Saturday, November 8, 2014

A Theory of Poetry

Original context of Painting:


This first poem, Painting, seeks to express a philosophy of poetic composition:


Let us paint the hours of the day.

Morning is swimming pool blue
Tinctured with blown ash,
Pink gloaming
Touched by wisps of smoke;
Noon, phosphorus exploding
Blindingly, silently;
Dusk, iron oxides
Diverse as vegetables;
Night, plush sable,
Milky white, the moon.

Each word is pigment squeezed from a tube
Onto a palette of infinite possibilities.

Meaning would be unremembered
But for a picture.

Experience is meaningless
But for a symbol.

Deft brushstrokes write freshly.
Words are left to dry.

Among the particular attractions of poetry is its special capacity to create a unified experience or image so that the poem achieves an iconic or symbolic quality.

This iconic or symbolic quality is achieved in part because poetry is laconic, spare, and sometimes minimalist. In a poem, every word matters.

Often as well poetry is focused on communicating a unified experience or on constructing an image. In this respect, a poem possesses a likeness to an icon or a symbol.

Poems as icons or symbols function as the vehicle for a larger meaning beyond the poem itself.

The poem Painting invokes this iconic or symbolic function of poetry:

Meaning would be unremembered
But for a picture.

Experience is meaningless
But for a symbol.

Moreover, the poem relates poetry as icon or symbol to the dependence of human cognition on the image or symbol. Human understanding—unless we are speaking of pure intuition or mystical experience—is mediated by the image or symbol.

Consequently, one of the purposes of poetry, according to the philosophy of composition set forth in the poem Painting, is to create an icon or symbol that stands for a meaning larger than the poem itself.

The following two poems, for example, attempt to realize this philosophy. The Mountain and The River are intended to be iconic and symbolic. (In order to sidestep copyright issues, I selected my own poems to illustrate my ideas.)

Climbing is like lifting a weight, hand over hand, using a pulley. Marathoner in a trance, you ascend rapidly as time slows to near motionlessness.

Trees rustle, rice husks pushing back and forth to dry. Desiccated brush, smallish bundles, tumble downward, roll about. Bamboo thickets, agitated brooms, shiver.

Dislodged by your feet, tiny stones hurtle, soaring arcs increasing in velocity downhill, click-clacking glass marbles knocking together, gradually fading, scattering into silence.

At this height air is rarefied fire. Atop the mountain birds hover overhead, transfixed by the sun more brilliant than a sorcerer’s spell, flanked by clouds, bright balls of electricity.

Strong gusts sand your face roughly, a stone. The wind is cold, the eye of an ascetic just returned from a visit to the dead, fiercely gazing, an eagle clutching a small animal.

The vast plain below mirrors the sky, wet paddies flashing crystal polygons, jewelry turning side to side. Far into the distance, short hills squat, huge emerald droplets, whilst the river, a glittering bracelet, empties into an ocean of light.

Breathless, you are a broken wheel on the wayside. You will climb the mountain again, spellbound by the expenditure of controlled energy, delighted by the sting of sharp gravel underfoot.

The title, “The Mountain,” signals the symbolic character of the poem, insofar as the mountain is a major symbol in world culture. Mountains are Judaeo-Christian symbols of the spiritual journey, for example; Mount Sinai, Mount Horeb, and Mount Thabor are all sacred sites of Judaism, Christianity, or both. Biblically, they are places of encounter with the Divinity.

Similarly, recurring throughout the Cold Mountain poems of China is a preoccupation with natural beauty, of which the poet’s description of his experience of the vistas of Cold Mountain, traversed by Confucian, Taoist, and Buddhist streams, is an allegory, understated, of the spiritual journey.

The central motif in The Mountain is emphasized in two ways particularly. First, the poem narrates the ascent up a mountain, thereby extending the poet’s account. Second, the poem dwells on the ascent using vividly descriptive details—“agitated brooms,” “bright balls of electricity,” “huge emerald droplets.”

Simplicity heightens the dominant motif. Undistracted by sub-plots or digression, the story of the ascent manifests the Aristotelian unities of time, place, and action (not that the unities are required).

Readily, we perceive in the ascent a metaphor for a universal human experience, that of the journey toward a goal, not always spiritual, at least in part often so, always involving some degree of difficulty and notable expenditure of effort, blessed with success, sometimes. This journey recurs throughout life: “You will climb the mountain again.”

When I wrote The River (below), I had in mind a symbol of the world in time. (The reader will no doubt interpret the poem differently.)


Yesterday the river was lapping at my feet like an old man tapping out a message about time flowing downward from hills remote as hawks.
Today he rises slowly, a momentous pulse pushing seaward, fed by faraway pistons.
At the waterside where air is fresh as a pear, a sweet mist glides forward like a perfumed wrist.
Islands of floating plants drift, joining into continents, rearranging in serpentine tattoos.
Beneath the surface glittery like so many exploding firecrackers, fish swirl, shadowy limbs of an athlete smoothly cutting back and forth.
Denizens gather at the riverbanks in spoonfuls, sprinkling laughter farther than droplets shot from spinning umbrellas.
Distantly a lizard pokes its head into the sun, jerking left and right, vainly divining a future obscured by brightness.

