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Paging through Poetry

Despite it being the highest form of language, I don’t usually read poetry.1  I’m given to prose.  The poetic doesn’t really resonate within me for some reason.  Perhaps I don’t have the depth of emotion or the sweep of imagination to take it all in.  But early last Sunday morning I found myself paging through “The Best Poems of the English Language”, collated by Harold Bloom.2  There I was, my eyes sweeping the sea and the anthology for something suitable, accessible, and with discernible meter to support a tune.

Harold Bloom is one of the planet’s most well-read persons and celebrated literary critics.  I had read parts of his “Western Canon” and marvelled and the man’s mastery of intertextuality and critical acumen.  As I desultorily paged through the poems something impelled me to read Bloom’s introduction “The Art of Reading Poetry”.  It proved a revelation!  I was to find that poetry is not mere verse, neither is it mere rhyme, but indeed the human spirit set to form.

Harold Bloom

Harold Bloom

Bloom describes poetry as “essentially figurative language, concentrated so its form is both expressive and evocative.  Figuration is a departure from the literal, and the form of a great poem itself can be a trope (‘turning’) or figure.  A common dictionary equivalent for figurative language is ‘metaphorical’, but metaphor actually is a highly specific figure, or turning from the literal.  Kenneth Burke, a profound student of rhetoric, or the languages of figures, distinguished four fundamental tropes: irony, synecdoche, metonymy and metaphor.”  Bloom proceeds to illustrate the power of poetry along Burke’s figurative taxonomy.

According to Bloom, poetry’s power embodies irony, which commits those who employ it to issues of presence of absence, since they are saying one thing while meaning something so different it can be the precise opposite.  We learn to wince when Hamlet says “I humbly thank you” when he is generally neither humble nor grateful.  The second trope is synecdoche, commonly called ‘symbol’ which is the figurative substitution of a part for the whole.3  This suggests incompletion in which something within the poem stands for something outside of it.  “In metonymy, contiguity replaces resemblance, since the name or prime aspect of anything is sufficient to indicate it, provided it is near in space to what serves as substitute.4  A person or a thing can be represented by something always closely associated with it.  Then there is metaphor, which transfers ordinary associations of one word to another, such as when Hart Crane refers to the curve of Brooklyn Bridge as its ‘leap’, and then goes on to call the bridge both ‘harp’ and ‘altar’ (see attached pictures and decide).”

Brooklyn Bridge leaping

Leap of Brooklyn Bridge?

Brooklyn Bridge Altar

Brooklyn Bridge Altar

Brooklyn Bridge Harp

Brooklyn Bridge Harp?

Figurations and tropes create meaning, says Bloom, which could not exist without them, and this making of meaning is largest in authentic poetry, where an excess or overflow emanates from figurative language and brings about a condition of newness.

Language, to a considerable extent, is concealed figuration.  Real poetry is aware and exploits these tropes, though it is both a burden and a resource.  One of the secrets of poetic English is to renew the ‘finer edges’ of words.  The major poets can best exploit this equivocal richness.  Greatness in poetry depends on the splendour of figurative language and on cognitive power.  Memory is crucial for all thought, but particularly so for poetic thinking.  One definition of poetic power is that it so fuses thinking and remembering that we cannot separate the two processes.

The art of reading poetry, says Bloom, begins with mastering allusiveness and particular poems, from the simple to the very complex.  Recognising and interpreting allusion depends on both the reader’s learning and her tact.  Allusion can be a mode of evasion, or of warding off a precursor.  Repressed influence is a defence against over-influence.  However, allusion is only one strand; more than in any other kind of imaginative literature, poetry brings its own past alive in its present.  There is a benign haunting in the poetic tradition, particularly in the new poet’s fear that there is little left for her or him to do.  In truth, there is everything remaining to be thought and sung, provided an individual voice is maintained.  However, poetic voice is difficult to define without examples.

What makes one poem better than another?  This question is more crucial to the art of reading poetry than ever, says Bloom, since today extrapoetic considerations of race, gender, sexual orientation and assorted ideologies increasingly constitute the grounds for judgement.  Bloom evades what he calls our cotemporary flight from all standards of aesthetic and cognitive value.  One of the few gains from aging, says Bloom, at least as a critic of poetry, is that taste matures even as knowledge increases.  To distinguish good from bad poetry, Bloom compares two poems, both by Americans writing in the mid-nineteenth century.  It makes for elucidating reading.  Bloom judges one poet’s narcissism smooth and delightful, the other as self-pitying and maladroit.  Both are melodramatic, but the one has the aristocratic flair to bring it off whereas the other’s litany of “I’s” and “my’s” is pathetic.  The diction in the better poem is self-assured and confident; its figurative stance approaches an ironic edge, and so on.  Reading through the poems myself, I fail to see the clear excellence of one over the other, not knowing how to tell the difference between “involuntary echoing and controlled allusiveness”.  This is undoubtedly because it is a difficult endeavour, since by Bloom’s own admission, “only the cumulative experience of reading poetry could render a reply accessible”.  This is clearly reading which I have not undertaken, so I have to take his word that the poetic excellence of Luke Havergal by Robinson “partly issues from rhetorical control, the verbal equivalence of personal self-confidence”. A faltering voice mars, and can destroy, any poem whatsoever.  Sustained and justified pride of performance is a frequent attribute of the best lyrical poetry.

