ALLITERATION: A BRIEF ESSAY ON POETRY

Image result for ozymandias

A poem is just an interesting person saying interesting things.

I don’t read Heine and Shakespeare and Keats for phrases of pretty alliteration.

The poets today describe Shelley’s statue—and then tell you what it means.

The image at the end of Ozymandias is not an image, per se; Shelley is saying something.

All purely imagist poetry is nothing but pathetic fallacy, or, if not, then it is pure impressionistic poetry, comprised of images only—which more properly belongs to painting and the eye.

Be a Japanese painter, if this is the kind of poetry you are interested in.

Critics complain of “statement poetry,” as if poetry were not the simple desire to say something—which is all it is.

Shakespeare is great because of what he says—as he adds in his art.

Like rhyme, which is avoided because it becomes sing-songy, if one doesn’t know how to do it, poets avoid statements, or speech, because they are deficient there, too. They have nothing to say.

When Shakespeare, the master, asks “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day,” he is not making that silly mistake of trying to describe a summer’s day. No poem could.

Keats, in his sonnet, “The House of Mourning,” professes the same sentiment when he rebukes Wordsworth for writing a sonnet “on Dover.”

There Dover sits, Keats is saying, and a poem about Dover is bound to fail, precisely because poets do not exist to say anything about Dover. That task is for a painter, a photographer, or a travel essayist. Nothing at all against Dover.

There are those who think song lyrics have rhyme and therefore poems should not rhyme. And they reason themselves into a corner, unfortunately: if any attempt at sound as a tool is eschewed, what is left?  Describing what we see—but pure seeing cannot be done with poetry.

We’ve seen trees, and therefore, when trees show up in a poem, we think we see them in the poem.

We don’t.

The poet has not, and never will, make us see, with certainty, trees.

The poet, every time, is saying something about trees.

But critics and readers who are sure that poetry is not someone saying something (having convinced themselves that poetry is far more subtle and attenuated) rejoice in the idea that no reader will agree with another—you do not see the same “trees” I see; correct, but instead of seeing this ambiguity as a bad thing, the ‘poetry as seeing’ error is compounded, as poetry of precise and accessible speech is rejected, and a far more insidious error arises—the one which celebrates ambiguity as a good.

Either way, the poet will go about describing Dover, naively thinking Dover (not actually depicted) really is presented—or: implicitly finding the “poetry” in the very fact that there are a million Dovers.

I have heard, countless times, readers celebrate a poem for meaning a different thing to every person, as if this obvious shortcoming were somehow a virtue. They know poetry cannot be seen. And, for this reason, are sure it cannot be understood, either.

Now poetry can see a little bit, but only in the service of poems like “Ozymandias” or “Shall I Compare Thee To A Summer’s Day?”

These poems do not attempt to describe Dover. Yet every citizen of Dover, if they can read, will read these two poems—and agree on what they say.

 

 

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