On the Nature of Poetry

 

Its stuff that rhymes. Only it doesn’t always rhyme. Usually the stuff that doesn’t rhyme is bad, but then if you look at poetry in other languages and traditions sometimes it doesn’t even rhyme at all. Hmm… maybe I should back up a bit. What I’d like to do is try and characterize poetry from a scientific perspective. That means I’ll be observing three samples of poetry captured in the wild to see what we can learn about them. Let’s move right to the first:

I come home during the 2016 campaign and @MattBalzer says to me “Hillary Clinton just called Trump supporters a ‘basket of deplorables.'” You know how I responded? “I don’t often have a good word to say about Hillary Clinton, but that’s a good phrase right there.”

I’m not offended by politicians slipping up and saying how they actually feel. I already knew that Clinton despised me. But that’s just me; that phrase touched a nerve in the general public. “You’re darn right we’re deplorable in your eyes,” says the crowd. “We’re sick of you beltway types believing that your games are the only thing that’s important. Well, we get a vote too!” Only not in so many words; it was expressed in memes and MAGA hats. Almost certainly it helped put Trump over the top in that election. But I’m not here to talk politics, I’m here to talk poetry.

If we sit and observe the phenomena we can discover our first principle of what makes poetry. Poetry exhibits strong memetic properties. That isn’t to say it fits well as white text on funny pictures, but that it tends to stick in people’s minds. Poetry, when it’s firing on all cylinders, leaves lines that strike a chord in people’s hearts, and that people naturally want to repeat. Check any oft-repeated cliché from Shakespeare if you don’t believe me. It’s to Hillary Clinton’s sorrow that she expressed herself so well.

To illustrate the second principle I’m going to lift the opening line from William Gibson’s novel Neuromancer:

The sky above the port was the color of television, tuned to a dead channel.

This was written back in the days when TVs displayed static. No soothing power-down state; harsh black and white dots consuming each other to a patternless cacophony. I’ll tell you one thing about static, you don’t want your sky to look like that. Gibson was inventing the cyberpunk genre, a globe dominated by zaibatsus and populated by cynical hucksters who hold little regard for individual lives. Cities living in a perpetual twilight of smog pierced by neon glows and digital ads. It’s a harsh land; a good place for stories about keyboard cowboys.

More than that, look at the word “dead” in there. Quite a bit more impact than “tuned to a blank channel” would be, or “tuned to an unused channel”. There’s an echo of the ruthlessness I mentioned in the last paragraph, but it’s also pointing to the despair shared by the people of the world. You can slave your life away for a corporation like a West Virginia coal miner, only with less hope of escape. Or you can rebel, become a hacker, fight the power. But you can never win; there’s just too much inertia for a man to change the course of these monstrous large corporations and the world they direct.

Cyberpunk is a style, and Gibson is trying to key you into that style with the most speed he can. He’s trying to set the mood so that we empathize with the protagonist, his despair at having the future burned out of his brain, and his unconfessed attempt to commit suicide by drug-deal-gone-wrong one of these days. You get an entirely different mood out of the first line of, say, Pride and Prejudice, or of A Tale of Two Cities. But that’s deeper than we need to go at the moment. Our second observational principle is that poetry packs a whole lot of information into very few syllables. 

The third principle can best be illustrated by the opening of the Gospel according to Saint John:

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.

I could go on for a while on about the meaning packed into this verse; there’s a great deal and more than has been expounded even in two millennia of long-winded theologians. Instead though I’m going to focus on the poetic qualities of the line. Note that the word “Word” is repeated three times. The second and third phrase in the verse differ by only one word. More than that, if you rephrased the first part as “In the beginning the Word was” which is a touch awkward but still has the same meaning, then you have “the Word was” repeated three times.

Why all the repetition? The human brain thrives on patterns and devotes a great deal of thought to pattern recognition. You notice how people singing songs tend to say things over and over again when any normal human being would get to the point already? More than that, most of those poetry-related vocabulary words you learned in school and then immediately forgot after the test, those words are descriptions of patterns. You could write a sonnet that doesn’t follow either the Italian or the English rhyme scheme, but it probably won’t be any good. Unless you devise your own pattern of rhymes to impose on it, in which case it probably won’t be any good because writing sonnets is hard.

Poetry rhymes because we like things that rhyme. Rhyming provides a predictable pattern that lets us both know what’s coming and be surprised when it happens. In other traditions the structure of poetry serves much the same purpose, the repeated stresses of a Russian poet or the grouped consonants of a Viking skald give you both the structure and the room for art. There’s an infinite amount of variation which can be squeezed into the seventeen syllables of a haiku. In fact, this is our third observed principle. Poetry displays patterns keyed to resonate with the human mind.

