This is a question which occurs to me often, though perhaps not so often as it occurs to other minds. What is the point of poetry? they seem to say; or even more damningly, Is poetry even a Thing? Isn’t it just chopped-up prose? My acid test for the latter is to suggest they write out a poem in sentences and see if it reads exactly like prose: results have yet to come in on this exercise as I strongly suspect they can’t be arsed. Once on Thorpe Cloud a man was heard to quote Wordsworth’s Daffodils and bleat: How is that different from ‘Mary Had a Little Lamb?’ How? In the moment I was stumped because on the surface, it’s not that different; it’s a little like asking how a Joan Miro is different from a child’s daubs: on the surface, they aren’t.
I’m always stumped in the face of such scepticism because to see poetry for what it is demands a degree of openness; it’s not something you can persuade people of by showing evidence. The earth is flat – no it isn’t, you can see the curvature in a plane, you can see the horizon at sea and you can view the whole sphere from space. QED.
I’d be the first to admit that Wordsworth’s language is simple; it’s deliberately so because he was emphasising the simplicity of a life lived in harmony with nature. Some of his ideas seem risible today but he had a strong belief in the tendency of the natural world to produce virtue in human beings. So given that, let us compare and contrast Daffodils and Mary Had a Little Lamb.
First, the nursery rhyme:
Mary had a little lamb
its fleece was white as snow
and everywhere that Mary went
the lamb was sure to go.
It’s not great poetry and it’s not meant to be; it’s a rhyme for children which according to wikipedia was based on an actual incident:
The simile is cliched: white as snow offers no surprise or insight and the rest of the rhyme simply tells a story. I can’t think of anything else to say about it.
I wandered lonely as a cloud
that floats on high o’er vales and hills
when all at once I saw a crowd
a host of golden daffodils
beside the lake, beneath the trees
fluttering and dancing in the breeze.
We are so familiar with this verse that its impact has faded but I would suggest Wordsworth offers us two things here. If we stop for one minute to consider the image lonely as a cloud it will probably strike us as strong and original; it places the writer (or narrator) as part of the natural scene and yet separate from it. As a ‘cloud’ he is looking down on the scene below, floating ‘on high o’er vales and hills’: the cloud is also animated, given feelings. The second idea is the image of daffodils as a ‘crowd, a host’. Anyone who’s ever looked at great swathes of daffodils swaying in a breeze can’t have failed to notice their resemblance to a crowd of people. Wordsworth continues with that metaphor in lines to come, so not only is he part of the natural world but the natural world resembles a crowd of people, thus signalling his major theme of connectedness between people and nature.
One may disagree profoundly with Wordsworth’s thesis but I don’t think we can fail to ascribe greatness to his work.
And while we’re on the theme of simplicity, let’s consider another Romantic poet, William Blake. There’s no tricksiness with words here, no verbal gymnastics or stunning erudition, but consider the power of these couplets:
A robin redbreast in a cage
puts all heaven in a rage.
A truth that’s told with bad intent
beats all the lies you can invent.
And we are just as familiar with The Tyger as with Wordsworth’s blooms but I hope no-one would dare compare this to a nursery rhyme:
Tyger, Tyger, burning bright
in the forests of the night
what immortal hand or eye
could frame thy fearful symmetry?
And if you can read these lines without a lump in your throat, there’s no hope for you:
I wonder, by my troth, what thou and I
did, till we loved? Were we not weaned till then?…
and now good morrow to our waking souls…
My face in thine eye, thine in thine appears
and true plain hearts do in the faces rest…
(from John Donne, The Good Morrow)
So much for other people’s poetry: now, for my own. Why do I write poetry? Like most people I suspect I do it because I must. I do it because there are times when prose, much as I love it, just doesn’t cut it. As C S Lewis wrote in his introduction to the Narnia books, you do it because ‘it is the best art form for something you want to say.’
I also do it because poetry connects strongly to the oral tradition. When I first started to write I assumed I’d write novels and didn’t see myself as a poet at all. But having found the novel too huge a thing to begin with, I turned to the short story. Even these didn’t seem quite right, but I still didn’t think of myself as a poet and it wasn’t until I went to Word! poetry performance group in Leicester that I realised spoken word was what I’d been looking for. I had to travel all the way back to our oral traditions before I could really discover what I was about as a writer. This seems to me entirely logical.
The oral tradition is key: nowadays I never write a poem without speaking it. As soon as I have a rough draft I stand up (poetry must always be spoken standing) and read it aloud. Inevitably there will be bum notes and often fresh words will occur to me as I speak – and so the editing process goes on, sometimes speaking sometimes writing, until I have the finished poem by heart (though I agree wholeheartedly with Auden’s comment that a poem is never finished, only abandoned.) To me, writing a poem without speaking it aloud is like writing music without playing it: impossible.
I’m going to get on my hobby-horse here because one of my bugbears is poets who kill their work in the reading of it. Of course not every poet is able to read well, I understand that, but what offends me is the all-too-common attitude that it’s the page which matters and the reading aloud is just some throwaway act; something writers do. It’s as if the very fact of it being the author’s voice gives some authority and mesmerism to the reading. It doesn’t.
I don’t get this. It shows a disrespect for the oral tradition, for a start, and for another thing why would you? Why would you spend all that time and effort getting the right words in the right order on the page and then destroy them in the reading? It really bugs me. I work on my poems all the time, honing each word and phrase in the speaking just as I do in the writing. I work on my voice too – but now I think I’ve wandered long enough o’er the vales and hills of poetry so I shall come to rest and tell you about that another day.