I am living in a small, remote Aboriginal community where my wife is a school teacher. I have set myself the task of writing a poem a day for a year, and putting this poem on Facebook for my friends who might want to know what is happening, how I am going, what I am observing, and what sense I might be making of this new experience. One friend who reads the daily poem has a young child who has just started school. We will call him H. He has decided he likes poetry, and has begun to write poems. On Mothers Day H wrote a beautiful and imperfectly rhymed couplet:
I like mums
But especially one.
My friend told me that H has a question for me, and the question is, how can I call my writing poetry when it doesn’t rhyme?
H is bright enough to have asked the most difficult question first. Of course I worry about whether anything I write is poetry, regardless of whether it rhymes. H has a point, and I would not want him to abandon rhyme while he is so alive to it. He won’t fall in love with Blake unless he has at some time fallen in love with rhyme and its vagaries and challenges in English. Perhaps this question of what poetry is, apart from how difficult or remote it can be, is the question that keeps many readers away from poetry. (“Why should I read it, I don’t even know what it is?”)
I have been reading some books of poetry that friends have sent to me while I am in the outback. One is Redrafting Winter (2015) co-authored by Alison Strumberger and Gillian Sze. The book is the record of a three-year correspondence while they were on different continents, with a number of co-written poems based on the model of the renga.
A Japanese renga was traditionally written by three or four poets in a single sitting, with plenty of wine and food available, made up of twenty stanzas alternating between three lines and two lines each. The task of each poet was to respond to the stanza immediately before.
In this way, the overall direction of a renga was not determined by any single individual. It was truly collaborative, and its energy lay in its movement forward. Strumberger and Sze wrote in a more leisurely, more interrupted and more meditative fashion. Two of their stanzas, taken almost at random, go like this:
When I packed,
I found lost letters behind my bed,
books I never knew I owned.
Leaving is a process of remembering,
a realization that to stay is to lose parts of your mind.
What makes this poetry? The seriousness of its purpose? The elevation of the ordinary for inspection? The way it exposes and follows movements of mind and feeling? The paradoxical aspects of its reflections? The poise and musicality of its phrasing? Or is it the arrangement of the language into lines that visually divorce it from prose?
I don’t have any simple answer to this, but I like very much what Strumberger and Sze have achieved in their warm winter book. Scholars and philosophers have no simple answers either.
In 1975 a small essay by the scholar Wladyslaw Tatarkiewicz on The Concept of Poetry asked the very question H asked of me. Tatarkiewicz quotes an eighteenth century writer who observed that while the artfulness of rhyme and metre can make verse, the heart alone is poetic.
Poetry then is certainly a verbal art, but it is something else as well. It is this something else that lyric poetry points towards, or gestures towards, or tries to drag back in to speech. Have you ever seen a flock of screeching cockatoos frightened from a tree? Imagine trying to put them all back in their places? This is what it can feel like to write a poem when it’s that ‘something else’ the poet is aiming to pin down.
One of the most influential modern literary critics, Terry Eagleton, asks H’s question too near the beginning of his book titled, uninspiringly, How to Read a Poem (2007).
He notes that prose can exploit rhyme, word-music, metaphor, symbolism and all the other techniques of poetry, so what makes poetry special? He points to line endings. The line ending is there still, even in free verse, the poet’s last hallmark.
In Strumberger and Sze’s two stanzas, the first with its three steps has an expansiveness while the second, is more compact, and doesn’t overwhelm its inspiration, which is the first stanza. I am drawn to the modesty and focus of the two-line response.
That last long line, how does it work in this exchange? It underlines a statement-response, but it also lifts out to the next possible link and shift the answering poet might make.
The line – beginnings, breaks, line lengths, rhythms created, that constant starting and stopping that lines suggest – is what can make the reading (and writing) of poetry a teasing, addictive pastime.