Monday, December 15, 2008

Poetry and Language: Ramblings on the Sweetness of Poetry


Poetry and Language: Ramblings on the Sweetness of Poetry

It was Auden who said, “A poet is, before anything else, a person who is passionately in love with language.” I can only imagine what a sweet love affair it was for one of the greatest writers of the 20th Century, a prolific poet who used language to shape about 400 of the greatest published poems in the Western poetry lexicon.

Still, even Auden must have anguished over his words. I’m sure he had his moments gnawing his knuckles over the bitter inconsistencies of grammar and syntax- the inexorable frustration of having only one set of rustic tools: the naked, two-dimensional cryptograms of an alphabet.

But is it accurate to think of language merely as a tool? Can it ever be more than that? Does it provide discrete limitations to our knowing, or can we supersede the perceived barriers of language by using it in special ways? Mysterious ways?

And what can poetry contribute to this equation? Some would argue that we can move into new rubrics of understanding as we move from prose to poetry, as one might move from a photograph to a painting. I’m not at all sympathetic to such a stretch, but I am open to the notion that poetry is distinctively different than prose; not at any one particular facet or quality: but as one takes the whole of prose and sets it along side what we have in poetry, patterns emerge. One of the most salient of all, it occurs to me, is that of the sweetness of language.

For me, poetry gives language a sweet-smelling savor. Like what I get when I slowly breathe in a Chateau Margaux (1961, please) that has had one hour to rise above the rim of a decanter. In poetry, we ask language to do special things. We ask it not only to convey, but to speak. Or better, we ask it to play music. To bounce, or slide, or glide, or stop nearly on a dime, then whisper inaudibly into our memory. Finally, we ask it to remain on the palate, or in the nose. For a lifetime. Great poetry will do this. And often with only 14 lines.

A crude thought experiment, if you will: what is the difference between the following two paragraphs:

Are you sad, Margaret, because Goldengrove’s trees are losing all their leaves? You are young and carefree, but as you age you’re liable to be much sadder than you are today, much more bewildered and perhaps find that life itself is corruptible; you may cry and still not understand that it is all the same: Spring or Fall- either way- it is still your nature to find sorrow, just like the rest of us. Only now, you are sorry for Margaret, alone.


Margaret, are you grieving
Over Goldengrove unleaving?
Leaves, like the things of man, you
With your fresh thoughts care for, can you?
Ah! as the heart grows older
It will come to such sights colder
By and by, nor spare a sigh
Though worlds of wanwood leafmeal lie;
And yet you will weep and know why.
Now no matter, child, the name:
Sorrow's springs are the same.
Nor mouth had, no nor mind, expressed
What heart heard of, ghost guessed:
It is the blight man was born for,
It is Margaret you mourn for.

I know, the prose section could have been a bit stronger, but you get the idea. Hopkins loaded his poem, Spring and Fall, with the fiery darts of language. “Goldengrove unleaving,” is a masterpiece of innovation, as is “world of wanwood leafeal lie,” and the whole poem uses language, the cadence, the sound, the smell of leaves, short bursts of energy packed into images that can be seen by the eye, all culminating in a rush of identification whereby the reader at the end finally realizes that they have, all along, been where Margaret has been. May be going where Margaret is going.

Human beings have this amped-up gift of appreciating language in all its complexity and nuance. A single word, or small group of words, if properly placed, can strike a hidden neuron in the farthest reaches of the brain, retrieve a memory, a smell; or a fundamental crisis of being.

Poetry works to tweak these neurons. It uses language and the sound of words, and the intermingling meanings and connotations to create something out of nothing. It takes the black ink outline of letters on a page and turns it into a picture. Key to all of this process is the naiveté of the poet, who, like the tiny bee in a hive of a million bees, can have no idea or appreciation for the delicacy that she is making at its center. Yet she works away with ardor, compelled by instinct, or maybe even the prospect of something sweet tickling an antennae. Either way, the honey is sweet. And the bee continues to work. In most cases, without remuneration and without acclaim. And suddenly, one day, the poet looks up from the page and realizes there is something sweet here. And the honey remains sweet.

