While researching my own past for a special collection that has asked for some of my books and related materials, I came across an article published almost exactly 40 years ago in Alive, at the time a respected Canadian tabloid literary magazine with a certain political edge. Reading this article, I realize that I agree with everything the young author had written, even four decades later. This time around, I’d like to present that article once again, and a guest blogger… me.
by R. D. MacKenzie
originally published in Alive 41, 1974
How would you define poetry if asked to do so? Perhaps you will think of terms like “intellectual” or “academic”, “artificial” or perhaps even “phony”, “beautiful” or “simple”, “complex” or “deep”, and diverse other adjectives. Perhaps you will think of forms such as the sonnet, sestina, free verse, blank verse, and a whole list of others. Perhaps you will think of poets, selecting from thousands of names ranging from Homer and Virgil to moderns like Canada’s Layton and Cohen.
Whichever way you choose to come at a definition of poetry–whether through the theme, author, form or feeling–I believe that each person in this country will have a substantially different definition than the others.
How does your conception of poetry compare with this one? Poetry is…
“That one of the fine arts which exhibits its special character and powers by means of language; the art which has for its object the creation of intellectual pleasure by means of imaginative and passionate language, generally in verse; the language of the imagination and emotions rhythmatically expressed or such language expressed in an elevated style of prose; especially that creative writing which is divided into lines, each containing a determined number of sounds, the sounds being accented according to a regular and determined rhythmical pattern; similar creative writing, of looser structure, in which the phrases flow in a cadenced pattern; in a wide sense whatever appeals to the emotions or the sense of beauty…”
Well, this particular definition of poetry is from The New Webster Encyclopedic Dictionary of the English Language but it probably comes close at times to each of your own definitions of poetry. It is a vast, all-encompassing picture of poetry as we tend to understand it.
I believe that poetry does not have to be that complex or difficult to understand, I suggest, instead, that we approach poetry as a sort of Scrabble game, an entertainment, but not one that is reserved only for the intelligentsia.
Perhaps we can first narrow down our definition of poetry, I would like you to think of poetry only as defined in Webster’s final line. That is to say, poetry is, “whatever appeals to the emotions or to the sense of beauty…”, and nothing more or less than that.
As such, poetry is the exclusive property of neither the professional writer nor the professional academic.
And is this thing, poetry, so difficult for the average person to grasp? I think not.
From the beginning poetry has been written by persons from all walks of life. In pre-literate societies, poetry became and still becomes the realm of the troubador or the actor, performing the work from memory. This is how we came to have such poetry as Beowulf, which was written down centuries after it was composed by some unknown author. It is true that we see more poetry that is written by academics and by privileged classes, but this is simply because they have more time to write than do the poorer or less literate classes. Yet most of what we call folk-music or folk-literature is the poetry of the lower classes, composed both as entertainment and a way of spreading news or propaganda among the people.
Nowadays, our population is rife with professional writers: Novelists, Journalists, Advertising Copywriters, Short Story Writers, Article Writers, Public Relations Writers, Musical Lyricists, Scriptwriters, and the list goes on and on, even including professional poets, who are usually, but not always, academic.
Still, there is a difference when it comes to poetry. While few of these many types of writer ever write outside their field, all make an exception in the case of poetry. I doubt if there is a writer alive who has not, at one time or another, attempted poetry as an outlet for his skills. Furthermore, poetry overflows the bounds of professionalism, so that we have factory workers, welders, housewives, salesmen, farmers and people in all walks of life writing down their thoughts in the form of poetry. Some of these people are published in some of the hundreds of small poetry magazines now being printed in North America; others keep the poems to themselves, in looseleaf binders or bureau drawers as a sort of diary.
I believe that we all have something of the poet within ourselves. I believe that poetry is not some rare and delicate orchid but a dandelion spreading among us until we each have been touched by at least one tiny parachuting seed. Poetry, I think, is the element in man which differentiates us from the other creatures on this earth. Poetry is,“whatever appeals to the emotions or to the sense of beauty…”, and it lives within each and every one of us.
It is a shame that, in our literary evolution, we have come to believe as a society that poetry is incomprehensible, a myriad of confounding images, a maze through which only a scholar may travel, a horror so terrible that it is to be avoided at all cost.
And this is the attitude that we instill our youth with, So that they grow up never realising that poetry has little to do with the laying on of layers of words, with unfathomable mystical concepts, or with a secret language of the poets’ minds.
If, by now, you have begun to ask yourself what is the point I am trying to make, perhaps this is it: that language is the key to our most basic selves, and that poetry is the simplest doorway which language offers us into other people’s perceptions; that poetry should be taught, not as a chore, but rather as a celebration. That’s right, a celebration! of beauty, of life, and of the human intellect as its most basic level. Poetry is a celebration, as Webster says, of “whatever appeals to the emotions or to the sense of beauty…”; it is to be enjoyed rather than suffered and felt rather than forced.
I would suggest that each of you is a poet, even though you might never have written a word. Each time you look at a flower, a rock, a person, a fish or any other thing and feel emotion of any type to any degree, you are a poet by the definition I have given you. Each time you look at something and comment to yourself on its beauty or lack thereof, you are a poet by the definition which I have given to you.
