Poetry Ring

Article excerpt

Our theme this time is writing, and it is worthwhile to recall that poetry precedes the invention of writing, and there is a world of difference between poetry that is a product of oral composition within an oral tradition, and poetry that is composed with the aid of writing. Of course, there also are significant differences between poetry appearing in print and spoken word poetry, and between silent reading and reciting and, more-so, listening to its recitation. But the reciting of poetry is still a re-siting, a re-situating of what is primarily a literary form, which means that it is also a re-sighting, as literary forms are governed by the eye in addition to (and sometimes instead of) the ear. As a literary form, then, concern has often been directed to the writing process as it pertains to poetry, and to the process of reading and interpreting the poetic form. The literary scholar I. A. Richards, whose perspective on language and meaning was consistent with general semantics, devoted his 1929 study, Practical Criticism, to the problem of how individuals read and understand (or misunderstand) poetry. The problem, in part, has to do with the multiplicity of meaning:

  The all important fact for the study of literature--or any other mode
  of communication--is that there are several kinds of meaning. Whether
  we know and intend it or not, we are all jugglers when we converse,
  keeping the billiard-balls in the air while we balance the cue on our
  nose. Whether we are active, as in speech or writing, or passive, as
  readers or listeners, the Total Meaning we are engaged with is,
  almost always, a blend, a combination of several contributory
  meanings of different types. Language--and pre-eminently language as
  it is used in poetry--has not one but several tasks to perform
  simultaneously, and we shall misconceive most of the difficulties of
  criticism unless we understand this point and take note of the
  differences between these functions. (1)

The four functions Richards refers to are Sense (literal meaning), Feeling (emotional connotations), Tone (the source's attitude toward and relationship with the receiver), and Intention (the communicator's conscious or unconscious motives). But given that poetry poses special problems for the isomorphic sharing of meaning--a fact borne out by the research on reading reported in Practical Criticism--and that these problems are nowhere near as acute for other literary or linguistic forms, we might well ask, what is the purpose of poetry? Certainly, at one time poetry was a mnemonic medium, a means of augmenting the storage capacity of the brain and the time-binding ability of a society, a method for preserving knowledge by placing it in a memorable form. But that time has long since passed, and poetry has long since evolved from its roots as a form of mnemotechny employed by singers of tales. Perhaps we ought to retain the basic concept of poetry as language given memorable shape and form, but that does not seem sufficient for a modern understanding of poetry (let alone a postmodern one). One answer is supplied by Owen Barfield in a work published a year before Practical Criticism entitled Poetic Diction:

  An introspective analysis of my experience obliges me to say that
  appreciation of poetry involves a "felt change of consciousness." The
  phrase must be taken with some exactness. Appreciation takes place at
  the actual moment of change. It is not simply that the poet enables
  me to see with his eyes, and so to apprehend a larger and fuller
  world. He may indeed do this, as we shall see later; but the actual
  moment of the pleasure of appreciation depends upon something rarer
  and more transitory. It depends on the change itself. If I pass a
  coil of wire between the poles of a magnet, I generate in it an
  electric current--but I only do so while the coil is positively
  moving across the lines of force. I may leave the coil at rest
  between the two poles and in such a position that it is thoroughly
  permeated by the magnetic field; but in that case no current will
  flow along the conductor. …