-EDN, 12/15/08



  1. What wonderful words of wisdom you weave about a subject dear to my heart. I tend to think of poetry as the music of the soul. Thank you, Ed! Anne B. Grote

  2. The Auden quote is a great start to this essay, Edward, because he was both a public poet who wrote poems to commemorate or excoriate world-shattering events, as well as a poet of intimate voice who was able to get across ¨the love that has no name¨ with all the depth and capacity of language of the most contemplative writer. Auden knew that he fulfilled his subjectivity, the outer shaping of his inner consciousness, with poetic forms and their articulations of interior needs to say strongly felt things in powerful ways.

    I agree with you that even as poetry shades into prose--almost tautologically, as it were, in the prose poem form, for instance--developing more from metaphor and analogy than metonymy and direct description of the world, it is indeed different. And although there are both fancy and plain forms of writing in both poetry and prose, what we call poesy and why we have the art of poetics is precisely because poetry deliberately calls attention to itself, above all to this sweetness you ascribe it, this delightful magic, whereas prose mostly serves to offer a window on the world or to put forth concepts or ideas in a way that we understand them above all, and relish the words after the fact.

    I especially like your multisensory fifth paragraph, which also speaks to the multiple intelligences that poetry points to beyond its linguistic domain, because you address one of the key issues of pre-Simulationist thought: how do we get across qualia of the perceiver in language in poetic terms, that is to say, with our own subjective interpretation of the world based on our own inner ontologies, referents, and implications from related words?

    Ah, the sound, the sound of Hopkins´Spring and Fall! The way a poet can use all his devices that appeal to the aural--rhyme, alliteration, meter, the breath itself guided by a sustained articulated sequence of verbalized thought--in a way to ¨tweak the neurons¨to maximize the feeling map of his intended reader, who is also a ´listener! You get this across brilliantly, Edward, in your final couple of paragraphs.

    Like a Hollywood screenwriter pitching a film to green light, I thought of your scientific yet metaphorical description as Stephen Pinker (The Stuff of Thought) meets William Gass (On Being Blue.)

    Above all, I learned something about myself when I read this essay about poetry´s special ¨jouissance¨of language through its unique combination of sound and sense: Just as for you, in some sense a poem, no matter how brutal or raw its subject matter may be, must be for me delectable. It must convince me by dripping its honey in my inner ear, which then may separate discord from delight.

  3. Loved the example Ed. Really made it clear.

  4. a heartfilled premise, "the sweetness", that becomes an extraordinary teaching tool in its expression, ed. i come to this article directly from such a poetic experience, reading barbary's "honky tonk" on the presim site (believe it might also be on gather). i felt transfigured.

    i love how you get at the poet him/herself, the busy bee who, in the grand scheme, may only see a part, who sometimes suffers over it in that infinite word world but who hovers and hones and ultimately creates a work of art that even he or she may be able to savor later, knowing it has been successful, doesn't even NEED feedback! it's not easy work to fuse feeling with language; that language must be invented, and that is the poet's difficult work.

    great examples, exposition, and most of all, heart, from a poet who does indeed give us sweetness, and now, out of his love and off his tongue, drips some cognitive understanding to better its appreciation.

    thank you, dear ed.

  5. Your piece excites even another mystery to me. With what organ do we taste that sweetness of language? Where are our own antennae? How do we explain our own sensitivity? It's perplexing, and awe-inspiring. Thanks for the nudge towards wonder. :-)

  6. great questions Chris... I'd say the pineal body, but I have a vague recollection that's already been claimed

  7. Maureen Sullivan StembergDecember 15, 2008 at 9:38 PM


    You have a wonderful way of making 'grief' sound as if we should not be afraid of it...In fact we should embrace it, feel it and these is how we begin to heal...Still, missing and loving the one that left. But, at least we had the courage to honor them by displaying our grief.
    I can't help to think of Joan Dion's first line from: "The Year of Magical Thinking." "In an ordinary minute life can change."
    So true, it's how we react in the millions of minutes we are left with how we go on...I like your way.

    Great job! ~mo-zy

  8. Ed,

    This is such a fantastic piece. I love how you've explained(?) poetry so well and so simply. This is a subject that was always my favorite when I was studying and now, after going through all those theories of what poetry should be, I know that this one piece will be the most memorable in terms of telling me what poetry should be and what it doesfor the reader and life in general...


