How extraordinary to make a scene out of such little detail, to make that detail stylised, formal, yet also very moving. But is the reader moved by the aesthetics or by the contents: a storm, death, no evidence, the beach and beams of sunlight indifferent to death? It becomes very difficult to know. Mazes, subsided herds, the sun with long legs—metaphors, formal devices—the very opposite of William Carlos Williams's treatment of the woman in the street removing a nail from her shoe (see above, p. 74). The objects and people in Graham's poem do not encounter each other or interact. Yet that is the point; that is the vision. You might have a preference for one poem over the other, but both kinds are available to use; both are examples of compact treatment. And it is by no means certain that the second example will fail to engage your attention, just because its treatment is impersonal, more literary, more self-consciously art-like and removed from natural speech.
Note how both stanzas in 'Gigha' are set to appeal to the eye, not to the voice. No one would ever say the sentence that begins 'Quietly this morning.' Rather than spoken it seems designed beforehand. But again that is the point—deliberate distortion, to evoke something familiar using unfamiliar language with peculiar sound qualities, to emphasise artifice, to discover new ways of constructing sentences, to find out what a sentence can do by inventing new sentences.
We have to say that poetry has the right to depart from speech just as free verse departs from regular verse, but we need to add that such departures are never quite total. All the free verse poems printed above carry vestiges of surface regularity. And all, when they do depart from speech, do so with a residual sense of words as spoken aloud. A trace is left; even the sentence from Graham makes reference to speech by reversing the usual order. It would have been more usual to say: 'I walk quietly this morning beside.' instead of 'Quietly this morning beside. I walk.' Such departures sharpen the reader's response. In compact treatment the use of antithesis and the sound of a voice speaking in unspeech-like ways are two of the means whereby writers quicken our sense of the language of poetry and enable us to enjoy its inventiveness. In compact treatment the writer's and reader's imagination is responding to language as form invention with an obvious inner structure.
One of the most popular syllabic forms is the Haiku, a Japanese verse form of seventeen syllables in three lines of five, seven and five syllables. Less commonly known and practised is the Tanka, a form in lines of five/seven/five/seven/seven syllables. Examples can be found of syllabic form in more extended poems, such as Thom Gunn's 'My Sad Captains'. The point of syllabic form is that it produces a sense of tension and restraint without limiting surprise and freshness. But it's not necessary to keep to the traditional forms of syllabic poem to appreciate its dramatic possibilities.
I tried this method myself with two or three poems I wrote after watching children playing video games. I didn't like the effect of the games at all—life experience appeared to be a matter of zapping one adversary or problem after another; success was achieved when you finally zapped the lot. Alex Kidd was the name of the video character. Is success a matter of luck or skill? Could you repeat the performance, even if you finish as a winner? The syllabic effect seemed to fit this jerky, haphazard progress. The rule I invented for writing the poem was to use eight syllables per line in four-line stanzas.
'Alex Kidd in Miracle World'
Alex Kidd, he was devoured by an eagle on a sea-cliff. From side to side it moves across the screen while Alex's little ghost goes up and up and Alex is back again with two more lives. Skipping treacherous ledges he drops in the sea, birds become fish, swims down and along collecting moneybags, and dodging the sharp piranha. Where threat is he shifts to reverse and negotiates a greenish frog's killer bubbles, a huge yo-yo fish. And this time gets the hamburger. Lots of cheers, but this is only zone one and afterwards ten more. It's three he's in now, waved at by a sucking octopus. Another life lost. Survival is miraculous
Alex, but where are all your friends? Here they are and both on the safe side, though in turn each one is you. A skill they learn hazardously gets you as far as you can go. Now on a bouncy motorbike then drowning in a lava lake zone four is the limit so far,
Oh Alex Kidd, brave Alex Kidd, so superiorly evolved, see your punches coming easy. Though in fine fettle, ghastlier trials wait, and when you reach the last zone, is your desired close to know it's with a complete skill you succeed, not from luck or by accident? Can you be sure it wasn't chance, impulse or a feint? Go back Alex, try, and find you'll defeat miracle world never.
You may have noticed that in this poem I have broken the rule about ending each line with a significant word. The only rule for a line is to count the syllables.
Metaphors are used in everyday speech. They find their way into common use even in more formal situations. Couples in therapy with relationship problems might be attempting to 'build bridges .to embark on a journey of conciliation'. In such situations, exactness of expression is not essential; the context permits a margin of inaccuracy. If I say that common speech harbours dead metaphors, the word 'harbour' in this sentence is a dead metaphor applied to a dead metaphor. We need to be careful—especially when the context is a poem. Good style brings poems and comparisons to life. Faces don't just look miserable and cold; they are 'like fists'. In a recent poem by Simon Armitage, a coffee house waitress in an off-duty moment 'gives the kiss of life to a Silk Cut by the fire-escape', (The North, 2005, Vol 36, p 4).
