By Mollie Savage (Bonnets)
I like to meet with various local writers to talk about their craft. Poetry always fascinates me because it seems so basic to being human. Recently, I got together with my friend, poet Sandy Longhorn, to talk about the essence of poetry and what makes it eternal.
Toasted Cheese: How do you think poetry evolved as a form of expression?
Sandy Longhorn: The quote that I always return to when talking about poetry is from Lucille Clifton, one of the most gifted and generous American poets of the latter half of the twentieth century, may she rest in peace. Clifton says that the very first poem was written the first time a cave dweller stepped out into the light, looked at the sky, and said “Ahhhhhhh.”
This ties in neatly with Donald Hall’s description of poetry as “the unsayable said” or really the attempt by the poet to give voice to those deepest truths about the world that often escape words. See Hall’s essay “The Unsayable Said” in Breakfast Served Any Time All Day: Essays on Poetry New and Selected.
So, poetry, which is the oldest literary art form, begins in the basic, physical, human need to express what presses and pulls within us, what yearns to be communicated to another human body. After all, poetry is created with the idea of both the poet and the audience. Yes, many people write poems that never see the light of day, but the drive to put those words down connects with the drive to share those words with others, whether that is the result or not.
TC: I’ve often considered poetry to be a mnemonic form to relate, repeat and remember cultural heritage and societal norm.
SL: As the oldest literary art form, poetry began well before the advent of the written word. It was oral and aural. It was sung, chanted, spoken, and most of all, it was memorized. The great stories that remain with us from the time before written texts (Gilgamesh, Homer’s epics, parts of the Bible and other religious texts) all began as pieces that were memorized and shared. In this sense, the idea of the singular author was not quite the same as it is today. Stories belonged to communities and regions. Each teller might tweak (i.e. revise) the story to fit his or her liking, to more accurately portray what needed to be said. Only with the beginning of written words did poetry make the transition to the page, and the poet’s work today is to be sure the words don’t languish there but that they leap from print and ask to be sung, chanted, spoken, memorized.
TC: What essential elements do you think make this happen?
SL: The three elements at play here—sound, rhythm, and image—all act together and are inseparable. To discuss one first is merely arbitrary.
As an oral/aural art form, poetry probably first relied on sound play as a way to ease memorization. Thinking of nursery tales and jump rope chants, we easily recall those rhymes that pleased us in our youth: “Jack, be nimble, / Jack, be quick, / Jack, jump over / the candlestick!” Say it out loud. Feel those Js striking on tongue and jaw. Hear the pleasing rhyme of quick and stick, but also the assonance of the ‘i’ in nimble that echoes the ‘i’ in quick and stick. Follow the consonance of the ‘j’ through the repeated Jacks and then jumped. Taste the roundness of “ump” right there in the middle. That is language at play. That is at the heart of poetry, even as we go beyond the simplicity of nursery rhymes.
Now, there is rhythm, which shows up in our Jack example as well. There is a clear beat that is repeated and, aside from the variation in line two, each line has four syllables. The variation in line two works perfectly as the shortened rhythm (only three syllables) emphasizes the word “quick.” Whether we recognize it or not, that variation contributes to the sense of urgency as we compel Jack on his task. So, the poet must think not only of what he/she intends to communicate, but also how best to use rhythm in that communication.
Sound and rhythm go hand in hand to build a physical memory, a muscle memory that was instrumental in the memorization of long poems like The Odyssey or The Iliad so that traveling bards could recite the various adventures and battles of the heroes and thus earn their supper along the way.
The third element, image, is also an integral part of the whole, as it is through image that we strive to express whatever it is bubbling up inside us. Of all the writers, poets rely most heavily on figurative language, in particular the metaphor. At its heart the metaphor, and its subset the simile, is a comparison between two unlike things that share some striking similarity. So, if I say that my hair is like the matted fur of an unwashed dog, that is one level of metaphor, but perhaps not very striking, as hair and fur are quite similar. However, if I say that my hair is matted and gnarled like weeds and sticks caught in an eddy at the river’s bank, that’s a bit more memorable and a bit more ‘wild,’ suggesting/saying something more strongly about my physical condition.
The poet’s work with image is to not only be memorable but to be precise. To chose the exact image for the expression that will communicate the idea most effectively. One of the long standing traits of poetry, even in long poems, is concision (compression). To create a poem charged with both meaning and craft, the poet must select each and every word and place it precisely where it belongs, not to mention placing punctuation marks and line breaks with care as well.
TC: Do you think codifying poetry, through writing, has changed its primal aspect?
SL: Historically, Western poetry was formal; it existed in set line lengths with set rhythms and set rhyme schemes. Think of the sonnet or Shakespeare’s iambic pentameter verse plays. The formal nature of poetry aided in memorization and provided a scaffold around which the poet crafted the poem. At its best, formal poetry joins the intellect and the emotion of the poet and uses the formal structure because it is the best way to communicate whatever it is that needs to be said.
After hundreds of years, poets began toying with formal structures and eventually branched off into free verse, poetry that does not contain a repeated pattern of rhyme or rhythm. While there are precursors as far back as the fourteenth century in Western poetry, free verse became firmly established in the nineteenth century and has become as widely if not more widely used than formal poetry today.
Some people would question the importance of sound and rhythm, then, when dealing with free verse. Here, the poet does not have to conform to meter and rhyme; the poet is able to bend and break lines according to different rules. Still, I would argue, sound and rhythm are hugely important. Otherwise, what is to distinguish a poem from a paragraph that is simply broken into lines on the page? Where is the poet’s craft, then?
TC: This is great, Sandy. Let’s ask our Toasted Cheese poets what else they would like to hear and continue the discussion. Thanks.
Sandy Longhorn is the author of Blood Almanac (Anhinga Press), which won the Anhinga Prize for Poetry. New poems are forthcoming or have appeared recently in 32 Poems, The Cincinnati Review, North American Review, Waccamaw, and elsewhere. Longhorn teaches at Pulaski Technical College, runs the Big Rock Reading Series, is an Arkansas Arts Council fellow, and blogs at Myself the only Kangaroo among the Beauty.