  9. Edward, you make me want to write. When I have gifts to create and cakes to bake, you make me want to write.

  10. As a reader...I am constantly amazed by the beauty of reading poetry, yet, I find that for me, perhaps from reading so many novels and nonfiction books, I must find the specific words to understand the meaning.

    Is it fair of me to appreciate the flow...yet not want to try to figure out the meaning of some wisdom written by a poet, even if so beautifully?

    Yet, I continue to come to read these lovely words and there is no doubt I enjoyed the reading of the poetry in your example much better...

    Always a dilemma for me, but one I keep coming to meet...

  11. It's a beautiful essay, Ed. I think one so very special thing about poetry is that we can use these nuances of sound and rhythm to make what we say sound magical and yet, if we do it well enough, a nonpoet reader just enjoys, but doesn't notice.

  12. beautiful article dear Edward,
    filled with good examples up to point
    I believe your idea that poetry is a sweet way of writing
    and this sweetness never loses its delicious taste
    as the wonderful honey of bees

    stay well
    Fide ERKEN

  13. My comment has been expressed
    the poem expresses the experience of the grief while the prose while stark does the job but doesn't present the level of empathy
    the difference between poetry and prose as always in expressing human emotions both in joy and pain
    is huge. Analogy: a song of pain/praise versus banging drum
    both of which say a lot but it is matter of quality, mood and eye/ear of the beholder

  14. This essay illuminates and buoys the spirit, using strategic examples of transformative language and syntax. Mainly poets, beautifully human creates as we are, "should" aim to innovate use of language/syntax as prisms, rather than satisfy ourselves with imprecise use as mere crutches or synonyms for "you know what I mean."

    The syntax of human behavior, the errant poet--not your esteemed self--who heaves himself upon a newly friended poet never met face-to-face, pressing her with daily chat impositions, email requests for ostensibly poetic feedback, and then resentful response when feedback is supplied, needs correction.

    Thank you for a richly rendered essay and your other works.

    Mary Chi-Whi Kim

  15. So I read this essay before bed last night and pondered it off and on today at work.

    During my ponderings and mind-wanderings, I heard Bob Dylan's alternate version of "Most of the Time" on the radio. It's off his bootleg series and a totally different take on the album version that he did with Daniel Lanois. Dylan's use of language in this song just exploded for me when I heard it. It's like you primed me for this fresh listen of a song that just dismantles me on many levels and I was able to appreciate it on a whole new level today.

    So thank you Ed. It is a very well written essay and your insights continue to enable me to experience the beauty and wonder of poems (even yours).


  16. Yes, it's a love affair, and like two people truly in love, the fights can be down and dirty, but ohhh how the lovers make up afterward!

    Wasn't it Cohen who described being sacrificed on the anvil of poetry? I think he also said that he never completes a poem: he abandons it.

    Yes, we rail at the imperfections of language, but we also play with them and sometimes glory in them.

    I have a cartoon taped to the wall above my computer. It shows a pack of cigarettes with this warning label: Warning - Smoking, while pretty bad for you and highly addictive, is _nothing_ compared to the life of a poet.

    Your honour, I rest my case.


  17. [Edit] - Cohen said he had been sacrificed on the anvil of rhyme -

  18. I am thoroughly loving these comments... Dylan and Cohen, we went to different schools together. I was raised on Dylan and weened on Cohen, didn't read any poetry until I read a Frost poem in high school, and that was that

  19. Your work is genius and I have no criticisms... however I agree that the prose was a tad weak. Nevertheless as an appreciater of both I understood what you meant. What you said was unique, rarely have I come across anyone or anything that challenges the belief that words, the alphabet etc are limitations on poetry. Rather as it is believed that the senses are limitations to our experiences of life as humans, one takes it as a given that words to the same to our ability to express ourselves.

  20. Poetry is the only door left when there is no other way back to writing.

  21. thanks HearMe... the prose was designed to be weak to prove the point... evidently it did for you; many thanks

  22. We can give language back some qualities - savor, sweetness, color. A good step, but only a first one, methinks, toward acknowledging that language has all that you and I have: being.

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