What does poetry represent?

To ask this question is pointless, I give you that. Yet it’s like wondering what the meaning of art is and why man started painting on these cave walls back in the day; you can’t help it! I suppose the suitable answer would be “why ask?” as we can’t possibly come out with a satisfying explanation (although brain specialists and memory experts will tell you that everything we let out of our minds, like when we express ourselves on paper, on canvas, on cave walls, relieves our brain loaded with too many memories). That theory states that what has been let out can then be erased from the inside of our heads, and thus create room so that we may start hoarding again. But I am going off topic, this is not the point of my post – not really. What I would like to do today is going on an expedition to try and penetrate the fascinating land of poetry.

When we look at, say, Wordsworth’s two-part Prelude – to take a barely ever mentioned master of the poetic landscape (yes, I tend to like unsung heroes, how unusual) – we associate the purpose and benefits of poetry to childhood memories. What the poet put on paper there concerns his remembrance of happy events that occurred during his youth. Is poetry a way to reach back to a long gone blissful time, or is it simply about telling and sharing tales? I think both aims are at stake in this case, and what Wordsworth also seems to have to deal with is regret. To me, the sadness in Wordsworth’s writing has something to do with powerlessness, either his own or human beings’ in general. We are powerless to regain what we have lost over time, like years and dearly departed, and powerless to make plans for the future because we don’t know what it’s made of, and it really scares us. What is left for us to work on is the present, but we are as powerless to manage this one as we are with the others, since we are too busy complaining about our powerlessness. So we feel sorry for ourselves, and we write poetry.

That’s how I feel when I read Wordsworth’s poetry – don’t get me wrong, I love being depressed by others’ poetic worries – and to be honest, poetry is about feelings and emotions, so I can’t be completely wrong. When I say poetry is about feeling, that encompasses both how the author and the reader feel. I believe poetry is a successful combination of the two. Here, for example, Wordsworth tells us anecdotes about his happy-go-lucky childhood and how looking back at it now makes him realise how nice it was to be carefree, how quickly these moments fly and never return. Carpe Diem. Seize the day. Maybe his poetry is beautiful because I feel sorry for him, maybe he reaches his goal as a poet because I once felt what he expresses in his verse. Fairly, I don’t know how poetry works. But if it involves compassion, Nature, grief and sorrow, joy and happiness, I think I might have found some meaning to it, which may just lie in enjoying your reading, enjoying the moment.

Aren’t these great poets powerful!

Words’ music

I remember one day during our poetry workshop when Leanne O’Sullivan asked us to come up with our poem. Valentina, an Italian close friend of mine, brought her poem, which originally was in Italian, and which she had translated into English for us to understand. She read it aloud to us – the English version, of course. Then we unanimously begged her to say it in Italian. We couldn’t grab a word of what she was saying (well, I had the advantage here of my Frenchness, my mother tongue being a daughter of Latin – just as Italian and other Mediterranean languages are – so I could get a few things). We nevertheless kept in mind some of her English translation, to have something to hang on to. Yet we needn’t know the story she was telling; the musicality of her poem was enough. It was like a trance; we got carried away by the sounds which were likely to signify something to us – or maybe not, but that’s no problem, we just kept listening. What we received that day was a wonderful gift; but I am certain no one in the classroom could explain why – with words. It was a musical pleasure.

Maybe we, miserable French people oftentimes unable to speak another language correctly, are more used to appreciating the quality of an art piece simply by listening to its music. Sounds, melody, chord, tempo, rhythm are extremely important to us, as – taking the popular example of radio songs – we are bombarded with foreign music (mostly anglophone, obviously), and are then incapable of getting the meaning of the words, sentences, verses, chorus, etc. We did have language classes though! But the subtlety of a language that isn’t your native language takes years to get in touch with. And the only thing you can do is to freely enjoy your helplessness…

This is why I would like people to try the experience of being led by the vibration of an unknown – or perhaps just not fully mastered – language, through the poetry of a great French author, Jacques Prévert. Every school child has learnt at least one of his poems, along with those of Arthur Rimbaud, and the songs of Georges Brassens. Prévert’s poetry is music to my ears, so I hope you’ll enjoy it as much as I do. Let yourself go.

 

L’école des beaux-arts

Dans une boîte de paille tressée

Le père choisit une petite boule de papier

Et il la jette

Dans la cuvette

Devant ses enfants intrigués

Surgit alors

Multicolore

La grande fleur japonaise

Le nénuphar instantané

Et les enfants se taisent

Émerveillés

Jamais plus tard dans leur souvenir

Cette fleur ne pourra se faner

Cette fleur subite

Faite pour eux

A la minute

Devant eux.