Similar to The Mountain, The River dwells on a motif salient in world culture. Many great civilizations originated along fertile riverbanks—Indian along the Indus and Ganges, Chinese along the Yellow and Yangtze, Sumerian along the Tigris and Euphrates, Egyptian along the Nile, or Roman along the Tiber—so that rivers naturally invoke mythic attributes. The river in the poem is a symbol.

The River narrative is far more diminished than that of The Mountain. For a brief, ostensibly uninterrupted period of time, the poet describes his visual panorama of the river, almost magical in its unreality.

The River, like The Mountain, dwells on drawn out, vividly descriptive details in order to highlight the central motif, the river—“air is fresh as a pear,” “serpentine tattoos,” “so many exploding firecrackers.”

Implied in the first and last lines is the river as a metaphor for flowing time. The first line says that yesterday the river was lapping like “time flowing downward,” that is, from the past. The last line describes a lizard jerking to and fro, unsuccessfully attempting to divine the future.

Thank you, reader, for sharing my poems and my ideas about poetry.

Originally published in IthacaLit (September 27, 2014)

Cafe 1771, Pasig City, Philippines


  1. In case you're wondering, the book I'm reading is Peter Smith, An Introduction to Godel's Theorems (2007).


  2. “Anecdote of the Jar” illustrates the philosophy of poetic composition in “Painting”:


    I placed a jar in Tennessee,
    And round it was, upon a hill.
    It made the slovenly wilderness
    Surround that hill.

    The wilderness rose up to it,
    And sprawled around, no longer wild.
    The jar was round upon the ground
    And tall and of a port in air.

    It took dominion everywhere.
    The jar was gray and bare.
    It did not give of bird or bush,
    Like nothing else in Tennessee.

    Wallace Stevens (1879-1955)


    Plausible interpretations:

    This poem is about the relationship between man and nature, man being represented by the jar.


    The poem has its roots in John Keats’s Ode on a Grecian Urn. On one level, Anecdote is a commentary and comparison of Stevens’ own roots, a kind of critique of the poet’s homeland identification versus what one might have found in England, historically speaking. John Keats, as sort of figurehead for quintessential British Romantic poetry, had his London and the high society art-critic world, the sonnet, strict meter, etc. Contrastingly, the American contemporary poet (at the time Stevens wrote the poem) had Tennessee (a slovenly wilderness), a model for a much different art and cultural milieu.

    ...Note how the poem speaks on so many different levels. You can imagine yourself being the jar. You find yourself on a hill surrounded by the great outdoors. Suddenly, the wilderness rises up, transforms. Something opens up for you, this little glass jar of self is now surrounded by an entire dominion. (As an aside, a friend of Stevens has said that the word “dominion” was intended by the poet as a double entendre for the famous “Dominion Wide Mouth Jar.”

    The indication of the jar being placed in the Tennessee wilderness refers to the complexity of human feeling in the natural world. A wild wilderness rises up. The jar is fixed, gray and bare. And what becomes of it? “It did not give of bird or bush, like nothing else in Tennessee.” The all-important “it” must refer to the jar, and the insinuation is, that even in the throes of compelling and perhaps unavoidable natural events (hurricanes, cancer, even car accidents), still we can find a way to rise above and overcome what appears to be alien and unalterable circumstances. To “not give…” but continue to strive and be “a jar upon the ground.”



  3. “Hinges” (2014) by Melissa Stein exemplifies the theory of poetry above. The poem is published below, courtesy of the author.


    You opened this door. Forced it back
    on its hinges, drove in the thin wedge, saying

    “I may need to enter at a moment’s notice.”
    But don’t you know that metal has memory, alive

    the way rising dough resists a probing finger,
    or trodden grass springs up against the foot’s imprint.

    Even flesh that retains the rare bloom of a bruise
    soon lets it go. You keep these iron plates apart

    so long they rust apart, flaking
    into the slightest breeze, and still,

    they remember what it means to rest
    against each other, folded like wings.

    The poem is about an object, hinges. It is also about more than an everyday object—it is about an object that stands for more than itself and beyond itself. Hinges in the poem stand for resistance against aggression—when the door is closed, so are the hinges, resting, “folded like wings,” and when the door is forced open, so are the hinges, “iron plates apart,” rusting, increasing their capacity for resistance. Skillfully, the author invokes other metaphors—rising dough, trodden grass, a blooming bruise—that, personified, retain the memory of their baseline state before they had been somehow agitated, or possibly, violated. So it is with hinges. Hinges, like human beings, remember their peaceable condition before they had been so forcibly disturbed.

    In the broadest sense, hinges in the poem stand for resistance against aggression, specifically, the imposition of the will of one party against another’s, and the memory of the undisturbed condition before the assault, besides. Hinges in the poem symbolize a universal aspect of human experience—no one is a stranger to the experience of resistance against aggression.