What does poetry do?
In the introductory module, it was suggested that all literature is basically metaphorical in nature. We also explored the important role that metaphors play in everyday life — in short, we use metaphors each day to make comparisons between the concrete world that we inhabit and the abstract world of ideas and human experience. In this module, we will explore the art of poetry and, once again, we will develop an understanding of how metaphors, in addition to other types of literary and figurative language, are used in poems to give shape and meaning to a wide range of human experiences.
In his book How to Read a Poem and Fall in Love with Poetry , Edward Hirsch suggests that “Poetry is made of metaphor. It is a collision, a collusion, a compression of two unlike things: A is B.” Therefore, reading poetry helps to broaden our understanding of power of language to provide more than just literal meaning — the sort of meaning that can be obtained from a dictionary. Instead, as Hirsch argues, “Poetry evokes a language that moves beyond the literal and, consequently, a mode of thinking that moves beyond the literal.” Because poets use language in unique and often challenging ways, reading poetry, like reading fiction, is an ideal way of developing complex reasoning and proficiency in active reading.
Poetry invites the reader to actively participate in the process of making meaning through language. The basic structure of metaphors consists of drawing comparisons between unlike things, and when we strive to understand, or infer, the connections that may exist between these unlike things, we begin to build our ability to think critically and creatively about language. From a literary standpoint, poetry is an essentially oral art form. It is meant to be read aloud. When we participate in constructing meaning by reading actively and making inferences, we participate in a kind of performance that is very similar to the dynamic between a singer and her audience. The poet will often even rely on the reader to fill-in the gaps or spaces in a poem with our own thoughts and emotions. The very best poetry is, therefore, deeply participatory.
Metaphors are essential to this participatory dynamic. Oftentimes, an entire poem can function as a kind of metaphor that attempts to make an abstract, or less clearly defined, concept more accessible for the reader. Poems do this by employing vivid imagery and similes (the comparison of two unlike things using like or as ). For example, in his poem “Dulce et Decorum est,” the British poet Wilfred Owen challenges a romantic understanding of the “glories” of war by offering the reader a vivid portrayal of the suffering that he witnessed on the battlefield during World War I. In this poem, Owen contradicts the ancient, patriotic motto, “It is sweet and fitting to die for one’s country,” by portraying war as a kind of twisted nightmare.
Read and listen to the poem, and pay particular attention to how the poem uses imagery and similes to make the experience of war accessible to readers. (1)
Bent double, like old beggars under sacks, Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge, Till on the haunting flares we turned our backs And towards our distant rest began to trudge. Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame; all blind; Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots Of tired, outstripped Five-Nines that dropped behind. Gas! Gas! Quick, boys!—An ecstasy of fumbling, Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time; But someone still was yelling out and stumbling And flound’ring like a man in fire or lime… Dim, through the misty panes and thick green light, As under a green sea, I saw him drowning. In all my dreams, before my helpless sight, He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning. If in some smothering dreams you too could pace Behind the wagon that we flung him in, And watch the white eyes writhing in his face, His hanging face, like a devil’s sick of sin; If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs, Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,— My friend, you would not tell with such high zest To children ardent for some desperate glory, The old Lie:Dulce et decorum est Pro patria mori .
The earliest recorded poems are part of oral tradition and often are musical. In his book Orality and Literacy , Walter Ong suggests that “language is nested in sound,” and scholars who study the origin of language have theorized that music and language developed alongside of one another in our evolutionary past. Reflecting on the relationship between poetry and African American musical traditions, such as the blues and work songs, Edward Hirsh suggests that “all these forms model a particular kind of participatory relationship between the poet and the community.” Many modern poetic forms are also clearly influenced by musical forms. For example, Langston Hughes’s “The Weary Blues” borrows heavily from jazz and blues rhythms, yet does not follow classical metrical patterns. Like songs, poems are meant to be performed, recited, and perhaps in their own, sung.
Most traditional forms of poetry have their origins in forms of popular music. Longer poetic artifacts such as the great epics of the Greeks (Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey ), the Romans (Virgil’s Aeneid ), and from India (the Vedas , written in Sanskrit) are well-known. Ancient Babylonian hymns, like the Enûma Eliš , written in cuneiform, are widely regarded as the earliest known poems; likewise, the Sumerian Epic of Gilgamesh is one of the earliest popular epic. Many scholars have observed the similarities the Babylonia flood myth in the Epic of Gilgamesh and the biblical story of the flood in the book of Genesis.