Jacques Prévert

The robin

A very short post that speaks for itself – to weight the very long one of two weeks ago – just to share a bit of my writing. Poetry, as Leanne O’Sullivan would put it, is like swimming in the ocean and never knowing when you will reach the shore. And she said that talking about reading poetry, so you can imagine what it may be like to write poetry! Is it more like safely sailing on a boat, holding tightly onto a buoy – because you are in terra (rather mari) incognita – or more like treading upon a soil you are so glad to finally encounter? It can be all this – and all this simultaneously. Here is my short poem inspired by the fauna that peoples my terrace, in the town centre of a rural country, where life is peaceful and so enjoyable.

 

The robin

Look how its gracious moves counterbalance its birdy clumsiness

The grey feathery ball hops around parading and

Majestically displaying its red gorget for me to see.

It harmoniously chirps in response to the hustle and bustle

coming from the street – the downy hushed soprano.

It is pecking now the tiny crumbs I threw earlier

but it remains suspicious and fearful, torn between

the agreeable and the dangerous.

Tittering and tottering. Enjoying and dreading.

The embodied equilibrium flies away all at once.

robin

Stepping in the familiar unknown

Wallpaper book and leaves

SHE AT HIS FUNERAL

They bear him to his resting-place —

In slow procession sweeping by ;

I follow at a stranger’s space ;

His kindred they, his sweetheart I.

Unchanged my gown of garish dye,

Though sable-sad is their attire ;

But they stand round with greenflies eye,

Whilst my regret consumes like fire!

(The Works of Thomas Hardy, 10.)

When I came across this poem, I immediately realised how I underestimated Thomas Hardy’s poetry. I have always known him through his prose – Tess of the d’Urbervilles, Jude the Obscure – and so his poetic talent hit me with full force. Chronologically I am still right since, although he started writing poetry before wiring fiction and has always considered himself a poet, he nevertheless monthly published his stories before dedicated the rest of his life to his first passion. The reason he eventually did so is because he got so cross with reviews of his last two books afore mentioned that he decided never to write novels again and consecrated his ill-appreciated talent to writing poems. Have his poems been so powerful and significantly brilliant if he had continued writing prose at the same time? I am not sure of the answer even if I sincerely doubt anything could have hindered his enlightened path as a man of letters and of genius.

Unlike what we may think, poetry has to do with physicality, not with intelligence. In other words, it is about what we can see, hear, feel, smell. In fact, poetry is everywhere within us and outside in the external world; and actually, poetry is how we feel, it is what we can or can’t see, it is what we would like to hear, it is the memory of that smell we had forgotten until now. As Leanne O’Sullivan keeps reminding us in our poetry workshops on Wednesday afternoons, ‘poetry operates from the neck down.’ And even if our senses and gateways are located in the upper part of our body, the true work begins down there, in our guts, our hearts, our goose-bumped limbs… I understood that when I started reading The Works of Thomas Hardy, and I fully grasped the meaning of those words when, turning the tenth page, I fell on ‘She At His Funeral.’ What is said (I definitely don’t affectionate this kind of straight-forward dull terms) in this poem is so completely relevant, and true, and sincere, and pure (one should really consider staying silent in front of poetry)…

Once again I know I am rambling on this again but art for art’s sake CAN be good, and I think poetry should be dealt with in this way only, although applying guidelines to imagination sounds rather restrictive. But I maintain my point and I’m sure everyone remembers answering silly questions about a text you just read like: « What is the author trying to say? » As if the writer attempted to tell you something and failed, or as if ALL he/she expresses in his/her writing could be summed up in a few sentences – or even summed up at all! Can’t we just taste the melody of the words, the symphony of the sentences put together in a stanza or scattered in free verse? Can’t we simply feel in our bones the strong hold of the poet’s talent as he confronts us with his fancy? Can’t we see the lively images, the speaking similes the hand of the writer put down on paper for us to contemplate?

Of course poetry is vast and sublime – in every sense of the term –  and we want to climb the mighty mountain using tools we have used before and which we know will help us reach the top without falling. But does risk always have to be a negative undertaking? Why should we always want to understand and analyse? For example in the poem above, what we are familiar with is the pattern: short verses of eight syllables, very metric rhythm, crossed rhymes… These are a comforting presence, reassuring you by admitting that you are not climbing on your own, barehanded, or swimming in the middle of an ocean you don’t know the boundaries of, never hinting at when you will reach the shore – if you ever reach it. But listen to the lamenting voice of the poem, feel the distress of the speaker, watch all these people similarly dressed in black… Isn’t it wonderful to let our senses wander unfettered? Our lives are inevitably ruled by codes; those we fittingly create for ourselves to comply with and those dictated by the environment we live in. Therefore don’t let any more poison our sight, regulate our ideas, bias our judgement; sometimes simply allow yourself to feel with no ulterior motive. Just breathe, be there, enjoy! I know that sounds like instructions for mindfulness practice but maybe, yes, maybe we should learn to be mindful at times – and learn not to be at others.