Before We Begin:

Excerpts from
John Frederick Nims' Western Wind:

"Glad Day" by William Blake

When we imagine anything, we are playing with images, combining them in ways they've
never been combined before, perhaps not even in nature itself. Out of such playing came
primitive ritual and the mythologies of early religion. Out of our playing with hollow reeds or
tightened sinews or the beat of bone on deerskin came early music. Out of our playing with
rocks, herbs, fire came early science.

Some say poetry seems like an artificial refinement of natural speech. But in the literature of
every country poetry comes before prose does. It's closer than prose to the origins of language.
We can even say it's more natural: more primitive, more basic, a more total expression of the
muscular, sensuous, emotional, rhythmical nature of the human animal. The ancient Greeks
considered the poet an "athlete of the word."

Poetry and Verse

Poetry--like so much we are closest to and know best--is difficult to define. We can easier
say what poetry is not. Not the same as verse. Verse is any singsong with rhythm and rhyme.
The word "verse" refers only to the shape an expression takes, not to its content or quality.
Poetry may be in verse, but verse is not necessarily poetry. To the shape of verse poetry has
to add qualities of imagination and emotion and of language itself. Much about verse is arbitrary
--limerick is in 5 lines, etc.--nothing in nature dictates 5 lines. Poetry is not arbitrary. Everything
in poetry is an expression of what is natural: It is the way it is because we are the way we are.
The nature of poetry follows from our own human nature. Human experience begins when the
senses give us images of our self and the world outside. These images arouse emotions, which
(with their images) we express in words, which are physically produced and have sound, which
comes to our ear riding the air on waves of rhythm. The whole process, from the beginning, is
fostered and overseen by an organizing mind, acting with the common sense of everyday life,
even when dealing with the uncommon sense of dreams or visions.

Why Study Poetry? Why Read Critically? Are There Rules for Writing Poems?


One way to deal with a complicated subject is to look at it part by part. We have to talk
separately about the elements that make it up--such as imagery, diction, rhythm--even though we
know they cannot exist in isolation. Although poetry is not bound by arbitrary rules as games
are, it does fall under the influence of certain natural laws, like those we call the rules of health, or
like those that govern mountain climbing. Mountain climbers are not subject to anything as formal
as a three strike rule, but rocks crumble, climbers have only so many arms and legs, that the law
of gravitation can exact grave penalties. Poetry may not have rules and regulations, but it has
to make sense in terms of our own human nature. In such a study as this, specific examples are
more persuasive than definitions. It is helpful to give a definition of a metaphor but more helpful
to give enough examples so that--as in life itself--we can come to our own conclusions about
what it is. There are people who think that knowledge destroys their spontaneous reaction to
anything beautiful. Generally, the more we know, the more we appreciate. There are people
who think that to analyze a poem or, as they say, "tear it apart," is to destroy it. But one no more
destroys a poem by means of analysis than one destroys birds or flowers or anything else by
means of a diagram. One likes to tell one bird from another.

The Image

Image--A piece of news from the world outside or from our own bodies which is brought into
the light of consciousness through one of the senses. Ezra Pound defined the image as "an
intellectual and an emotional complex in an instant of time. Goethe: "I no sooner have an idea
than it turns into an image." But it was an image before an idea. An image is anything presented
to the consciousness as a bodily sensation. We call such images concrete (from the Latin word
for solid), as opposed to ideas that may be abstract (Latin, withdrawn)--stripped, that is, of
physical detail.

William Blake:

"To Generalize is to be an Idiot. To Particularize is the Alone Distinction of Merit."

"Singular and Particular detail is the Foundation of the Sublime."


Frederico Garcia Lorca:

"The poet is a professor of the five bodily senses."


It is necessary to stress the dignity of physical imagery because there are those who think poets
demean themselves in descending to the world of matter instead of dealing directly with the
world of spirit. They forget that the poet's word, like theWord of the Evangelist, is not even
apparent to us until it is "made flesh."


From T. S. Eliot's The Four Quartets:

...only in time can the moment in the rose garden,

The moment in the arbour where the rain beat,

The moment in the draughty church at smokefall

Be remembered

--Section II of "Burnt Norton"


. . . Words, after speech, reach

Into the silence. Only by the form, the pattern,

Can words or music reach

The stillness, as a Chinese jar still

Moves perpetually in its stillness.

--Section V of "Burnt Norton"


Alfred North Whitehead--"We think in generalities but we live in detail."


Ezra Pound--"The artist seeks out the luminous detail and presents it."

 

 

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