Note: This series has been a few days in the writing. It is a total, though perhaps timely coincidence that I wrote this around the same time that the new NC listed reciting poetry as a component.
Poetry: the final frontier
I left school a staunch scientist, straight down the line. My A Levels were woefully lacking in breadth, and Shakespeare was boring. I always liked classical music, some of it, the stuff that was easy to listen to. I occasionally went to museums and art galleries, and attempted to appreciate what was there, as best I could. Five years ago, I had the good fortune to actually be able to study the history of music and art to some degree. The lecture courses were remarkable, and almost strange; in the music course I found I was learning as much about European history as I was music. The lecturer’s point was that music reflects the both the musician and society; the times in which the musician lived. To understand what drove and inspired their music, we must first know their life, and their world. The art courses were similar – chronological, well sequenced, with social and political history being a necessary theme to understand and appreciate the works for all they were. It felt like all previous efforts to engage with ‘high art’ of this kind had involved me scratching around at the surface, trying to find a way in, and now suddenly the doors were flung wide and a whole new dimension stretched far ahead.
Thing about music and art, is that even if you know nothing about them, they can still be appreciated to some small degree, if you want to try. Not so for poetry, at least, not so for me. We can find concert pieces that ‘sound nice,’ or paintings that ‘look nice,’ even if we cannot grasp the full weight of their message or their social implications, regardless of whether many other pieces remain impenetrable to us (I have yet to understand the fuss made around Malevich’s ‘Black Square on a White Ground,’ though if anyone would like to have a go at explaining in the comments, please do!) With poems, yes, some sound euphonious when spoken aloud, and there’s a whole movement of slam or spoken-word poetry that focuses on that aesthetic quality. One such example that many teachers will be familiar with is this incredible homage paid by Taylor Mali:
But spoken-word poetry has always seemed relatively – note relatively – simple in its construction, when compared with many great and enduring poems of ages past – and presumably of contemporary poems with which I’m unfamiliar. Mali’s piece uses language that everyone can automatically understand; its mastery is in how it comes together to produce a poem that sounds beautiful while making an important case in defence of teachers. By comparison, if I start listing names like Blake, Kipling, Poe, Shakespeare, Dante, Coleridge, Chaucer, Shelley, Whitman, and so on, people who are considered amongst the greatest poets who ever lived, well then anyone familiar with their work will know that they do not have the ready ease of enjoyment that does Mali’s piece. It’s not just the dead white men with their antique language; for my part I’ve struggled equally with more modern poetry.
Symbolic algebra is marked by extremely high information density. Just like poems… ?
To my eyes now, I think poems resemble algebraic models; a statement that will stop cold the heart of many an English major! Symbolic algebraic statements are able to communicate a great deal of information, very efficiently; they have high information density. Poems can be said to resemble algebra in that the best poets are able to generate similarly incredible information density, in inventing new ways of expressing an idea via the written word. Professor Robert Greenberg says something similar about what he calls ‘great music,’ or ‘concert music’. While most people colloquially define what he’s referring to as ‘classical music,’ since ‘classical music’ is technically defined by music created between the years 1750 and 1827, he needs a new way of defining the music covered in his lectures. In doing so, he describes ‘concert music’ as being distinct from ‘popular music’ in ‘…generally having greater information content.’
The brilliance of the best poets is lauded precisely because they are able to create this information density, while simultaneously creating pleasing rhythms, cadences and sounds. But this then means that, like algebraic models, to the uninitiated poems can be alien and impenetrable. Let’s look at a line from Shakespeare’s sonnet 18, ‘Shall I compare thee’, which I think demonstrates the case quite well:
And every fair from fair sometime declines
For anyone who doesn’t know the poem, that line will likely be meaningless. You can try the whole sonnet here, if you wish, in the hope that context might help:
It probably won’t, so here’s a shortcut. This is what Shakespeare is actually saying:
And everything that is fair in nature, will inevitably decline from the state of being fair at some point in time
A closer approximation is provided here:
And everything beautiful sometime will lose its beauty
Either way, that should make a lot more sense now.
Shakespeare: 7 words, 10 syllables in iambic pentameter (you can read it like a heartbeat: duh-dum, duh-dum, duh-dum – and-ev, ry-fair, from-fair, some-time, de-clines)
Mine: 21 words, 30 syllables
Alternative: 8 words, 14 syllables
Shakespeare not only squeezes so much information into just 10 syllables, but he does it, somehow, as if using some blasphemous sorcery, while making those words fit a precise rhythmic pattern! This comes at a cost: his line is the least easy to immediately understand. Despite there being no archaic language, the strange structure of the words is enough to render them impenetrable to the novice reader, and this is all before we start bringing in words that are archaic, or uncommon, or assumed contextual knowledge that brings life and depth to the poem.
Conclusion: Poems can be difficult to enjoy because, like mathematics, they make use of large amounts of assumed knowledge in order to convey vast quantities of complex information.
The assumed knowledge could be, as with mathematics and concert music, of the structure or form of the poem. It could be knowledge of the words’ meanings, and sometimes more likely, of a single word’s many different meanings. It could also be contextual knowledge of social, political or historical events, necessary to understand the poet’s intention and their message. As a reward for meeting poems ready to go with this assumed knowledge in place, they in turn can convey yet more wisdom, inspiration and beauty, in a form that is music without melody.
Next time: How I recently learnt to love poetry