AN UNDERSTANDING AND APPRECIATION OF POETRY
(The following essay won for Grandmaster Wong the Literature Prize when he was in Upper Form Six at Penang Free School in 1964.)
An Understanding and Appreciation of Poetry
Poetry is one of the most wonderful inheritances of our human treasury. It enriches our lives, it carries us into rapture like a tranquil dream, it lifts us into a lofty world of delight. Yet, many people fail to enjoy this wonderful gift. Some think that poetry is an escapism from life, something that beats around the bush, something soft or cissy, or something unreal or crazy. Many people can recognize poetry, but few can understand it.
Poetry is sometimes mistaken to be an escapism from life. Many people are deceived into this mis-conception after reading some dream poems, such as those of Walter de La Mare. There are, however, many types of poetry, just as there are many types of prose. The chief aim of dream poetry is to give pleasure. It lifts the reader (or listener) into the poet's fantastic world of delightful imagination and enchanting experience. But this is only one of the many types of poetry. There are other types of poetry that are philosophical, religious or mere recapture of intense feelings. Nevertheless, in connection with dream poetry, it is often enlightening, especially for a dull, tried mind, to escape, even momentarily, from the common humdrum of life to lose oneself in the magic realm of dream poetry.
Poetry is certainly not soft nor cissy. Some people erroneously think that poetry is soft and cissy, because poetry aims to reach the heart and move the emotions, so that the poet can pour out his feelings and the reader can share them. Often it needs much spiritual strength to express or appreciate intense emotions. And the fervent and sincere outcry of some poetry for noble cause, for justice, for nationalism and freedom, strikes many people as courageous and sober.
Good poetry does not beat around the bush. On the contrary, it is concise. It is for this reason that a paraphrase of a poem is usually longer than the original piece. Some people think mistakenly that the frequent use of imagery in poetry makes it vague or padded. Good imagery is apt and concise. One can easily prove it to himself by translating a poem into ordinary prose.
It is a common mistake to regard poetry as identical to verse. They are quite different, though verse is the usual pattern by which poetry is expressed. Besides a stanza structure, rhythm and frequently rhyme -- the characteristics of verse -- there must be something more in poetry; there must be poetic music, insight and emotion. The following stanza. for example, is not poetry, but verse, as it is not inspired and has no poetic insight nor emotion:
Bla-bla Black Sheep. Have you any wool? Yes sir, yes sir, Three bags full.The stanza below, on the other hand, is poetry, as there is poetic music in the repetition of long dragging vowels, producing an appropriate atmosphere of loss and dreariness, insight into the anguish of loneliness, and emotion of helplessness experienced by the lonely soul:
Alone, alone, all all alone, Alone on a wide, wide sea And never a saint took pity on My soul in agony (Coleridge, Rime of the Ancient Mariner)Although poetry makes use of verse as a form of expression, not all verse is necessarily poetry. Conversely, poetry may not be in verse; many prose passages of religious works can be called poetry, for they are inspired by the poetic spirit.
A poem is often divided into stanzas, which are the counterparts of paragraphs in prose. However, not all poems are confined to a stanza pattern, and most long poems have no stanza pattern at all.
Rhythm is one of the most prominent features in poetry, but paradoxically, it is one of the most mis-understood. It is often related to other forms of rhythm, like the beating of the heart or the alternation of night and day. Consequently it is frequently mis-interpreted as identical to metre. Metre is the regular structure upon which a poet creates his rhythm. Rhythm should beat as inspired by the emotion of the poet, and serve to bring out more clearly the poet's intended meaning.
Another common mis-conception is to think that poetry must rhyme. Many long poems of great masters, notably Shakespeare and Milton, for example, are written in blank verse. However, rhyme has its important functions in poetry. It gives a pleasing musical effect, provides a good way to remember the lines, and sometimes contributes to a more thorough realization of the poet's meaning.
Music is a characteristic feature of poetry. The poet selects the most appropriate words, usually with melodious sounds, to produce an entrancing charm to captivate the reader or listener, and to promote the poet's meaning. Beside rhyme and rhythm, there are numerous devices a poet uses to produce poetic music; and some of these devices are harmonious vowel and consonant sounds, alliteration and assonance, onomatopoeia and repetition.
