of a line is it? Three bleak repeated words, three stresses. In classical metrics there is such a foot. It is called a molossus. But we can be pretty certain that Tennyson was not thinking, “Why don’t I start a poem with something really obscure, like a molossus?” He had this bleak rhythm in his mind, and then he sought a line that would match it. So he wrote the second line. And actually this line seems to have four stresses, although it can be read as a three-stress line (”On thy cold gray stones, O Sea”). By the time he has finished the first stanza, this is the form he seems to have chosen: a three-stress-per-line stanza of four lines, a quatrain in which the second and fourth lines rhyme. And this is certainly the form of the second stanza, which comes across as a much more regular piece of versification than the first. But when he reaches the third stanza, and he comes to the third line, he adds what is definitely a fourth stress to the pattern he has created. And he clearly likes the variation thus created, because he repeats it in the last stanza, putting an extra stress into the third line. Tennyson’s love for Hallam and his grief at his death were expressed passionately and at length in In Memoriam and other poems such as this. And we know independently that the germ of In Memoriam was a poem in which Tennyson regretted the chance to touch his friend’s hand and to kiss his brow. In this poem, the line that introduces the variation, “But O for the touch of a vanish’d hand”, is also the line that tells us for the first time what the unutterable grief is about. The line varies, it expands, because it suddenly has an extra freight of emotion. Regularity, in this poem, is not at a premium. Tennyson follows his feelings in creating each line. He follows the music in his head. If you had asked him, at the end of the day, to describe the prosody of the poem to you, he would no doubt have had to think for a moment before he could answer you, not because he was ignorant of the terms, but because he had been writing a poem, not a metrical exercise. At every point, he was exerting his free will. And the outcome of that exertion was the form.