Poetry as Style
An essay on degrees of literary intensity
First, there’s a general idiom to the language of poetry — whether written, spoken, or both — and by “idiom” I mean a mode of expression or a distinctive character and excellence of language.
Second, there is within the general idiom a more specific idiom to each era or phase.
Third, there’s the idiom of each individual person and pen and her or his specific ways and modes and methods — methods of thought, I mean to say.
The writer who does not learn the first of these three goes without good navigation and may be headed for a shipwreck on the hidden rocks of rime and prose.
In a mathematical sense, I see poetry as a kind of exponent or power. I think of it as prose raised to an exponential degree — 2 or even 3, depending on the state of the language at any given time, during any given age or phase, the intent and linguistic emphasis or stress as well, and depending also upon the bent of any one particular poet or poetess.
Poetic language, then, in the metaphorical-mathematical sense I use it here, may be described as a degree of literary intensity: poetry as an atomic element of speech and prose — the cytoplasm of tongue scorched into the nucleus of mind, the only organic substance strong enough to outlive the matter it creates. Words are as living things, and sometimes these living things mutate, sometimes die, and the writer learns through the search for life the biochemistry of poetry, its elemental structure and its atomic weights.
Gnostically, poetry is the spirit of language, and prose the flesh.
Poetry, like philosophy, is noetic — sprung from the eternal matter of the mind — sometimes prophetic.
Poetry and prose can biologically enmesh.
Did you know that style once referred to the actual implements of craftsmanship — whether writing or painting or sculpting or making music or weaving carpets or other tapestries of decorative art, the architect and her blueprints, her T-bar, her truss? Even today we have the more technological device we call the stylus.
Style was from the beginning the instrument or tool of all artistic craftsmanship and penmanship, the thing the human-being held in hand to craft a kind of calligraphy — the thing by means of which one would transform some abstract notion of mind into a concreted entity. These instruments of style were once looked upon with reverence and devotion.
In a more specific sense now style may be defined as the repetition of characteristic habits and, more broadly, the actual impress of the character: style is technique — style is personality. Because beginning at conception, there develops and then emerges from gradual to absolute, in every individual mind, the mute cells of uniqueness and difference, the very stuff of self and individuality, down to small erratic glitches which may emerge full-blown in any given individuated human-being, once formed: lightning flashes of artistic insight, or philosophic, or musical; nuances of diction, peculiarities of syntax that come from an aching neural itch; the hammer-and-chisel blows of Camille Claudel with her thunderous Thor-like swings and wild drive of will, carving terrible beautiful passionate shapes from marble as black as pitch. Or the bloom and beat of grief that hammered hugely through Gerard Hopkins’s God-obsessed sweet-meated heart, driving him, all the while, to pen such strange linguistic-musical art, which has touched my mind so deeply, and my heart.
Truly these things are cast in style.
Truly the completed edition of the poetry of any one person — of every one person, I mean, were it written down by each and all — would confront us with an entire life: because style is ever the infallible clue to personality — a complicated synthesis which, key-like, unlocks the vault of our private thoughts and character, our individuality.
When I’m asked by children how I think it’s best to go about the business of writing poetry, my answer is this:
First pick a concrete subject — a manhole cover, for instance, or the metal medallions struck by some savage kahn or the citizens of his ancient aboriginal sect or the axes these ancient citizens used to hack and chop, or a night-time kitchen when your refrigerator shudders to a stop in the deepest hours of the night, leaving you suddenly tranquil yet alone, or a flower or exultant sculpture standing untouched in a demolition zone against empty space, or a river with a lead sky angled cracked across that river’s face, or something else specific, definite, non-abstract — and then seek to describe this subject you’ve selected, whatever it is, in as vivid a linguistic style as you can find, avoiding the trite, the overwritten, the platitudinous at every turn as much as you can, while at the same time never losing sight of the concreted thing you’ve picked — the thing you seek to capture and depict, in a language (which is to say, an idiom) the suits your style.
As in any art we must strive not to let the symbolic meaning take precedence over the literal part, so, too, with poetry we mustn’t let lineation or form take precedence over what the poem is at its heart — by which I mean and am here to shout: do not let form overtake or overshadow what at root your poem is all about.