There’s a temptation here to assume that that’s all that poetry is. Put a man under an MRI and read Kipling to him, see what parts of his brain light up. Heck, you may even be correct under a materialistic worldview. But even if you could define euphony by which neurons fire when you hear the phrase “on the road to Mandalay” I don’t think that means you understand what poetry is. I’ve done some arguing here about the how of poetry, next time I’ll dip into the why of poetry. Fair warning, it’s going to be further out there than my pseudoscientific speculations about rhyme schemes.

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  1. Gary McVey Contributor
    Gary McVey
    @GaryMcVey

    This teasing intro can only mean one thing: Another Hank Rhody mindbender on the way. The nice thing about them is, you don’t have to give up drinking to appreciate how far from reality you’ll be. 

    • #1
  2. KentForrester Moderator
    KentForrester
    @KentForrester

    Hank, I taught poetry for over thirty years, and your post still left me with much to think about. Thanks.

    I know one thing from personal experience: Good poetry stays in the mind. I’ve forgotten a lot in my 82 years, but what I haven’t forgotten are hundreds of lines, word for word, of good poetry.

    I still have “promises to keep,/ and miles to go before I sleep,/and miles to go before I sleep.”

    • #2
  3. The Scarecrow Thatcher
    The Scarecrow
    @TheScarecrow

    Probably the only time I have read an article on poetry that compares three examples, and I know all three very well. 😁

    • #3
  4. Aaron Miller Member
    Aaron Miller
    @AaronMiller

    Prose can be like a photograph. Deliberate limits and perspective focus attention to leave a lasting impression. Painting, like poetry, is something else. It begins with the impression and works backward to the real. 

    • #4
  5. Percival Thatcher
    Percival
    @Percival

    HankRhody Freelance Philosopher: Poetry displays patterns keyed to resonate with the human mind.

    If a poem doesn’t do that, it makes no more sense than atonal music.

    • #5
  6. The Scarecrow Thatcher
    The Scarecrow
    @TheScarecrow

    I love Neuromancer. I have it on audio read by the author. He probably would not be considered a great reader by reader standards. But something about reading his own book, getting his own prose, makes that performance deadly addictive to me. I have probably heard it between 50 and 100 times, that 6 hour production.

    I never understood what is obviously one of the reasons it is so attractive to me until I read this article. I think there are many many instances through that book where he phrases things in a way that is so memorable, so penetrating, that it draws me in. The opening line is famous, but there are 50 more examples through the book. Hearing him read it himself accentuates this. As I think about it, I realize that I have incorporated more lines from that book into my every day speech than any other book I know. Probably because of what you are describing. Here’s a sample, read it out loud slowly and listen to the rhythms in the terse prose:

    “He came in steep, fueled by self-loathing. When the Kuang program met the first of the defenders, scattering the leaves of light, he felt the shark thing lose a degree of substantiality, the fabric of information loosening.

    And then—old alchemy of the brain and its vast pharmacy—his hate flowed into his hands. In the instant before he drove Kuang’s sting through the base of the first tower, he attained a level of proficiency exceeding anything he’d known or imagined. Beyond ego, beyond personality, beyond awareness, he moved, Kuang moving with him, evading his attackers with an ancient dance, Hideo’s dance, grace of the mind-body interface granted him, in that second, by the clarity and singleness of his wish to die.”

    It’s funny that I know that long paragraph pretty much by heart, but haven’t memorized all that many poems. That section of the book is so incredibly moving, and beautifully written.

    As for actual poetry as advertised,I’ve been reading a lot of Billy Collins. I enjoy his poems quite a bit, find them witty and moving. He can write in any of the poetic forms, including a pretty good sonnet. But most of his stuff is freeform. I like it, like how it sounds, but I cannot understand why it’s poetry, and not prose.

    • #6
  7. It's TGS with Cat III! Member
    It's TGS with Cat III!
    @CatIII

    Confession: I’ve read very little poetry, markedly less since I graduated high school and am no longer forced to. Having said that, I am a fairly avid reader of literature and I prefer when the prose has elements of poetry, when it’s lyrical, when you can tell the writer labored over how the words sound and flow, when the words are beautiful and don’t just communicate information.