An epic poem is a lengthy narrative poem (a poem that tells a story, often an adventure) written in verse. Similar to music, in poetry, verse refers to a piece of writing composed in meter or rhyme. The word verse may appear in some contexts as a synonym for poetry of any meter (or non-meter); this is not precise usage of the word and usually aims to distinguish the form of literature from prose , which is structured without the same attention to the meter and length of line in poetry.
One of the earliest known works of English poetry is Caedmon’s Hymn , composed sometime between 658 and 680 A.D. According to accounts by an English monk and scholar known as St. Bede or the Venerable Bede, the poem was originally composed by an illiterate herdsman who had miraculously acquired the gift of poetry and song from an angel. Its lyrics are composed in a form of early English that originated in a form of ancient German.
Listen to a recording of the poem in West Saxon, a dialect of Old English. (1)
“Caedmon’s Hymn” (10)
Nú scylun hergan hefaenrîcaes Uard, metudæs maecti end his módgidanc, uerc Uuldurfadur, suéh é uundra gihwaes, éci dryctin ór ástelidæ hé ærist scÅ�p aelda barnum heben til hrófe,& háleg scepen. Thá middungeard moncynnæs Uard, eci Dryctin, æfter tíadæ firum foldu, Fréa allmectig.
A ballad is another type of narrative poem that contains repeated phrasing and is intended to be sung. Ballads often relate the deeds, and sometimes suffering, of a protagonist whose life serves as a metaphor for the day-to-day trials of the average person. (An example of a ballad in this module is “The Ballad of the Harp-Weaver” by Edna St. Vincent Millay). Ballads are typically arranged into quatrains , four-line stanzas, with usually only the second and fourth lines rhyming.
In contrast to narrative poetry (poetry that tells a story), lyric poetry focuses primarily on conveying emotion through melody and imagery. Sonnets fall under the category of lyric poetry; a sonnet is a poem consisting of fourteen lines with a metric pattern and variable rhyme scheme. Elegies (lamentations), haiku, and odes (praise poems) are other examples of lyric poetry. (Examples of lyric verse in our course readings include John Milton’s Sonnet 19, Percy Bysshe Shelley’s “Ode to the West Wind,” and Wilfred Owen’s “Dulce et Decorum est”).
Blank verse is the term for poetry that does have a set metrical pattern, yet does not rhyme. John Milton’s epic poem, Paradise Lost , is a masterful work of blank verse poetry that was highly influential as a work of English literature. However, many modern and contemporary poets write blank verse poetry, such as Robert Frost’s “The Death of the Hired Man” and Amy Beeder’s “Dear Drought,” Free verse , which did not develop until the 19 th century, follows no metrical pattern or rhyme scheme; much of modern poetry is free verse, although many modern poets who usually write in free verse will produce patterned verse on occasion. (Examples of free verse in this module include H.D.’s “Oread” and William Carlos Williams’s “Blizzard.”) (1)
All writing makes use of figurative language . Yet, the language of poetry focuses specifically on discovering meaning based on the way that certain combinations of words sound, as well as the way that groups of words appear on the page. Poetic language is fundamentally figurative; figurative language is language used in a nonliteral manner, as in words or phrases that convey meaning beyond or in addition to the dictionary definition of those words. For example, the statement “The town judge is intelligent” is a direct description. However, the sentence “The town judge holds the keys to the kingdom of knowledge” offers a similar description yet with added layers of creative images and associative meaning that connects with other symbols of power (keys, kingdom); it also uses alliteration (repetition of consonants) to create rhythm and pattern .
Below are the types of figurative language and a full description of common forms of poetic language.
Common Type of Figurative Language:
Apostrophe — A direct address to a person or object not literally listening; ex: “Oh, Great Mother Nature how you test our spirit…”
Allusion — Reference to a well-known object, character, or event, sometimes from another literary work.
Hyperbole — Exaggeration used for emphasis.
Imagery — Words and phrases that appeal to the senses, particularly sight.
Metaphor — A direct comparison of two seemingly dissimilar items (does not use the words like or as ).
Onomatopoeia — A word that imitates the sound of the object the word represents.
Personification — The attribution of human characteristics to nonhuman places or things.
Simile — A comparison of two seemingly dissimilar items using like or as . (1)