The Necklace of Poetry.
The nature of poetry is the subject of endless debate. How do we know poetry when we see it? There have been times when the shape of a piece of writing or the number of lines or syllables or even the way lines rhymed with each other were all hailed as the hallmark of poetry.
However, time has erased one hallmark after another though we acknowledge that poetry still exists. Is it possible to learn lessons from the past, distil the essence of previous attempts at definition and come up with a new and better statement of the nature of this form of writing?
As a minimum, I suggest, a poem must have the structure of a necklace. There must be some central thread which holds all other components together in such a way that readers recognize the result as poetry.
As with any necklace there is an almost endless variety of shapes, sounds and subjects that can be assembled on the thread. The thread itself, though, is not endless. Though there may always be more thread available, the thread the writer is currently working on ends at some point that the writer, and only the writer, decides. That is not to say, of course, that every reader will agree with the author’s decision on where and why the poem ends. But, though we may disagree with the poet’s decision we have to accept it.
Only the maker knows when he has made what he set out to make. Only s/he knows the end they saw when they started on the journey. It is possible that the originator of a poem can see a new goal when they are part way towards an earlier one; when they do this they create a new poem, not finish the old.
Poetry must also, I suggest, have words as part of its essential make up. Sound without words may be music of some sort but it isn’t poetry. The words in a poem may, perhaps should, make music but they can also be discordant yet still be poetry.
On the other hand, I think that poetry and music must have some sort of rhythm if they are to justify their name. The rhythm can, especially these days, be jumbled or dissonant but there has to be some pattern to it if it is to contribute to the making of a poem. It can, of course, do much more than just that. In a poem like Alfred Noyes’ ‘the highwayman’ the rhythm of the work is what brings the scene and the activities to life.
I also think that it is possible that poetry may be made stronger if it has a musical element in its sounds, both consonants and vowels contributing to the impact of the whole image on the reader.
In a reproduction of the same elements of production poetry might be likened to a necklace. Necklaces and their components can be, perhaps most usually are, smooth and symmetrical. But they can also be jagged, chunky and variable in size and colour,
affecting the senses, particularly the aural sense in the same way as painting, photography and the like affect vision.
For me one of the endlessly interesting things about poetry is that it sets out to touch our feelings and emotions rather than our thoughts or established ways of life yet in doing so it often stirs us to think about some aspect of life from a completely new perspective. Necklaces can do that, too. Seeing your wife, girlfriend or even your favourite TV star wearing a new necklace can make you see them in a completely different way.
And that, really, is what we’re trying to do when we write poetry. We want our readers to see what is, perhaps, a most familiar element of their daily life in a completely different way. When that happens we know we’ve written poetry.