Words with long, open vowels, and soft, quiet consonants harmonize to create sweet, soothing sounds:
There is sweet music here that softer falls Than petals from blown roses on the grass (Tennyson, The Lotus-Eater)Alliteration and assonance, the repetition of identical vowels or consonants. can produce very enchanting effect in the hands of a master-poet:
How sweet the moonlight sleeps upon this bank! Here will we sit, and let the sounds of night Creep in our ears; soft stillness and the night Become the touches of sweet harmony. (Shakespeare, The Merchant of Venice)Onomatopoeia is a kind of sound symbolism whereby the word imitates the actual sound:
I chatter over stony ways, In little shapes and trebles, I bubble into eddying bays, I babble on the pebbles. (Tennyson, The Brook)Repetition of words or phrases helps not only to emphasize but also to create a bewitching spell that absorbs the reader or listener, like the spell that moves the audience to join in the chorus in response to a solo:
O my luve is like a red, red rose, That's newly sprung in June; O my luve is like the melodie, That's sweetly play'd in tune. (Burns, A Red, Red Rose)Poetic insight is the poet's vision. A poet has strange power of seeing things that ordinary people fail to see. Wordsworth gives an interesting example when he describes an un-imaginative man call Peter Bell, who sees only the outward appearance of things in a physical plane with his physical eyes. A poet, on the other hand, sees things differently, at a deeper level with the eyes of the soul. Wordsworth says:
To me the meanest flower that blows can give Thoughts that do often lie too deep for tears. (Wordsworth, Ode to Immortality)Another essential element in poetry is feeling. Great poems never fail to arouse the emotions of the reader or listener. Wordsworth says that "poetry is the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings", and explains that the source of poetry is "emotion recollected in tranquility". This is closely linked with poetic inspiration. The poet himself must be greatly moved by the emotion that inspired him to record his intense feelings in poetry. He may grasp the inspiration instantly and write his poetry straight away, or the inspiration may remain in his mind, to be recollected later.
Some poets express their feelings in wild outburst:
Oh, lift me as a wave, a leaf, a cloud! I fall upon the thorns of life! I bleed! (Shelley, Ode to the West Wind)Others do so in calm delight:
Was it a vision, or a waking dream? Fled is that music; do I wake or sleep? (Keats, Ode to a Nightingale)It is still frequently supposed that the outpour of powerful feelings in poetry has little or nothing to do with the intellect. This is not true with the great masters, who have a wonderful union of feeling and judgement,. Just as a man at the mercy of his powerful feeling is immature, a poet without control over his powerful outpour of feelings is an immature poet. But when a mature poet expresses his powerful overflow of feelings, he does so with a high degree of judgement. Shakespeare, who has a supreme degree of such control, is an excellent example in this respect. The following soliloquy by Macbeth -- spoken immediately after knowing the death of his queen at a time when he needed her most, amidst his tormented guilt and remorse which had just begun to arouse our sympathy -- shows Shakespeare's mastery control of feeling and judgement:
She should have died hereafter; There would have been time for such a word. Tomorrow, tomorrow, and tomorrow, Creeps in this petty pace from day to day, To the last syllable of recorded time; And all our yesterdays have lighted fools The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle! Life's but a walking shadow, a poor player, That strats and frets his hour upon the stage, And then is heard no more. (Shakespeare, Macbeth)Such an understanding of poetry is helpful for a more rewarding appreciation of its beauty. It is also essential that the meaning of the poem is clearly understood, and to do so may require many readings of the poem.
They are many types of poetry to satisfy our many tastes and moods. If we want to amuse ourselves and be absorbed in quiet delight, we can turn to light, dream-like poetry. If we are in great despair, when everything seems to go wrong, we can find confidence and reassurance in poetry like the nature poetry of Wordsworth, whose heart leapt when he beheld a rainbow in the sky, or the beautiful odes of Keats, who for many a time had been half in love with easeful Death. If we want to fill our minds with philosophical or contemplative ideas, we can turn to Arnold or Donne; if we want religious epics or noble thoughts, we can turn to Milton or Spenser. There is enough poetry to feed our mental needs, which are as significant as our bodily wants.
Poetry makes us rich. It helps us to be aware of the joys of life, to discover the delicate secret beauty that reveals herself in the blooms of flowers, the movements of stars, the shimmer of rippling streams, the love of all things beautiful, and the warmth of life. It teaches us to see things with our inner eyes, and allows us to share the wisdom of poetic insight, to realize that we have all of us one human heart. It gives us strength when we are discouraged, conscience when we are proud, hope when we are desperate, consolation when we are sad; and it enriches us with the whole range of the poets' gathered knowledge of mankind. But we need to understand and appreciate it in order to reap its full benefits,