Yet other great poems display what is called “harmonic balance”, but Bloom insists that great poetry has the quality of the inevitable central to it.  By inevitable in this context Bloom means its primary meaning of phrasing that cannot be avoided, that must be, rather than the secondary meaning of “invariable” or “predictable”.  Indeed, the difference between those two meanings is a pragmatic test for distinguishing the best poems from merely imitative verse.  He quotes Tennyson’s Ulysses:

… Tho’ much is taken, much abides; and tho’
We are not now that strength which in old days
Moved earth and heaven, that which we are, we are,–
One equal temper of heroic hearts,
Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.

“Tho’ much is taken, much abides…” that seems to Bloom the essence of positive inevitability of phrasing.  Bloom states that Matthew Arnold thought this inevitability of great poetry could be classified by the citation of “touchstones”, that is to say a fundamental touch or feature of great poems by which other poems could be tested.  However, Arnold’s “touchstones’ do not illumine the question of how great poetry can be recognised, says Bloom, whereas “inevitability” may take one closer to answering the question.  Great poetry transcends the history of its own time and the events of the poet’s life and is suffused with meaning.  Great poetry can be difficult and can make heavy demands of the reader’s literacy.  The cognitive originality of a great poem can require enormous intellectual agility as the reader’s share, but it needn’t be overtly difficult.  The work of great poetry is to aid us to become free artists ourselves.

I emerged from the bubble of reading Bloom’s essay two hours later, enchanted and dazed.  Then, slowly, I set about paging through some of the classic poetry in the English language.  Poems, great poems, poems the greatness of which brought the little coal stove in the English class at Grey College on frosted Free State winter mornings right back to me, and next to which Mr. D’Oliveira, our English master, would stand, recite, exclaim and declaim to us.  Shelly, Keats, Byron, Yeats…  Some of it infused in us, most of it distilled.  Our juvenile panting was a touch too wild to appreciate it all then.  Youth is indeed wasted on the young, Mr. Wilde.  It takes the maturing of a good slice of life to make their greatness apparent.

But last Sunday morning, reading those poems again, all these years later, I was transported, transported high-high up, way beyond the surrounding mountains and sea; I was lifted out of my cloying, prosaic existence and into the light of higher, purer things.


  1.  According to my French teacher Eliane de Saint-Martin, the levels of language from highest to lowest register are langue poétique, langue littéraire, langue soutenue (formal, elevated), langue familière, langue argotique.
  2. In preparation for the grade five music theory exam I am to take in October, Adrian, my music theory teacher, set out exercises where I’m to set verses of my choosing to music.  The first part of this exercise is scansion, the action of scanning a line of verse to determine its meter, which is defined as a system of stressed and unstressed syllables that create rhythm in verse, the traditional units of which are called feet.  You will remember from your English lessons that Shakespearean sonnets are penned in iambic pentameter, that is lines of five (penta) feet of iambic meter, which is an unstressed beat followed by a stressed beat.  Other meters you may know include the trochaic, spondaic and dactylic meters (for clarity see http://www.writing-world.com/poetry/meter.shtml).  There is even anapest, not to be confused with Pestana!  The exercise involves finding the important words within the poem, then the stress pattern, then a beat and a rhythm, then one applies the musical rules (appropriate cadence etc.) in the hope that a piece of Mozart-like genius will come out.  It doesn’t.
  3. Synecdoche – substitution of part for the whole or vice-versa. Examples include:  “England beat Australia at cricket” or “Fifty sails set out into the sunset” for Fifty ships.
  4. Metonymy – reference to something by something that is closely associated with it, e.g. “the kettle is boiling” for “the water in the kettle is boiling.”


Selected poetry snippets from my readings:

On this Day I Complete my Thirty-Sixth Year

‘Tis time this heart should be unmoved,
Since others it hath ceased to move:
Yet though I cannot be beloved,
Still let me love!

–          Lord Byron
Sonnet 116

Let me not to the marriage of true minds
Admit impediments. Love is not love
Which alters when it alteration finds,
Or bends with the remover to remove:
O no! It is an ever-fixed mark
That looks on tempests and is never shaken;

– William Shakespeare
Ode to the West Wind

O Wild West Wind, thou breath of Autumn’s being
Thou from whose unseen presence the leaves dead
Are driven like ghosts from an enchanter fleeing,
Scatter, as from an unextinguish’d hearth

Ashes and sparks, my words among mankind!
Be through my lips to unawaken’d earth
The trumpet of a prophecy! O Wind,
If Winter comes, can Spring be far behind?

