No. 5 — Poetry
It is not my intention to presume to be profound with this subject, nor yet to be comprehensive. Rather I would endeavor in a brief article to shear it of some of its so-called loftiness and try to show that poetry is not for the ultra-learned, the litterateur, the book-loving highbrow alone, but can and should be appreciated by alone with a desire for mental improvement and with ability enough to read. In fact, true poetry, like true prose, should be measured by the extent of its popularity, not by its appeal to the aesthetic few. By this, I do not mean that the poet should descend in his poetic fancy, but that he should so weave his fancy as to charm is hearers and draw the, upward to his height of vision almost without their being aware of their own flight.
To be a poet, a man must be highly strung, keenly attuned, sensitive as the disc of a recording phonograph to fleeting impressions. Even with all that, it is only on special occasions, when he becomes less material and proportionately more spiritual, only when a combination of mental circumstances strike harmoniously at an unusual pitch, that real poetry is born. Poetry in the true sense of the word cannot be written to order. Even the greatest of poets find it impossible to write poetry all the time. Poetry is inspirational; it brooks no cold-blooded analysis; it must be humoured when it deigns to come, for once it passes it cannot be recalled. Poetry is literature at its sublimest height.
Bliss Carman confirms this: “Great poetry, like any great art, is only produced in exceptional moments.”
Poetry instructs us as no prose can. It awakens the subconscious side of our mentality by suggestion, and it arouses the finer instincts which have been lying half dormant within us. The true poet has already lived his poem in the hard world of experience; he cannot give birth to a poem by proxy. “There is only one way to be a poet,” says Bliss Carman, “by sweat and heart-break and bitter weariness of brain.”
When one scans a finished poem in all its simplicity, all its word-beauty, its rhyme and gentle rhythm and its nobleness of thought, one is apt to picture the poet with his long, carefully-groomed hair, comfortable in his velvet jacket in an easy chair, dashing off his epic in all its perfection in one grand, triumphal cataract. But, it is not so. Even famous poets have been found with their tobacco-ash spilling all over their waistcoats and their typewriters, their eyes “in a fine frenzy rolling,” tearing their matted hair, perspiring, ay, and giving vent to very unpoetic expressions in their distraction at being unable to call up the word with the exact shade of meaning, the flowing phrase with the correct swing and number of feet which they knew were requisite to the perfection of a certain line. And so it is that the noblest of poetry is born of hard toil, blood-sweat and mental anguish.
Now, if anyone would seek the real truth of any writer, he should search that writer’s poetry rather than his prose, for, as Robert Nicoll, the famous British poet, states, “I have written my heart in my poems: and rude and unfinished and hasty as they are, it can be read there.”
Happiness is not essential to the birth of poetry; rather does it spring from privation, bereavement, confinement, disaster. Poets, like the lark in the cage, have been known to sing their sweetest when imprisoned behind bars of iron or looming walls of adversity. The poet cannot be muffled. He lives in a world of his own.
Poetry is the connecting link between the two arts, literature and music. One might almost be inclined to aver that poetry is music. The poet hears the sweetest music in poetry just as some musicians more closely related than others to the art of painting can name the colour of every note as it is struck on the piano. This merely goes to prove that all the arts—literature, sculpture, painting, music—are closely connected, and he who is deeply absorbed in any one of these cannot fail to experience a feeling of fraternal love for all the others.
Some poetry we admire for its style: other poetry for the tough that it contains: but unless the proper combination of thought and style be present — the poem is not likely to have a long life. Poetry is born, as one might put it, of the “mad moments” of life. Even Aristotle in the far back bygone ages recognized this. “No great genius,” he said “was ever without some mixture of madness.” Plato, Macaulay and Shakespeare say the same thing in other words. But, after all, it is the mad thought that makes the poem — that is the poem.
Notwithstanding the loftiness of the poetic art, despite the homage we pay to outstanding poetry of all ages, irrespective of the common knowledge that to be a great poet a man must be a genius, a slighting sneer often follows one who ventures An attempt at it; even the modern recognized poets are deplorably undervalued. But, for all this, there is little danger of the poet becoming extinct. He can no more help writing his verses when they come than he can help his heart beating — it is constitutional.
There are no rules for writing poetry, and poets cannot be made. Coleridge says, “Prose is words in their best order: poetry, the best words in the best order.”
We may conclude with a remark of Hiram Corson’s, “People who need definitions of poetry are generally people who have not experienced much of the thing itself. With those who have, poetry is poetry, and there an end.”