Finding the pieces that turn writing into poetry

In the LA Times:

As I learned more about poetry, I came to understand that for most of literary history, poems had been written in some kind of rhyming pattern, or else a repeating rhythmic structure — or both. Shakespeare’s sonnets, for instance, rhyme and also have a regular meter. On the other hand, many poems don’t rhyme, but have a consistent rhythm: This is known as “blank verse.” Milton’s “Paradise Lost” and Shakespeare’s plays are written in blank verse.

In the second half of the 19th century, Walt Whitman wrote “Leaves of Grass,” which featured poems that neither rhymed nor had a regular, repeating metrical pattern. During the early part of the 20th century, poets began to break free of forms, of rhyme and rhythm, by imitating Whitman or other experimental poets, or by devising their own ways of writing.

Gradually formal poetry began to seem old-fashioned. By the mid-1970s, formal poetry had ceased to be the dominant mode. Of course, there were, and continue to be, major American poets who use rhyme and/or meter. But most American poets today write in free verse.

It’s easy now to make fun of formalists by calling them old-fashioned or even reactionary. But when the great 19th century American poet Emily Dickinson wrote, “After great pain a formal feeling comes,” she was connected to a deep truth about human nature, and writing. Form is the literary expression of our need to be consoled by some kind of order. This is why funerals have rituals and procedures, so we can keep it at least a little bit together in times of great grief and disruption. It is also why, right after Sept. 11 — when sitting together silently would have been too difficult and weird and sad — people read poems, more often than not ones that had meter and rhyme, such as W.H. Auden’s “September 1, 1939.”

Poetry at its most basic level is about the movement of the mind. This is why it is translatable, even from a language such as Chinese, which has very little in common with English. What can be translated is the leap from one thought to another: what I call the associative movement particular to poetry. That leap, that movement, is what makes poetry poetry.


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