Yes, there are professional and amateur writers whom we entitle, “Poet”, with a capital “P”, but there is, I believe, room for a generic term, poet, which can encompass all of mankind at one time or another. Whether or not you are a capital “P” poet, you, as a member of the human species, should consider that you are generically a poet.
The specific group which we name Poet differs from the rest of us only in that these people write down their poetry in what we like to define as a poetic style.
This brings up the question, “If we are all poets, each with emotions and each perceiving beauty in our own individual way, then why do we need the people who we choose to name as poets with a capital “P”?
There is a saying we all use when we happen by accident to rhyme or to say something in a particularly beautiful way, “I’m a poet and I didn’t know it”. I earlier referred to poetry as a sort of Scrabble game. We play, not with an alphabet of 26 letters–we play with thousands of words together representing an infinity of variant ideas. Only the professional poet and a few other individuals ever kno9w we are playing.
Only the professional poet ever makes the game his vocation, and only the professional poet treats the game as a calling rather than an accident of language. This man or woman acts, if he is performing his function properly, as a mirror to ourselves. He is the gameboard, selects concepts, ideas, philosophy, and just plain truth and organises them in natural patterns we may all see. I is he who reflects for us all to see, our true humanity. Through the poet with a capital “P” we may each see the poet in ourselves.
Like any mirror, however, this Poet may get steamed over, with rhetoric, and obscure the vision, giving the viewer a false picture of the inner reality the Poet is meant to reveal.
At times like this, it is better perhaps for us to rely solely on the poet within and to ignore the professional. After all, if the truth is there to be seen, we each come equipped to seek and find the truth ourselves.
This is where I believe it is important that our youngsters should learn to use the power they each bear. They should learn to use and to understand the force that we call variously imagination, perception, insight and other terms. They should learn, not just to feel emotion or see beauty, but to evaluate and to understand what they are feeling and seeing. This being accomplished, these individuals shall always have a mirror on hand, ready to reflect clearly where the game is going? These young people will be able to make the moves necessary to win their personal games of Scrabble.
All right, perhaps the analogy to Scrabble seems a trifle far-fetched to you. Then let’s go back to our original subject, poetry.
Reading or writing poetry gives an individual and outlet for his or her inward feelings. Whether it is as light as Ogden Nash on the one extreme or Rod McKuen on the other, or as deep as T.S. Eliot or W. H. Auden, we each have our own favourite poets and from their work, our own favourite poems. In reading these poems, we gain a feeling of oneness with the writer of the lines; we gain a release from our personal now into an infinite communion with all mankind. In writing poems we force ourselves to think out our problems and our conceptions in more universal form. This reduces their importance, if not to the level of the proverbial grain of sand, then at least to a manageable level.
But perhaps that still sounds like mirrors and Scrabble to you, and you find such analogies hard to believe.
Then here is a challenge for you. Try it for yourself. Prove to yourself whether I am right or wrong. Prove to yourself whether poetry can give you greater insight. Do one of two things when you go home today. Firstly, choose a subject at random and write a poem about it. Don’t just jot down an image. Think about the subject you have chosen. Say it’s a garden spade. How is this spade different than any other spade? Why is it different? How can you most effectively express this? What words? What verses and line forms? Think about these things in some quiet place until you are sure that you have formulated answers to these and any other questions which may arise. Now sit down and write your poem. I think you will have a real feeling of accomplishment; you will feel you really exist as a human being; and you will most likely have a publishable poem.
Now, the second exercise you can try is to read a poem. Pick up a book and select any poem, perhaps your favourite. Read it through once. Settle back in a chair or stroll through the garden as you savour what you have just read. Now read the poem through again. Repeat this process until you feel you fully understand the poem or until you begin to tire of the poem, whichever comes first. Then, think about how you feel. About yourself. About life in general. About others, specifically and in groups. I believe the results will those I described for the writers of poetry.
Once you have tried these two exercises a few times, I hope you will begin to see things in a clearer way. You will begin to see beauty in things you never before thought beautiful. You will begin to use your emotions more fully, in more varied and resourceful ways a child does. No, I’m not suggesting that we, as adults, should behave like children. Rather, I suggest that we should, each one of us, learn again to see the beauty of the world through a child’s vibrant eyes. I suggest that we shed some of the layers of cynicism we have built up over the years and learn to glory in simple things like the beauty of the dew or the feel of grass on bare feet. I suggest only that we learn to live again–fully. I believe there is something to be said for childhood, for the way a child can see things sometimes that others miss, can feel intensely the beauty around him or the emotion of a particular situation.
Within the definition of poetry which I have given you, the maker could as easily be a child as a professional Poet. The poet, by this definition, is one who has managed somehow to retain or recapture some of his childhood’s joy for life.
This is the gift I ask you to give to yourself and to your children. Give the ability to see the world in more than one light. See the many small splashes of beauty that surround us, each one of us, every day of our lives. Be the poet that lives within you, and teach your children to do the same. I ask you to give, as your gift, Life. And, for the human being, Life is much more than simply eating and breathing. It is the ability to see, “whatever appeals to the emotions or to the sense of beauty…”. It is poetry with a small “p”.