The Nature of Poetry

The Nature of Poetry

时间:2006-04-23 其它英语写作
Poetry has been produced by every civilization in history, and it shows no sign of losing its power in our time. Ours may be, as we are often told, a prosaic age or a scientific age, but it is also an age in which a great quantity of poetry is written. It may ultimately prove to be one of the great eras of poetic creation. The remarkable durability of the poetic tradition and the intensification of poetic composition in times of critical transition—the Renaissance and the twentieth century—indicate that poetry is closely related to mankind's deepest concerns. It not only records and comments on events, but also helps define our responses to them. Its special province is emotion—what Henry James once called "the felt sense of life."

One source of poetry's viability is its remarkable power to adapt to changing circumstances. As it once took in its stride the great exploring carried out in the astonishing ocean-going vessels of the fifteenth century, so it has now assimilated the airplane and the rocket. But poetry can accommodate itself to new ways of living because it is also an expression of the unchanging and universal essence of human experience.

One result of poetry's constant stretching and shifting to cover the elastic shape of life is the appearance of new forms of expression without loss of the old ones. E. E. Cummings has done startling things with the shape of language without preventing anyone else's writing in traditional verse patterns. Still the nature of poetry is unchanged by its growing diversity of forms. We may still define it as the interpretive dramatization of experience in metrical language.

Poetry shares many qualities with other forms of writing, but it also has many distinctive characteristics which present certain initial difficulties to the reader. Hence we are concerned in this handbook with developing skill in reading. Here is a fairly simple, well-known poem that will give us an opportunity at the outset to observe both the similarities and differences between poetry and other writing:

Winter

When icicles hang by the wall,

And Dick the shepherd blows his nail,

And Tom bears logs into the hall,

And milk comes frozen home in pail,

When blood is nipped, and ways be foul,

Then nightly sings the staring owl,

To-whit!

To-who!—a merry note,

While greasy Joan doth keel the pot.

When all aloud the wind doth blow,

And coughing drowns the parson’s saw,

And birds sit brooding in the snow,

And Marian’s nose looks red and raw,

When roasted crabs hiss in the bowl,

Then nightly sings the staring owl,

To-whit!

To-who!—a merry note,

While greasy Joan doth keel the pot.

This poem, like most, is written in normal, clear English sentences. Our first concern is to understand the plain sense of these sentences, using the poet’s punctuation and our own knowledge of grammar and sentence structure as guides. In our example each stanza consists of a single sentence, the subject and verb of which are "the staring owl . . . sings." The larger part of each sentence, though, consists of a series of adverbial clauses introduced by "when,” and containing specific glimpses of a winter scene. These details acquire great emphasis from their position at the beginning of the sentences and from the parallel grammatical structures that convey them so that the major interest in the poem lies in the vivid sense of the winter scene it gives us. Thus we are interested not only in the plain sense of the sentences, but also in the grammatical and structural peculiarities that contribute to the meaning of the poem.

Obviously we must know the meaning of each word; sometimes we shall have to use the dictionary to look up unfamiliar words or to discover a usual sense of a familiar one. In the ninth line, keel means to stir the contents of a kettle to keep it from boiling over. In the eleventh line, saw means a pithy saying, a platitude. Since it is not a very flattering term, it helps us detect the speaker's attitude toward the parson.

Poetry differs from some kinds of prose in that it is usually more concrete and specific. That is, it communicates experiences, emotions, attitudes, and propositions by dealing with a particular situation or event that implicitly embodies abstract generalizations. In "Winter" the poet presents a number of particulars that give the reader a more vivid sense of winter weather than such a flat statement as "It was cold" could do. Like other literature, poetry uses a dramatic method in the sense that it acts out whatever ideas it conveys.

Poetry often uses an imagined dramatic situation which can be defined by the answers to some or all of these questions: Who is speaking? To whom? Under what circumstances? What is the speaker's attitude toward the subject of his discourse? Toward his audience? Sometimes quotation marks indicate that the poem consists of the words of a fictional speaker, but their absence does not mean that the poet has not imagined a character who speaks the lines. “Winter " is the comment of a person who knows servant life; he sees the life of a manor house from below stairs. He is an acute, observer who makes fun of discomfort, and who surely has his tongue in his cheek when he moves from the observation of icy air and clogged roads to the assertion that the owl cry is a merry note. He is not particularly respectful when he calls the parson’s preaching a "saw" or when he calls attention to Marian's inflamed nose and Joan’s greasiness.

Poetry usually includes some element of narrative; this story, overt or implied, may be the matter of chief interest in the poem, or it may be the means of conveying an attitude or a proposition. In "Winter" the narrative element is small, although we do get a sense of action in a specific setting.

Poetry communicates in many ways at once. The several means of communication interact with each other—and may reinforce, qualify, or counteract each other—to produce a net effect which is greater than the impact of the several components taken separately. Our example has shown how the sentence structure, the concreteness of detail, the meanings and associations of words, and the implied dramatic situation all contribute to the total effect of the poem. The remainder of our discussion will consider in more detail how these elements and others are fused to produce the whole poem.