Saturday, April 21, 2007

April: National Poetry Month

In honor of April as National Poetry Month, The Sunday Times crossword puzzle today has a puzzle whose themed clues are defiinitions of poetry. The one that got me thinking was Carl Sandburg's which reads "Poetry is an echo asking a shadow to dance." That's one of a series of 38 rather fanciful definitions which Sandburg came up with, but it does seem to suggest something about the obliqueness and resonance of at least a certain kind of poem. One of my favorite William Stafford poems, for example, is this one:

Tragic Song

All still when summer is over
Stand shocks in the field,
Nothing left to whisper,
Not even good-bye, to the wind.

After summer was over
We knew winter would come:
We knew silence would wait,
Tall, patient calm.

And that cold this winter gray wolves
Deep in the North would cry
How summer that whispered all of us
At last whispers away.

I first came across this poem when I was about 18 years old, and was immediately taken with the way in which it manages, in a very compact space, to gesture at much larger territories of significance. Sure, it's about the changing of the seasons, that moment when the harvest is done, and winter has not yet arrived. But the poem uses its repetitions, its internal echoes, to powerful effect.

The first of them, "We knew winter would come: We knew silence would wait" emphasizes that the coming of winter is itself a part of familiar repetition; but it is not less ominous for its familiarity, and in fact its ominousness is suggested in a number of more subtle, shadow-like repetitions throughout the poem: first the equation, in these two lines, of winter with silence, which echoes the word "still" in the first line, which is developed by "Nothing left to whisper" in the third, which is contrasted with the one sound in the poem: the crying of the wolves "Deep in the North," whose message, it turns out, has to do with "How summer that whispered all of us At last whispers away." The poem thus begins in silence, and ends in the more complete silence after even the whispering has ceased.

All of which is re-echoed, when we re-consider the title, "Tragic Song." Does "tragic song" refer to the cry of the wolves? That would make sense. Does it refer to this poem, which itself is a tragic song? That also makes sense. The two meanings echo one another.

But why "tragic," anyway? Well, we know that tragedy is a word usually reserved for situations where someone has died. But there's nothing about death in this poem apparently innocent little nature poem? Well, actually, there is, and its more or less everywhere. In line two, for example, that word "shocks" denotes the bundles of corn in the field at harvest. But the word has other meanings, no? And it has a literary history as well: it has prominent part in what is perhaps the most famous passage in literary history. Hamlet, in his "To Be or Not To Be" soliloquy, considering whether or not to end his life, considers the possible benefits of entering that realm of stillness:

To die: to sleep;
No more; and by a sleep to say we end
The heart-ache and the thousand natural shocks
That flesh is heir to, tis a consummation
Devoutly to be wished.
So we have not only the internal echo generated by the double meaning of the word, but the external echo, the voice of Hamlet back in the shadows.

Then we have the move to personification which has its own overtones: "winter" waiting patiently for us, knowing we will arrive eventually, is a pretty obvious stand-in for the One Who Awaits Us All, and his realm "deep in the North" for the afterlife. And then there's the echoing at the syllabic level, the word "winter" (occuring twice) reverberating against the word "whisper" (three times): two-syllable words beginning and ending with the same phonemes, singing their own little song to one another throughout the poem.

Then we have the echoing in the tightly-structred stanzas themselves: four line stanzas repeating three-beat lines with lots of alliteration: the words, the lines, the stanzas all echoing one another, themes and variations. It's a dark, beautiful little lyric, an echo asking a shadow to dance.

(And, as long is it is National Poetry Month, as an added bonus, I'll toss in a listing of other interesting definitions of poetry that I've compiled over time and sometimes share with my classes. Feel free to append your own in the comments section.)

...the rhythmical creation of beauty. (Edgar Allen Poe)

...the best words in the best order. (S. T. Coleridge)

... the art of employing words in such a manner as to produce an illusion of the imagination. (Macaulay)
...the record of the best and happiest moments of the best and happiest minds. (Shelley)

...speech be heard for its own sake and interest even over and above its interest of meaning. (Gerard Manley Hopkins)

...the rhythmic, inevitably narrative, movement from and overclothed blindness to a naked vision. (Dylan Thomas)
...language that tells us, through a more or less emotional reaction, something that can not be said. (Edgar Allan Robinson)

...anything said in such a way or put on a page in such a way as to invite from the reader a certain kind of attention. (William Stafford)

...the art of saying everything and reducing it to nothing. (Barbara Helfgott-Hyett)

...a sonorous molded shape of form. (Osip Mandelstam)
...arranging words with the greatest specific gravity in the most effective and externally inevitable sequence. (Joseph Brodsky) instant of lucidity in which the entire organism participates. (Charles Simic) transferred from where the poet got way of the poem itself, all the way over to the reader. (Charles Olson)

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