Posts Tagged ‘Poetry’

Lowell poemI met myself this morning. It was a past me, one from many years ago and it was, in the main, an accident.

I was checking a book on the shelf in the spare bedroom, ostensibly to see if Seven Centuries of Poetry in English was from my past, or harked back to my wife’s. It was hers, as I discovered with the penciled notes on a Gwen Harwood poem; The Sea Anemones. However, thanks to the turned down page corner, I came across the next poet in the anthology – Robert Lowell. Three poems in from this point was Memories of West Street and Lepke, one of the poems I studied for my Extension English course in my final year of high school.

I lay on the bed and read through the poem once – it was enough. That one reading took me many minutes. I thoroughly enjoyed studying Lowell, about half a dozen poems in all from Life Studies. Ironically, the unit was coupled with Harwood’s poetry – also having a resonance with me.

However, this moment was with Lowell. One stanza was enough. Enough to be astonished by how much I knew I didn’t know at the time. Or rather, how I recognised the way in which words and ideas were conjuring up fresh connections for me, easily and readily, in a way that I wouldn’t have been able to do all those years ago. Phrases like “and is a ‘young Republican'” ripple out with aggregated experience and understanding from the intervening years. I live in Australia and have grown to appreciate the nuances that even a word like “Republican” can bring. From watching the news, from reading about history or even from seeing shows such as The West Wing, my understanding has been shaped and enhanced. The irony that I am now teaching (something I would have ardently denied when I was in my final year at high school) is not lost on me either, highlighted in the opening line Only teaching on Tuesdays. I am 41…

But, I wonder about that younger me. If time is capable of playing so many tricks on us, on affecting our perceptions and memories, what have I lost in those intervening years? I was a very bright, if not lazy student, and I’m sure that that older (younger?) me would have things to say, arguments to hold and fresh ideas of his own. While I’m sure experience has made me a wiser and more knowledgable individual, I wonder about those lost moments too.

So, a post I would never have envisioned writing… all came about from a chance moment this morning. I’ve enjoyed the opportunity to muse…

How good are words! I enjoy seeing when senior students learn how a well placed word in a sentence has the power to resonate, giving off a ripple effect of nuance and meaning. Conversely, the sentence has to remain in balance, so students using five “big” four to five syllable words feels unwieldy, like the reader is wading through mud. For many students, having them appreciate that more is not necessarily more, can be a difficult thing that seems to be counter intuitive. Having an economy in writing can allow words the space to flex their power.
Ironically, I think George Orwell, in 1984, had a pretty good take on it. Look at the following, as Syme talks to Winston about his efforts on creating (or destroying) the new language for the upcoming 11th Edition Dictionary of Newspeak:

A word contains its opposite in itself. Take ‘good’, for instance. If you have a word like ‘good’, what need is there for a word like ‘bad’? ‘Ungood’ will do just as well – better, because it’s an exact opposite, which the other is not. Or again, if you want a stronger version of ‘good’, what sense is there in having a whole string of vague useless words like ‘excellent’ and ‘splendid’ and all the rest of them? ‘Plusgood’ covers the meaning, or ‘doubleplusgood’ if you want something stronger still. Of course we use those forms already, but in the final version of Newspeak there’ll be nothing else. In the end the whole notion of goodness and badness will be covered by only six words – in reality, only one word.

The notion that if you remove one’s language, you remove their ability to see, imagine and think is compelling. However, is it possible to explore the other side of the equation. Is it possible to have “too much” language? I understand that there are more than fifty hues of the colour blue. Yet the ability to capture the exact hue one is witnessing is probably unlikely.

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Journey away on holidays – the view from the window as I type…

As a task, students can do or consider the following:
Look out the window and take in the view. Imagine that you call someone on the phone and, being so taken by what you see, set about describing the vista before you. Students can attempt to write, in a paragraph, the picture before them, or even an element of the whole. This is where the limitations of a language might become apparent. On one level, if language could do its “job” of communicating, then the result would be the equivalent of a photograph or facsimile. The listener, despite being deprived of the physical view, would be able to replicate the image in their own head. As a point of comparison, consider how effectively a musical score is able to transfer meaning, or mathematical notation. Of course, at its most reductive, music comes to four possibilities once a note is played. You can repeat the same pitch, have a higher or lower note, or rest. Words offer the potential to take this further, to almost limitless possibilities.

But who wants to be omniscient? Where is the pleasure in having precision in all facets of language when reading poetry? If we had a word for everything, would this equate to being a god-like individual who knows every joke and therefore every punchline before it can be delivered? While it is striking to have so many hues of blue, so many more are left uncharted and benefit from being couple with other adjectives.

In concluding, I counter one of the observations frequently posited by my students when we are analysing poetry – “You don’t think the poet intended all these meanings do you?”

The answer is “no” and “yes”. The beauty of poetry is its ability to conjure up word paintings as we read, based on our own experiences. However, I’ll sometimes show Wilfred Owen’s Anthem for Doomed Youth in order to show both how a beautifully placed word exudes power and potency, and an ill fitting alternative can bring about diminishment.

Below is an early draft of Owen’s poem. In knowing the copy that we have with us today, it is appropriate to see how the poet played with words and their placement and, feeling dissatisfied with a choice, sought to improve or rectify the choices made. With writing, it is certainly a gestaltist approach – the sum of the writing is greater than the individual parts.

An early draft of what would become ‘Anthem for Doomed Youth’ – note the trial and error of word choices that Owen makes