Monday, 4 June 2012

Two poetry primers

I found I agreed with much in "La poesia salva la vita" by Donatella Bisutti. It avoids theoretical language (but not difficult poems) and asks basic (or if you prefer, fundamental) questions. It quotes extensively from a wide range of poets (Achmatova, Blok, Bly, Campana, Caproni, Kavafis, Lear, Liu, O'Hara, Queneau, Silkin, Vernon Watkins, etc). The title ("Poetry saves lives") sounds over-the-top but the book suggests that it's anecdotally true for a particular concentration camper. A pervasive theme is that words are both transparent meaning-carriers and objects/noises whose properties also carry meaning.

  • Rhythms derive from our movements, dance, and breath. On p.160-161 there are graphs showing the rhythms of an Ungaretti poem.
  • Shape and sound contribute to meaning. Onomatopeioa extends beyond words like "farfalla" (Italian for butterfly). On p.137 there are counts of the frequency of vowels and consonants in some poetry by Pavese.

Key ideas are printed in boxes. Here are some quotes (my translations)

  • the meaning of a poem is in reality a fine net of meanings that interact beneath the surface and it's really this interacting that makes us say it's beautiful, p.89
  • when there seems to be no metaphor, we've seen that the whole poem becomes a metaphor, p.96
  • everything that repeats itself with minor differences, by a curious psychological mechanism, pleases us, p.99
  • modern poetry makes much use of polysemy to multiply and also hide meanings, p.146
  • Of such obscurity this book wants to provide at least one key: abandon oneself, like children, to suggestion, to echoes, to the circles that radiate from the words, p.147
  • poetry fails to capture reality, p.227

"Fundamentals of the Art of Poetry" by Oscar Mandel (Sheffield Academic Press, 1998) also has many examples but few surprizes or insights. It's less fundamental than the other book. The nearest Mandel get to being controversial is to suggest that Keats' "The poetry of earth is ceasing never" is "a dismal failure" (p.205) and that prose poems don't exist - he's happy for poetry to be devoid of rhyme, meter, metaphor, etc, but they must have line-breaks. Here are a few quotes

  • Poetry is the branch of Literature whose words and related signs are preponderantly delivered (when written down or printed) in premeditated limited quanta, p.80
  • A prose poem is like a well-dressed nude, a square circle, or a 41-line sonnet, p.86
  • when we study the poetic history of any given nation, we quickly discover that there are years, and even decades, of poetic productivity from which nothing is prized any longer, p.191

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