This is why I suggest that initially children not get too caught up in figuring out formal structures, neither at first trouble too deeply over the stanza’s typographical shape, the syllable-counts, epigrams, anapests, Alcaics, Sapphics, dactyls, choriambs (my predilection), nor worry over-much about developing a perfect pentameter and rhyme selection — no: not even superficially. Not at first. Even more than metrical stress, which I regard as hierarchically less, let the poet or poetess instead thirst first for sense. Yes, I say: thirst.
Later, after the heart of the poem is fleshed, after it’s conditioned and the meat is roughly shaped, the main chambers of it basically built, even if it’s only a prototypical shape and form, the line can then be reshaped and restructured, the form and meaning blended. Remove the scaffolding. Remove the stilts.
I suggest to children, to whom I sometimes have the honor of teaching the subject of literature as an art, that first they focus each and only on writing down their descriptions in sentences as clear and clean as water — that they strive first for precision and sense while moving like an otter across the whole page or screen, as when they’re writing a letter or an essay or a blog-post or a phone message via text, making every effort, at all times, to fishlike bring their selected subject silvery and alive up off the page, not primarily with rhymes, not at first, say I, but with the explosive power of their words and word-choices. They’re encouraged to ask me why.
“Astound me,” I say, “with your boundless imaginations channeled into your writing voices. Stupefy me with the richness of your language and your phrasing. Make it head-shaking, eye-popping, jaw-dropping, hair-raising. Stun me, as with an electrical charge of monster-truck force, by means of your vocabulary — however small or however large your vocabulary is not the point since it doesn’t matter in the least, but use the words that you — you, as individuals — grasp and know; the vocabulary ‘cut to the measure of your own mind,’ as Petrarch perfectly put it. (Duncan, with your sinking sun in a passing storm, your ‘sunset sun like an over-ripened esculent raspberry.’) That is what I want you to write down and show. Forget, for now, the particulars of specific form.”
Because all poems, no matter the age of the poet or her race or gender, must pass the following test: the test of being able to stand upon its own, whether wobbly or strong, whether muscular or tender, as both a written and a spoken thing (the one without reference to the other at all) if not quite identically from one form to the next, yet still essentially the same, whether heard or read, and all by means of the words you have flowing like voltaic currents through the circuitry of your head.
Both the written and spoken form must recreate and capture, for the listening audience and the reading audience alike, whatever subject you’ve selected to depict, and not only that — not only what you’ve picked: it must do so intelligibly, in a way the listener or reader can, without too much difficulty, get — and get, furthermore, and perhaps most important of all, with enjoyment and pleasure, both for the reader and also the listening set. After intelligibility, then metric, measure, and all the rest, which is also important — though in a descending hierarchical sort of way — can be developed and cultivated.
Intelligibility and comprehensibility simply cannot, in my view, be overstated or overrated. I believe that this is true.
As the symbolic meaning must never supersede the literal meaning but always hang there in a kind of ghostly background way, like something glimpsed behind a thinly veiled screen, like a large and hovering cloud-shaped dome (unquestionably there but never quite fully seen) so, too, the form of your poem should not take full precedence over the content of your piece, the meaning at its delicate living heart. The arrangement and rearrangement of lines, which, to be sure, is itself an art, the unspoken methods of style, the restructuring, the reshuffling of form and rhyme, the logic for why your lines are broken — and broken in the places that they are — yes, this should always be secondary. I’m suggesting it be visible and distinct, yet neither too near nor too far, a step removed, let us say, but still always there, always near, though as something seen through a silken Chinese fog. Lineation and rhyme should not become the tail that wags the dog, as I have made it here.
I’m the author of ten books and counting. I’ve been both traditionally published and also self-published. I write fiction and non-fiction. My latest book is a novel called Neck Between Two Heads: a story of civilization and superstition and it tells the story of a modern-day Apache man named Jon Silverthorne who uncovers something extraordinary deep within the network of caves that lace the earth beneath the Baboquivari Wilderness, some fifty miles south of Tucson.