    HankRhody Freelance Philosopher:

    To illustrate the second principle I’m going to lift the opening line from William Gibson’s novel Neuromancer:

    The sky above the port was the color of television, tuned to a dead channel.

    I saw this line for the first time recently in a YouTube video about how to begin a story. Didn’t have interest in Neuromancer before, but seeing how evocative the prose is, I thought maybe I should give this Gibson fellow a try. You’re right about the use of the word “dead” instead of any of the alternatives. It helps that “dead channel” doesn’t sound unnatural, it sounds like a way someone might actually describe such a channel in real life, so the effect isn’t heavy-handed.

    The Scarecrow (View Comment):
    “Beyond ego, beyond personality, beyond awareness, he moved, Kuang moving with him, evading his attackers with an ancient dance, Hideo’s dance, grace of the mind-body interface granted him, in that second, by the clarity and singleness of his wish to die.”

    The repetition of “beyond” is a good illustration of what Hank is getting at. “Beyond ego, personality, and awareness” isn’t incorrect, but it saps away the power found in the original.

    HankRhody Freelance Philosopher:

    In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.

    This shows why, like my fellow atheists Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens, I believe the Bible should be taught to children, the KJV specifically. You can make this argument based on the prose alone.

    • #7
  8. HankRhody Freelance Philosopher Contributor
    HankRhody Freelance Philosopher
    @HankRhody

    KentForrester (View Comment):

    Hank, I taught poetry for over thirty years, and your post still left me with much to think about. Thanks.

    I know one thing from personal experience: Good poetry stays in the mind. I’ve forgotten a lot in my 82 years, but what I haven’t forgotten are hundreds of lines, word for word, of good poetry.

    I still have “promises to keep,/ and miles to go before I sleep,/and miles to go before I sleep.”

    Appreciate it.

    I’ve got some poetry memorized, but the confounders keep sneaking into my books and changing the words on me.

    • #8
  9. HankRhody Freelance Philosopher Contributor
    HankRhody Freelance Philosopher
    @HankRhody

    It's TGS with Cat III! (View Comment):
    I saw this line for the first time recently in a YouTube video about how to begin a story. Didn’t have interest in Neuromancer before, but seeing how evocative the prose is, I thought maybe I should give this Gibson fellow a try.

    The link in the text is actually to the entire first chapter of the book. That should give you a sufficient sample. 

    I read Neuromancer some years back and I intend to go through that trilogy again, when I can go into the library in person again. 

    • #9
  10. The Scarecrow Thatcher
    The Scarecrow
    @TheScarecrow

    My favorite edition of Neuromancer is a special production recorded in 1993 as a 10th-year anniversary thing. It’s an abridgement of sorts, kinda hard to explain. It’s the entire story, but some of the parts reworked a little – nothing is really left out.

    Gibson reads it himself, and there is some musical and sound effects worked in – original music by Bono and others. It’s a wonderful production, and I find it captivating.

    I had it as a set of four cassette tapes put out by Randon House, eight 45-minute sides. As I said, I’ve probably heard it 50 – 100 times.

    My cassettes are gone, and for some reason the production is not available officially anywhere. But I poked around online, and found someone who uploaded the cassette content. You can download it free as an MP3 (I think, what do I know?).

    His reading of it is hypnotic. The prose has a subtle rhythm, like a prosaic equivalent of some kind of iambic pentameter. The story is a bit confusing, but confusing like reading Shakespeare or John Le Carre – you are richly rewarded with repeated listens; as you figure out the story, all the details on your next visit make the world he created, and Case’s character, so vivid and unforgettable.

    Okay, I’ll stop gushing about Neuromancer. And wait patiently for your next installment in this poetry series.

     

    • #10
  11. Southern Pessimist Member
    Southern Pessimist
    @SouthernPessimist

    A poem is like an onion that you peel
    Layers that refuse to separate
    But leave you with their tears.

    Relationships are an onion that you peel

    • #11
  12. Captain French Moderator
    Captain French
    @AlFrench

    HankRhody Freelance Philosopher: Put a man under an MRI and read Kipling to him, see what parts of his brain light up.

    If he’s a conservative. If he’s a liberal his head explodes.

    • #12
  13. Steven Galanis Coolidge
    Steven Galanis
    @Steven Galanis

    Captain French (View Comment):

    HankRhody Freelance Philosopher: Put a man under an MRI and read Kipling to him, see what parts of his brain light up.

    If he’s a conservative. If he’s a liberal his head explodes.

    I believe there is the seed of a story here; one with a diabolical twist and a reasonably large audience. 

    • #13