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Poetry is one of the most important and powerful forms of writing because it takes the English language, a language we believe we know, and transforms it. Suddenly the words do not sound the same or mean the same. The pattern of the sentences sounds new and melodious. It is truly another language exclusively for the writer and the reader. No poem can be read in the same way, because the words mean something different to each of us. For this reason, many find poetry an elusive art form. However, the issue in understanding poetry lies in how you read poetry.
Reading it logically results in overall comprehension, rigid and unchanging. However, reading it emotionally allows the nuances and paradoxes to enter our understanding. Anyone who writes poetry can attest, you have to write it with an open heart. So as a reader, we must do the same. All poems are insights into the most intimate inner workings of the writer’s mind and soul. To read it coldly and rationally would be shutting the door on the relationship that the writer is attempting to forge with you. Opening your heart to poetry is the only way to get fulfillment from it.
If you imagine poetry as a journey, you must be willing to trust the writer to guide you. Unwilling readers will never experience every part of the adventure in the same way open minded readers do. The journey may be filled with dead ends and suffering or endless joy and happiness. And still, you continue on. You pick up the poem, you read, you listen, and you feel. Every student has the opportunity to experience this phenomenon, to reach a new level of maturity as they attempt to unravel the meaning of each poem, like they will attempt to unravel different challenges in life ahead.
Thus far in my course we have studied Elizabeth Bishop, Sylvia Plath and Seamus Heaney in depth. Each with their own unique and fascinating life stories which they highlight in each of their poems. Sylvia Plath was one of the most dynamic and admired poets of the 20th century. By the time she took her life at the age of 30, Plath already had a following in the literary community. In the ensuing years her work attracted the attention of a multitude of readers, who saw in her singular verse an attempt to catalogue despair, violent emotion, and obsession with death. This complex and despairing woman had gained such a level of universality through her works. Although she may not be the most idealistic of role models for our generation, she is a woman who displays no apprehension in sharing her innermost thoughts and feelings with the world.
Seamus Heaney, also known as the ‘King of Poetry’, was referred to by The New York Review of Books essayist, Richard Murphy as ‘the poet who has shown the finest art in presenting a coherent vision of Ireland, past and present.’ Heaney has secured himself the title of a humble and thoughtful man and poet, who could identify and understand others. His poetry, as a result, is sensitive and sympathetic, as it shows us a man meditating on his own childhood and various precious relationships. Heaney possesses another image as a poet who celebrated the traditional crafts and the identity of the country’s inhabitants. Through his poetry, Heaney recognises what is good and he cherishes and celebrates it. This is something our generation lacks, this obsession with materialism is consuming us as of now and studying a poet who acknowledged the simple, yet beautiful elements of life is inspirational.
My favourite poet on the course has to be Elizabeth Bishop. As I studied her poetry I became more transfixed in her poetic abilities and the many challenges she had to overcome throughout her life. I have become more mature in the process and I am so grateful that my teacher included her in our studies. What strikes me most about Bishop as a poet is that she never hid her flaws and the scars of her past from her readers. She described everything how it was. She was an honest and authentic poet, who was capable of asking her readers to not only focus on her, but with her.
Each of these poets had such a level of wisdom, brilliance and creative power that all English tutee’s are striving towards. For instance, I believe Heaney’s poem ‘The Forge’ can reflect their longing perfectly. Heaney highlights the sacred nature of art by describing the blacksmith at work and thus himself writing poetry. In ‘The Forge’, the blacksmith works on his raw materials, hammering and shaming it until it assumes the form intended. In the same way, the poet must use his skill and craft to shape-with words-poems from the raw material of his own experience. From the beginning we are aware of Heaney’s great admiration and awe for the blacksmith. He says ‘All I know’, meaning that he himself is aware that he has much to learn before he attains the skill exhibited by the blacksmith, I guess you could say that we are all like Heaney, as he looked towards the blacksmith for inspiration, we are seeking inspiration from Heaney himself. However, for now we are just observers. With each Poet we study, we are immersed in the talent that they produce and become familiar with their stories and their personalities. We almost feel as though we are given the key to all their thoughts and memories and can interpret it in any way we deem satisfactory. It is a gift.
