Saturday, December 22, 2018


402 What poems do[i]

I have written poems all my life, in batches, at intervals. I did not publish but merely filed them, but recently I started working on them and posting them on two blogs, one in English and one in Dutch. That made me reflect on what it is that poems do.

In my philosophy, and in my previous career in science, the line running through all my work is dynamics, change. So one of the questions for me is: what does poetry have to do with that?  Novalis said: ‘Poetry is the elevation of man above himself’. How does that work? And how do poems differ from prose?

There are five differences between poetry and prose.

First, while in prose a line ends at the end of the page, in poetry the line ends earlier, and either the phrase runs to its end, or it is broken in ‘enjambment’, to continue on the next line. The last word on a line jumps out, gets emphasis, and that can be used in the design of the poem.

Second, lines are grouped in stanza’s, of two lines (a couplet), three (triplet), four (quadruplets), etc. A classic form is the sonnet, with 12 lines, divided over two quadruplets and two triplets (the Petrarcan sonnet), or two sextets and a couplet (Shakespearian sonnet).  The Haiku has three lines of 5, then 7, then 5 syllables.  

Why such structures? They yield ways to cut up the world that the poem presents. The Shakespearian sonnet has been associated with a debate: 6 lines thesis, 6 lines antithesis, and a couplet as resolution. One can also opt for an unbroken series of lines, in a world without seams.

Third, there is rhythm (meter), a sequences of beats. Classic is the jamb, going te dum, te dum, te dum, te dum, te dum (with the beat on ‘dum’), here five times on a line, called a pentameter. I have a preference for the tetrameter, with four beats, often used in ballads. The beat can also be reversed, in the ‘trochee’: dum te, dum te, dum te, dum te. The beat (dum) has been associated with the male, the one without beat (te) with the female.   

Why meter? It is said to come from the primal existential experience of the heartbeat, with the primordial experience in the maternal womb, and of the beat of walking, or a trotting or galloping horse. 

Fourth, there is rhyme. There used to be strict forms, some connected to the sonnet. For the Petrarcan sonnet abba, abba, cdc, cdc, or: abab, cdcd, cfe, fgg. Such orders of rhyme came to be seen by many as formalistic and constraining. They are, when the need to thyme dominates the intended meaning and story. One recommendation is to write up what you want to say and then try to make it rhyme, but don’t when it distorts what you want to say. But there now is also much ‘free verse’, with no regard to ‘rules’ of rhyme or even meter.

Why rhyme? It is pleasing to the ear, establishes order and repetition, but can indeed become forced and artificial.

Fifth, there is sound, more widely than in rhyme, in alliteration (same consonants) and assonance (same vowels), within lines or across them. Sharing vowels or consonants makes connections between words that can yield surprising associations and extensions or twists of meaning, in new combinations. That happens also with metaphor, where A is seen in terms of B.

Why these connections, by sound and metaphor?  This is what poems do: lift, shift or twist meanings, or generate new ones. This helps to halt and redirect thought. Innovation has been characterized as ‘novel combinations’, and in yielding such novel combinations poetry innovates language.

Poems stand things on their head, generate surprise, novelty, new world views.      


[i] This piece is based on a poetry writing course given by Mary-Jane Holmes at Casa Ana, in the Alpujarras, high up in the Sierra Nevada, in Southern Spain, on a book on poetry ‘The ode less travelled’ by Stephen Fry, and the book ‘On poetry’ by Glyn Maxwell.