–          – Percy Bysshe Shelley

Ode to a Grecian Urn

Thou still unravished bride of quietness,
Thou foster-child of silence and slow time,
Sylvan historian, who canst thus express
A flowery tale more sweetly than our rhyme:

When old age shall this generation waste,
Thou shalt remain, in midst of other woe
Than ours, a friend to man, to whom thou say’st,
“Beauty is truth, truth beauty, — that is all
Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.”

– John Keats

Adam’s Curse
We sat together at one summer’s end,
That beautiful mild woman, your close friend,
And you and I, and talked of poetry.
I said, ‘A line will take us hours maybe;
Yet if it does not seem a moment’s thought,
Our stitching and unstitching has been naught.

– W.B. Yeats

The Wild Swans at Coole

The trees are in their autumn beauty
The woodland paths are dry
Under the October twilight the water
Mirrors a still sky;
Upon the brimming water among the stones
Are nine and fifty swans.

The nineteenth Autumn has come upon me
Since I first made my count;
I saw, before I had well finished,
All suddenly mount
And scatter wheeling in great broken rings
Upon their clamorous wings.

I have looked upon those brilliant creatures,
And now my heart is sore.
All’s changed since I, hearing at twilight,
The first time on this shore,
The bell-beat of their wings above my head,
Trod with a lighter tread.

Unwearied still, lover by lover,
They paddle in the cold,
Companionable streams or climb the air;
Their hearts have not grown old;
Passion or conquest, wander where they will,
Attend upon them still.

But now they drift on the still water
Mysterious, beautiful;
Among what rushes will they build,
By what lake’s edge or pool
Delight men’s eyes, when I awake some day
To find they have flown away?

– W.B. Yeats

Strange fits of passion have I known
Strange fits of passion have I known:
And I will dare to tell,
But in the Lover’s ear alone,
What once to me befell.

When she I loved looked every day
Fresh as a rose in June,
I to her cottage bent my way,
Beneath an evening-moon.

Upon the moon I fixed my eye,
All over the wide lea;
With quickening pace my horse drew nigh
Those paths so dear to me.

And now we reached the orchard-plot;
And, as we climbed the hill,
The sinking moon to Lucy’s cot
Came near, and nearer still.

In one of those sweet dreams I slept,
Kind Nature’s gentlest boon!
And all the while my eyes I kept
On the descending moon.

My horse moved on; hoof after hoof
He raised, and never stopped:
When down behind the cottage roof,
At once, the bright moon dropped.

What fond and wayward thoughts will slide
Into a Lover’s head!
“O mercy!” to myself I cried,
“If Lucy should be dead!”

William Wordsworth

The Price of Experience

What is the price of Experience? Do men buy it for a song?
Or wisdom for a dance in the street? No it is bought with the price
Of all that man hath, his house, his wife, his children.
Wisdom is sold in the desolate market where none come to buy
And in the wither’d field where the farmer plows for bread in vain.

–          William Blake

When I Heard at the Close of the Day

When I heard at the close of the day how my name had been receiv’d with plaudits in the capitol, still it was not a happy night for me that follow’d,
And else when I carous’d, or when my plans were accomplish’d, still I was not happy,
But the day when I rose at dawn from the bed of perfect health, refresh’d, singing, inhaling the ripe breath of autumn,
When I saw the full moon in the west grow pale and disappear in the morning light,
When I wander’d alone over the beach, and undressing bathed, laughing with the cool waters, and saw the sun rise,
And when I thought how my dear friend my lover was on his way coming, O then I was happy,
O then each breath tasted sweeter, and all that day my food nourish’d me more, and the beautiful day pass’d well,
And the next came with equal joy, and with the next at evening came my friend,
And that night while all was still I heard the waters roll slowly continually up the shores,
I heard the hissing rustle of the liquid and sands as directed to me whispering to congratulate me,
For the one I love most lay sleeping by me under the same cover in the cool night,
In the stillness in the autumn moonbeams his face was inclined toward me,
And his arm lay lightly around my breast – and that night I was happy.

–          Walt Witman

Do not go gentle into that good night

Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Though wise men at their end know dark is right,
Because their words had forked no lightning they
Do not go gentle into that good night.

Good men, the last wave by, crying how bright
Their frail deeds might have danced in a green bay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Wild men who caught and sang the sun in flight,
And learn, too late, they grieved it on its way,
Do not go gentle into that good night.

Grave men, near death, who see with blinding sight
Blind eyes could blaze like meteors and be gay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

And you, my father, there on the sad height,
Curse, bless, me now with your fierce tears, I pray.
Do not go gentle into that good night.
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

–          Dylan Thomas