“I sing the body electric” once wrote Walt Whitman, arguably one of the greatest American poets. In our modern times, a song generally means some words set to a kind of tune or melody, and then sung by a singer, whether alone as they sit in their room, or in front a huge crowd of onlookers, matters not: a human sings a song. Simple, right? And yet. The idea of song is as old as humanity itself,while its meaning has changed down through the epochs of time. Long ago in the shrouds of forgotten history, the singer was the one who told us the stories of ourselves, our deeds and misfortunes, our glories and victories. Once upon a time, storytellers sang to us and as we listened, we began to understand more about life. It was the commonest form of education for undoubtedly thousands of years.
Likewise with poetics. The word poem in English, has archaic roots in Greek’s poēsis=poiēsis: making, poiēma: make. Its roots are simply about creating, making something from language. Our modern western languages have evolved into everyday phrases and meanings; most of us go around talking to each other and writing things without giving the words we use much, if any, thought.
Were we to ponder the words we use a bit deeper, we would soon see that these little marks on the page, or sounds which emanate so easily from our vocal chords are a well-honed, polished, and ever-evolving art form which, as if by magic, transforms our thoughts into a series of word pictures which we use to communicate with and understand one another. Language is an amazing achievement by humanity, any way one looks at it.
Then, there are the poets themselves, those rare humans who take this art form seriously. They understand this mechanism of using words to create images within the human mind, and work tirelessly combining them into the most intricate nuances, the most fantastic subtleties, the most sublime confections, in order that some of us might read their creations with vast appreciation; sighing, nodding and even crying with resonance. In her book Rules of the Dance, Mary Oliver writes about metrical poetry, explains what it contains, how it functions, and why it is important. She writes,
“Poems speak of the mortal condition; in poems we muse about the tragic and glorious issues of our fragile and brief lives; our passions, our dreams, our failures. Our wonderings about heaven and hell– these too are in poems. Life, death, mystery, and meaning. Five hundred years and more of such labor, such choice thought within choice expression, lies within the realm of metrical poetry. Without it, one is uneducated, and one is mentally poor.”
In our modern culture, metrical poetry has become mostly relegated to high school and university literature classes. Poetic writing, as in ‘elevated or sublime in expression, lyrical, artistic, fine, aesthetic’ has fallen out of favor in the early twenty-first century. But not entirely, thank Goodness. Though it may be on its way to becoming an archaic art form, there are a few poets left in the world who are creating true works of art through words. I am of the opinion that to read these masters of language, to laud and to learn from them, is a critically important act in today’s world. As we elevate our own caliber of language in speech, writing, and comprehension, we serve the greater good. And as we do so, we set an example for the youth, thereby creating a more graceful future humanity: something we should all be very concerned with creating.
I have just finished reading a truly outstanding poetical work, a story called Astonishing the Gods, by Ben Okri. It has taken me weeks to read it because I am not simply reading, but slowly savoring its evocative pages. It is an extraordinary work: part fable, part story, partly prophetic, partly pure poetry, this book is the work of a master craftsman of lyrical language, deceptively simple, containing many layers of meaning; going beyond mere understanding, one is taken to another realm by Okri’s unusual and highly pictorial word images. He is a very unusual writer and I encourage you, Dear Readers, to seek out his books and see for yourself. Now that I have read Astonishing the Gods, I will search for more of his wonderful works. In a recent post, I quoted some passages from this story. Now I will give you another taste of its poetry:
And the enchanted silences converged there too from all realms. And each of the silences also had infinite possibilities and magnification without end. Each of the silences, vast and serene, like a moment on the highest mountain, or a gentle breeze within a mirror, permeated the room, and dwelled at ease with all the others. The silences came from mountaintops covered with snow and the depths of unfathomed oceans, from the face of the moon and the forests at night, from the stalagmites of green caves and the axis of constellations, from human beings in their lonely places and beings in their higher spaces, from the dreams of a newborn babe and the first moments of emerging flowers, from angels and diamonds, from the heart of Time and the languid countrysides, from the hidden dimensions and the hidden heaven, from all the dead and all whose hearts quicken to the highest love, the silences came, and they passed through him, and they altered no spaces, and he noticed how real the room of meditations was for such dancing eternities.
Sometimes, though not very often, a book or a poem comes along that can change one’s life, can shift how one thinks about life, oneself, others. I remember how deeply affected I was when I first read The Alchemist, by Paulo Coehlo, many years ago now. Of course that book affected many people, and by now has become a standard part of many more enlightened readers’ most beloved book collections. Likewise Okri’s Astonishing the Gods will take its place in my personal favorites collection. If you, dear Readers, have a particularly beautiful, lyrical story or poem that you would like to share with the rest of us, please suggest it in the comments. As always, thanks for reading.
- http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=orNNO90R-JI&feature=related (Ben Okri on writing, very inspiring!)
- Astonishing the gods – and ourselves (clearskiesbluewater.wordpress.com)
- Teaching Tip: Break for Poetry (agnestirrito.wordpress.com)
- A Bull In the Garden: On Poetic Process (ratatattat.wordpress.com)