31 July 2012

On the nature of poetry

The powerful action of poetry is very mysterious. Below, I give four quotations on the nature of poetry, by very knowledgeable people, three of them reputed poets. I feel they apply to most short poetry. Longer poetry is often of a quite different nature, as exemplified by Lucretius’ De Rerum Natura, Homer’s Iliad or Goethe’s Faust.

1. Umberto Eco, Italian novelist, in Postscript to The Name of The Rose:

verba tene, res sequentur
(grasp the words, content will follow).

Cato’s advice for orators Rem tene, verba sequentur (grasp the subject, the words will follow) had already been reversed to Verba tene, res sequetur to illustrate Cicero’s rhetoric. (John H. Collins, Cicero and Catullus, The Classical Journal 48 (1952), 11-41, p. 14.) Eco applies it very nicely to poetry. The full quotation is as follows.

Il problema è costruire il mondo, le parole verranno quasi da sole. Rem tene, verba sequentur. Il contrario di quanto, credo, avviene con la poesia: verba tene, res sequentur
= The problem is to construct the world, the words will practically come on their own. Rem tene, verba sequentur. The opposite, I believe, of what happens with poetry: verba tene, res sequentur. (Postille a Il nome della rosa, Il romanzo come fatto cosmologico.)

2. Gerrit Komrij, Dutch Poet Laureate 2000-2004:

Fear (in a literal translation)

Most unsuspectingly you start a poem. 
Some letters, of a pleasing form. 
It runs by itself. Lines silt up. 
Still they’re silent. They await the storm.

Out of dead curls, serifs, lines, strokes 
arise —no one knows what causes it— 
skirmishes between the vocals. 
The consonants join in humming, vexed.

Only now something like a message emerges. 
An S.O.S. from some remote paradise. 
The veil is rent. One astonishes on the sight.

Close your eyes. Don’t get upset. 
Don’t defy the wordless flash. 
Stick to your e’s and o’s and y’s.

(our emphasis). The very idea expressed by Eco. The original Dutch poem is


Heel argeloos begin je een gedicht. 
Een aantal letters, aangenaam van vorm. 
Het gaat vanzelf. Er slibben regels dicht. 
Ze zwijgen nog. Ze wachten op de storm.

Uit dode krullen, schreven, lijnen, halen 
Ontstaan — geen mens die weet waaraan het ligt — 
Schermutselingen tussen de vocalen. 
De consonanten brommen mee, ontsticht.

Pas dan ontpopt zich iets als een bericht. 
Een S.O.S. uit een ver paradijs. 
De voorhang scheurt. Je schrikt van het gezicht.

Doe dicht je ogen. Raak niet van de wijs. 
Tart niet de woordeloze bliksemschicht. 
Bepaal je tot je e’s en o’s en ij’s.

3. Maurice Maeterlinck, Belgian Nobel Prize for Literature, on his own poetry:
there is nothing underneath all that
but a way of playing with harmonious words.

The full report by Maeterlinck’s mistress, the singer Georgette Leblanc, is as follows.

The eyes full of universal melancholy, I mumbled the complaint of the “Three Blind Sisters”. . .

The three blind sisters, 
(Hope is not cold) 
The three blind sisters 
Light their lamps of gold.

Up the tower go they, 
(They and you and we) 
Up the tower go they 
To wait the seventh day. . .

Ah, saith one, turning, 
(Still let us hope) 
Ah, saith one, turning, 
I hear our lamps burning. . .

Ah, the second saith, 
(They and you and we) 
Ah, the second saith, 
’Tis the king’s tread. . .

Nay, the holiest saith, 
(Still let us hope) 
Nay, the holiest saith, 
But our light is dead. . .

(. . . )  To me, all these little three-lined stories where there is nothing but golden crowns, golden keys, golden doors and rings seemed to hide some Aeschulian tragedy. Fully convinced, I asked the poet whether he approved of my intentions. He said he was charmed but declared there was nothing underneath all that but a way of playing with harmonious words (qu’ il n’ y avait rien sous tout cela qu’ une manière de jouer avec des mots harmonieux). Nothing in this whole marvelous world! I must confess it took me some time before admitting it. Nevertheless, when, later, I toured with illustrated conferences of these songs, I never failed to explain the symbols I had put in in those days... the truth would have been too painful for those old English ladies. (Souvenirs, Ed. Bernard Grasset, Paris, 1931, p. 9-10) (unquote)

Reading all of Maeterlinck’s poetry, one realizes that it is in fact a single simple pattern with interchangeable ingredients. In that respect it resembles Cent mille milliards de poèmes (A hundred thousand billion poems) by Raymond Quenau, a fourteen line sonnet offering ten choices for each single line. Most samples of these 1014 mechanically produced sonnets look definitely artificial. Not so with Maeterlinck’s single pattern variations: read one at a time, they are beautiful! — which is exactly the point.

4. Robert Frost, American poet, four Pulitzer Prizes for Poetry:

Poetry is what is lost in translation.
It is also what is lost in interpretation

The full quotation is as follows: You’ve often heard me say —perhaps too often— that poetry is what is lost in translation. It is also what is lost in interpretation. (Louis Untermeyer, Robert Frost: A Backward Look)
The former part, well known, is much stronger than the trivial traduttore, traditore.  Frost claims that poetry is the very thing that gets lost in translation. The latter part, hardly known, is also stronger than the three quotations above. Victor Hugo and Goethe, great poets, disliked their poems being set to music, feeling that music kills the poem. Frost claims the same happens in interpreting a poem. So far for trying to convey poetry in secondary school!