To say faces look in that instant in the street 'like fists', is a response coloured with strong subjective feeling for which the poet offers no apology, no argument or proof. The metaphor itself is the proof and evidence. Only someone who felt things to be that way could say it that way. Metaphor, therefore, doesn't make things up. It is a feature of style based simply on the facts as they are seen and found to be. A guiding principle with using metaphor is that it might well exaggerate, yes, but along the line of feeling-response, so that it carries a sense of intent, of action and consequence, so that it dramatises the world. Charles Causley writes: 'An iron bowl sent out stiff rays of chrysanthemums. It/ grew colder', (Causley, 1975:155). We feel the cold of an iron and stiffened sun, as if the flowers emitted actual darkness. What could be seen as static objects—chrysanthemums in a bowl—are given animation and energy.
But we also need to acknowledge that the world of a poem can be made dramatic without metaphor. If a sense of action and story is one key to an effective style, it can be achieved by other means. Holub's poem, 'The Fly' contains no metaphors, apart from the 'whisper of decay'. The following poem by Sujata Bhatt expresses a suspicion about metaphors. Here they are avoided, deliberately. This is a poem about writing poems. It shows us how the world of a poem can be made dramatic in other ways. The poet could have expressed her opening statement through metaphor—'the green was the green of.'—but instead she chose not to, and for good reasons:
In Kosbad during the monsoons there are so many shades of green your mind forgets other colors.
I am seventeen, and have just started to wear a sari every day. Swami Anand is eighty nine and almost blind. His thick glasses don't seem to work, they only magnify his cloudy eyes. Mornings he summons me from the kitchen and I read to him until lunch time.
One day he tells me 'you can read your poems now'. I read a few, he is silent. Thinking he's asleep, I stop. But he says, 'continue'. I begin a long one in which the Himalayas rise as a metaphor.
Suddenly I am ashamed to have used the Himalayas like this, ashamed to speak of my imaginary mountains to a man who walked through the ice and snow of Gangotri barefoot a man who lived close to Kangchenjanga and Everest clad only in summer cotton. I pause to apologise but he says, 'just continue'.
Later; climbing through the slippery green hills of Kosbad, Swami Anand does not need to lean on my shoulder or his umbrella. I prod him for suggestions, ways to improve my poems. He is silent a long while, then, he says
'there's nothing I can tell you except continue.'
In this poem each statement is definite; it says what it says clearly, without decoration. Excess literariness is stripped away. The effects of varying shades of green are simply stated as fact. Because it is a narrative the language of straight information is sufficient, everything becomes fact. Metaphor is questionable, and this mistrust is itself part of the narrative of the poem, the story of a process of thinking. The woman in the poem's own use of the Himalayas as a metaphor embarrasses her in relation to the old man's actual lived experience—she can't share that; she can't write from the centre of his experience, only from her own. A good style therefore bears the mark of truth. There is a flow of attention towards its world. It is simply a form of intelligent thinking, but with the facts of experience within range. Metaphor is one device among many for making us look and think again, for conveying that sense of a glimpse of something—a thought, maybe a fact—'summer cotton'. But the advice the poet receives is of value too—we learn by doing. All you can do is continue.
Adjectives and Verbs
Basil Bunting's advice to student poets at Newcastle University in the 1970s was as follows:
1. Compose aloud; poetry is a sound.
2. Vary rhythm enough to stir the emotion you want but not so as to loose impetus.
3. Use spoken words and syntax.
4. Fear adjectives; they bleed nouns. Hate the passive.
5. Jettison ornament gaily but keep shape.
Put your poem away till you forget it. Then:
6. Cut out every word you dare.
7. Do it again a week later, and again.
A useful list, but one that needs some comment. After you have worked on your own poems, revising and rewriting them, would you agree with Bunting's do's and don'ts? Cut every word you dare—yes, but be careful not to sacrifice number three in the process. Beginning writers can sometimes produce a clipped style they believe signifies 'poetry'. Number four is the main point here, though. A common warning: it can be read as 'All adjectives are bad, never use them'. This advice is certainly familiar, and for the most part desirable. But what it most usually means is use adjectives carefully rather than not at all. To use no adjectives at all can indeed create great poetry. 'The tiger springs in the new year. /Us he devours.' (T. S.Eliot, Gerontion). Only one adjective ('new'), and the emphasis falling as it should on nouns and verbs, verbs particularly— 'springs...devours'. But no adjectives ever? Where would Eliot have got to without the word 'dry'? We possibly do need to know about the snow in King Wenceslas—and more than the fact that it just 'lay round about'. Adjectives can only describe static states. The snow will always be deep and crisp and even. More important are the voices speaking and the word 'tread' which comes next. With adjectives, choose carefully. But, in preference, concentrate on action, use verbs.
Poetry makes language an experience—of rhythm and sound as well as form and shape. It also generates meaning, using effects we find in other creative genres, including the dramatic, the use of story, voices and personae.
Poems are about real things, people and places, and how these figure in our imaginative life. It deepens our need to find warmth, meaning and value in the world around us; at the same time it faces us with the facts, refreshes and enlivens our perception, makes the familiar strange.
Poetry discovers connections between meaning and physical sensation. It shifts from the general to the specific, makes the creative process more accessible, emphasises the moment and the local.
It serves difference, fights assimilation, but is also interested in the typical, the collective, in what binds people together.
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