~Presentation to the Georgia Mountain Writers Club~
Poetry is descended from music and dance, song and chant. As writing developed, it preceded prose, and verse was used in many contexts in which today we use prose. Until the 20th century, there were many different verse genres, e.g.: epic/narrative (The Faerie Queen), lyric (odes, elegies, ballads, etc.), dramatic (Shakespeare), philosophic (the de rerum natura of Lucretius), epistolatory (Donne), humorous (the limerick, the clerihew). More or less since 1900, most have faded, and we now almost equate poetry with the lyric. (Vers libre/free verse is generally not poetry except in the hands of a few – see en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Free_verse.)
The use of poetry rather than prose may have one or more purposes: as a mnemonic, to reinforce denotation by connotation, as entertaining verbal gymnastics such as puns and similar. Poetry is often unaccompanied song and, like music, is difficult, if not impossible, to define - despite Wordsworth’s famous try: “the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings from emotions recollected in tranquility”. One does not define music, one defines other things by music: “A pretty girl is like a melody.” Some say that poetry without figurative language is not poetry (and, of course, Frost is noted for, among other things, saying, “Writing free verse is like playing tennis with the net down”).
Like philosophy, one does not define poetry – one does poetry: listens, enjoys, composes, writes, speaks, sings. Babies are loved, protected, fed, cleaned, held, gently rocked and dandled, spoken to, hummed to and sung to. Not doing poetry as a baby makes it very difficult to do later.
The first poetry for the young are nursery rhymes and songs. There are various good collections available. The one I used for my children and grandchildren is Marguerite De Angeli’s “Book of Nursery and Mother Goose Rhymes”. Two others are Iona and Peter Opie’s “The Oxford Dictionary of Nursery Rhymes” and Kady MacDonald Denton’s “A Child’s Treasury of Nursery Rhymes”.
There are dozens of good anthologies to which to progress from nursery rhymes, four such are R. L. Stevenson’s “A Child’s Garden of Verses”, Donald Hall’s “The Oxford Book of Children’s Poems”, Hughes and Heaney’s “The Rattle Bag” and their “The School Bag”. Three of my favorites are Schwartz’s “And the Green Grass Grew All Around: Folk Poetry From Everyone”, Harrison and Stuart-Clark’s “The Oxford Treasury of Classic Poems” and their “The Oxford Book of Story Poems”. For the older child, I recommend Auden’s “The Oxford Book of Light Verse”, Amis’ “The New Oxford Book of Light Verse”, and John and Alan Lomax’s “American Ballads and Folk Songs”.
When I was young, both my mother and my father read to me. My mother read a fair amount of poetry. Authors I particularly recall are Burns, Scott, Macaulay, Longfellow, Tennyson, Lanier, Paul Lawrence Dunbar, and Kipling. Her particular favorites were Macaulay’s “Horatius”, Longfellow’s “Hiawatha”, Lanier’s “The Marshes of Glynn”, and Tennyson’s “Idylls of the King”. Her favorite poetry anthology was Untermeyer’s “A Treasury of Great Poems English and American with the Lives of the Poets”.
However, we are now all adults. How do we start to do poetry if our childhood was deprived? One can just dive in – or one can approach cautiously. For the bold, I recommend Harold Bloom’s “The Art of Reading Poetry” accompanied by his “The Best Poems of the English Language: From Chaucer Through Frost”. For the faint of heart, I recommend John Lennard’s “The Poetry Handbook” accompanied by “The Oxford Treasury of Classic Poems”.
I think the two “standard” forms of poetry in English are the sonnet and the popular song. For a start on the sonnet, I recommend Helen Vendler’s “The Art of Shakespeare’s Sonnets” and “The Penguin Book of the Sonnet”. For a start on popular song, I recommend the “Stephen Foster Song Book”, “The Songs of Stephen Foster”, and Ken Emerson’s “DOO-DAH: Stephen Foster and the Rise of American Popular Culture” (in addition to the Lomax book mentioned above).
To end, let’s do one of my sonnets.
Once we heard the song the Sirens sing
Come sit with me and let us talk of days long sped
When light was green and gold upon the hill,
And Sirens called us from the road ahead.
We will drink away the hours and listen for them still.
Mountains were for climbing, wars were there to win,
Youth did not fear the cup of life to spill.
And the song the Sirens sang made light of sin.
We will drink away the days and listen for them still.
Fill up your cup and hold it high again,
And let us mock at death’s gray chill.
When we were young we heard the Sirens sing.
We will drink away the years and listen to them still.
We’ll fight old fights and laugh and talk and jest
Until the Sirens sing us to our rest.