I believe that Poetry is an element of English that we will carry with us into our journey towards adulthood. The sheer inspiration these poets hold for their readers is so beautiful and their works are so captivating that they would be impossible to forget. Different factors of my quotidien are prompting me to recall some of the genius works from these poets. For instance, I was walking along the salthill peer with my mother and I spotted a little sail boat with a young boy and his father as they spent the glorious evening fishing. I immediately recalled Bishop’s poem ‘The Fish’. Bishop was a painter as well as a poet in her time and we could vividly see the traces of her paintbrush in this poem in particular as she provides us with such an intimate and beautiful portrait of the ‘tremendous fish’. I thoroughly enjoyed this poem for it’s close observation and detailed description, culminating in a moment of insight. She had expected to catch the fish but what I found very interesting was that it was actually Elizabeth Bishop who was ‘caught’ by the fish.
Each of the poets innovation comes from ordinary day-to-day life, like that of the fish, the harvest bow in Heaney’s poem ‘Harvest Bow’ reminded him of his father. This poem captures the intensity and power with which memories can visit us. Touching the bow causes Heaney’s memories of a long ago evening to come rushing. There is also a powerful sense of nostalgia in the depiction of the poet and his father walking through the ‘railway slopes’, Heaney with his ‘fishing rod’ and his father with his ‘stick’. We see this in the poet’s declaration that he was ‘already homesick/for the big lift of these evenings’ Heaney now connects the past with the present. He realises that these good times have now passed with feelings of intense disappointment. Perhaps that, why these memories means so much to him and why he paints a picture of such an ordinary event as being extraordinary is because, deep down, he knows that these special times with his father have passed.
Also of course in Plath’s poem ‘Black Rook in Rainy weather’. ‘A wet black rook arranging and rearranging its feathers in the rain’ is a symbol of how the ‘minor light’ of life can shine suddenly through banal objects. The rook is an ordinary bird, which serves to focus Plath’s vision. It is a ruse she chooses in order to instil patience in herself. She settles for its minor light while she awaits a more transcendent vision. This poem is a deeply personal poem which reveals a lot about Plath’s mindstate.
The rook and Harvest Bow, two inanimate objects that I certainly would not cast more than a glance at, are analysed by both Plath and Heaney and they have shown a complete new meaning for them. They probe beneath the surface of each day-to-day object they encounter which shows works of genius. Thereby, giving these objects a surreal and gratifying meaning for their readers. It has certainly made me more aware of my surroundings and I can now acknowledge the simple, yet beautiful aspects of life.
Poetry at its best calls forth our deep being. It dares us to break free from the safe strategies of the cautious mind; it calls to us, like the wild geese from an open sky. It is a magical art, and always has been — a making of language spells designed to open our eyes, open our doors and welcome us into a bigger world, one of possibilities we may never have dared to dream of.
This is why poetry can be dangerous as well as necessary. Because we may never be the same again after reading a poem that happens to speak to our own life directly. I know that when I meet my own life in a great poem, I feel opened, clarified, confirmed somehow in what I sensed was true but had no words for. Anything that can do this is surely necessary for the fullness of a human life. Poems are necessary because they honor the unknown, both in us and in the world. They come from an undiscovered country; they are shaped into form by the power of language, and set free to fly with wings of images and metaphor. Imagine a world in which everything is already known. It would be a dead world, no questions, no wonder, no other possibility. That’s what my own world can feel like sometimes when my imagination has gone into retreat. I have discovered that poetry is the phoenix I can fly on to return to that forgotten land.
And yet for all its magic, poetry uses the common currency of our daily speech. It uses words that are known to all of us, but in a sequence and order that surprises us out of our normal speech rhythms and linear thought processes. Its effect is to illuminate our lives and breathe new life, new seeing, new tasting into the world we thought we knew.
Poetry is also a way of rescuing the world from oblivion by the practice of attention. It is our attention that honors and gives value to living things, that gives them their proper name and particularity; that retrieves them from the obscurity of the general. Poems that galvanize my attention shake me awake. They pass on their attentiveness, their prayerfulness, to me, the reader. This is why poetry can make us more fully human, and more fully engaged in this world. As I see the young people of my generation so absorbed and immersed into the world of technology, which is also a genius yet savage place, it saddens me. In the past, Poets have used poetry as a forum of expression. They have inspired many people with their meaningful works. It is a worthy expression of emotion and aesthetics and gives a sense of what is beautiful about the world. However young people now desire to retrieve all their information and ideas from the internet. They receive instantaneous gratification without any effort required.
Poetry is a magical art and always has been- It is a making of language spells designed to open our eyes, open our doors and welcome us into a bigger world, one of possibilities we may never have dared dream about. Poetry is the reason my love for English prospered and I will cherish my memories studying poetry. The scholar Rita Dove captured poetry in her explanation perfectly by saying “Poetry is language at its most distilled and powerful”.
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