Often, if done well, there is a primal sort of pleasure to be derived from poetry; it should blow you away with something you cannot name, to paraphrase Jane Kenyon. This instinctual attraction to a melody of sound, imagery, figurative or symbolic meaning and use of language is what made me fall in love with Edgar Allan Poe.
I first encountered this chap in 1995 when his “Tell-Tale Heart” was thrust upon me as a reading assignment. Eventually, I discovered Poe’s poetry and after experiencing his employment of the macabre and gothic and hearing his fantastic use of sound, I knew I loved Poe (and horror). In his “Philosophy of Composition,” Poe argues—perhaps somewhat sardonically—that the pursuit of the beautiful is the highest effect he could hope to achieve in his work (and also, with regards to construction, that every work should be planned at each step with the denouement in mind)*.
An exemplary poem that plays up some of my favorite characteristics of his work is “The Bells”. Charging his language with melopoeai (use of sound), Poe takes something familiar and leaves you in awe of it, cheered by it, and horrified.
Though Poe draws on “The Raven” for example in his “Philosophy”, “The Bells” reminds me of one of my favorite reasons to write poetry—or any kind of writing really. It is the sound, the formation of the language into something new, that is at once familiar and unfamiliar, as Freud claims of the uncanny, that which has the power to awaken a certain aspect of ourselves that could potentially terrify.
Robert Frost has his own philosophy on the composition of a poem, which is a little more organic than Poe’s ever forward-glancing, structural approach. In his essay, “The Figure a Poem Makes”, Frost says of poetry:
“it has an outcome that though unforeseen was predestined from the first image of the original mood—and indeed from the very mood…the initial delight is in the surprise of remembering something I didn’t know I knew….[the poem] must be a revelation, or a series of revelations, as much for the poet as for the reader.”
I once had to choose a poem to recite at an English language festival and selected “Leaves Compared with Flowers.” I remember committing to memory the lines that held a nice rhythm, but beyond the lilt of the sounds, I couldn’t really appreciate the good ole boy yet to really feel his work, to absorb the reminder of home and nostalgia, and humanity’s inherent ever-present loneliness stated almost too precisely. Everybody loves “The Road Not Taken” and “Fire and Ice”, yet, in my opinion, a more subtle poem better shows a deft mastery of his art and explodes with the events he described in his “Figure a Poem Makes” above. My favorite poem, not only by Frost, but of all poems, is “Desert Places.” Please read it. You will not regret it.
Moving back in time to a much older poet than Frost, but equally capable of evoking fear and awe with his lines, I give to you William Blake. I first heard of him in a class on the British Romantic Poets. I love Blake’s philosophies—often pregnant with religious motifs—and the entire movement for which he often serves as figurehead. The fact that he’s an artist too and that much of his poetry is seen through that lens also warms me to him.
The poem, “Tyger, Tyger”, makes its own case for why it belongs on this list—it speaks for itself of the wonderful things Blake is doing in the poem without much logical interpretation, but more of a feeling, the seed at the core of this post, I think. This poem must be read aloud though. Listen to its rhythm, its consonants clashing—do you hear it? There is an echo of the blacksmith’s hammer on the anvil. This poem is pure magic.
Sylvia Plath’s “Lady Lazarus” could also be read as a spell, weaving its own unsettling magic. There is so much going on in this poem: references to her suicide attempts, her attitude toward those who seek to recover her—if not mostly for the opportunity to gawk and jeer at her—her German ancestry, and her tragic fate as a female writer married to the successful male writer, Ted Hughes. I recently read The Bell Jar and it opened up her poetry to me in an entirely new light.
This photo of her is chilling to me after reading so much of her work, after hearing her read “Lady Lazarus”. Click the link and listen to it now. Go ahead. I’ll wait.
For my last selection, I turn to Rita Dove to close this because she is the most recent of these five poets I was introduced to.
The entire “Thomas and Beulah” collection is a genius, partially auto/biographical (about her grandparents and herself by extension) conversation between her grandparents. To get an idea of the tone of this collection, you can read one of the poems from Beulah’s perspective, “Daystar“.
From Dove, I take her aptitude for conveying very personal and familial connections, for articulating a family’s history and the legacy of our parents and our parents’ parents passed down to us. As Linda Gregerson states on the back of my copy of Thomas and Beulaha, “(She) knows the difference between nostalgia and history…the exchange rate between pleasure and danger…the place of strangeness in our unbroken labor on the fiction called ‘home’.”
Whether you write for beauty itself, to plumb the depths of your soul’s deepest lamentations and pleasures, your own resurrection and sustainment, to invoke history and explore its imprints on you, or to more fully appreciate the sometimes terrifying harmony in which life is often at odds, you know that there is something powerful in poetry. Thus, I have paid homage here to five of my predecessors, of whom I can only hope to emulate their mastery.
Who are your poetic masters? Who/what else do you look to for inspiration? In any medium. Why is it important to remember our predecessors?
*This is why I chose a picture of a cathedral to head this post. Just as the architecture of this structure pulls up from a foundation topped with layers of mortar, layers of stone, to a focal point, so too do the elements in poetry build up to one final exaltation at the completion of a piece. Or perhaps, I am merely harkening again to my first forebear, Poe, and his metaphor of a house, all the rooms and chambers, to represent his aesthetic theory.