The famous pipe. How people reproached me for it! And yet, could you stuff my pipe? No, it’s just a representation, is it not? So if I had written on my picture “This is a pipe”, I’d have been lying!
– René Magritte, on The Treachery of Images (1928-9)
Let’s start with a groan-inducing question – what is poetry?
Ah, of course. Cue the rolling of the eyes, the exasperated sighs, the impulsive ‘whys’, and all other riffs on assonance, consonance, pentameter, blah blah blah. I don’t blame you.
Here’s a simple answer then. In my mind, I like to think of poetry as a combination of two sensations – sight and sound – that, to borrow from Northrop Frye’s broader view of literature, expresses our impulse to relate the creative imagination with the material world. Shakespeare, Frost, and Du Fu may have written their poetry in wildly different historical contexts, but all three nevertheless created an essential link between the worlds they saw, and the responses (physical, psychological, and emotional) they had to those external environments, through verse forms.
But I’m going to push that question of mine a little further. In fact, let me de-italicize two of those three words, and phrase it like this: what is poetry? Or, to spell it out a little differently: what happens when we start treating poems not as expressions or descriptions – or representations – of the objects they describe, but as those very objects themselves?
There are two kinds of poems I have in mind here, and both of them have been given official (or perhaps just official-sounding) terms in literary criticism. The first deals with poetry that describes a particular material object, or to be more specific, a material work of art like a sculpture or a painting. Such poems are said to exemplify ekphrasis, or the practice of using one artistic medium – in this case, poetry or textual forms – to relate to another. In the ekphrastic sense, the poem might attempt to recreate the art it’s describing, or it may try to represent it (or become it) through its language.
Ekphrasis as a word has Greek roots, and naturally, so too does the practice: ancient Greek sculptors, painters, and philosophers interrelated works of art using seemingly contrasting or disconnected media (i.e., clay to depict paint, paint to express words, words to describe clay, etc). Probably the most famous example of ekphrasis in the English language is John Keats’ “Ode on a Grecian Urn” (1819), with its description – or representation – of the scene painted onto a Greek urn. Here’s the second stanza:
Heard melodies are sweet, but those unheardAre sweeter; therefore, ye soft pipes, play on;Not to the sensual ear, but, more endear’d,Pipe to the spirit ditties of no tone:Fair youth, beneath the trees, thou canst not leaveThy song, nor ever can those trees be bare;Bold Lover, never, never canst thou kiss,Though winning near the goal yet, do not grieve;She cannot fade, though thou hast not thy bliss,For ever wilt thou love, and she be fair!
Keats’ “Grecian Urn” was one of several poems I had in mind when I defined poetry as a particular combination of sight and sound, not least because he combines the two very directly in these lines. Certainly we’re meant to see, or envision, several pipe-players on the urn (real or represented) itself. But how can we see them with their “soft pipes” playing “to the spirit ditties of no tone?” And if “[h]eard melodies are sweet, but those unheard / Sweeter,” which ones are we really hearing – the melodies of Keats’ own lines describing those unheard melodies, or (paradoxically) the melodies that we cannot hear from the pipe players themselves? Keats must have known the answer, especially since he flirts with the immortality of the lives engraved onto the urn: the “Bold Lover” in particular has all the time in the world to love his beloved (“For ever wilt thou love, and she be fair”), because neither of them can physically reach one another – an impossible condition already established by the fact that, well, they are engraved onto an urn.
In fact, the more I think about “Grecian Urn,” the more I come to realize just how spot on Keats is with his wordplay. Look at the title of the poem itself – our approach to both the “ode” and the “urn” depends fundamentally on how we interpret the preposition that links them: “on.” If we read “on” as “about,” as one might well do colloquially, then clearly we’re going to read the ode simply as a description; it will certainly try to re-present the urn in poetic form, but it will never become the urn itself. But if we read “on” as “upon” – that is, as a physical “on” (e.g. the book is on the table) – then the ode becomes engraved onto the urn, and the lifeless pipe players suddenly find their “unheard melodies” sung into life by our act of reading (or even more presciently, listening to) Keats’ lines. With these dual interpretations, both of which I believe are valid and worth raising, in mind, perhaps it’s not surprising why “Grecian Urn” has come to earn the praise it has. At the very least, its influence has proved to be quite lasting, with W.H. Auden and William Carlos Williams in particular creating several excellent poems in the ekphrastic vein: see, for instance, Auden’s “The Shield of Achilles” (1952) and “Musée des Beaux Arts” (1938), and Williams’ “Landscape with the Fall of Icarus” (1960).
There is a second vein of poetry I’d also like to consider here, and that’s the kind of poetry that goes one step further by actively matching shape (i.e., lineation and structure) and meaning to material form. It’s usually referred to using a number of evocative terms, from “concrete poetry” to “shape poetry” or “visual poetry,” but the fundamental concept is the same: the poem attempts to become the object through visual form and semantic meaning. A more traditional example is George Herbert’s “Easter Wings” (1633):
Lord, who createdst man in wealth and store,Though foolishly he lost the same,Decaying more and more,Till he becameMost poore:With theeO let me riseAs larks, harmoniously,And sing this day thy victories:Then shall the fall further the flight in me.My tender age in sorrow did beginneAnd still with sicknesses and shame.Thou didst so punish sinne,That I becameMost thinne.With theeLet me combine,And feel thy victorie:For, if I imp my wing on thine,Affliction shall advance the flight in me.
Wikipedia’s entry on concrete poetry shows the poem as it was originally printed across two pages, in an arrangement that better evokes the stanzas’ “winged” forms. Reading the poem as printed ‘normally,’ however, manages to express the same sensation of flight, with a natural progression in each stanza from grounded faithlessness and emptiness (“Decaying more and more, / Till he became / Most poore / … / Thou didst so punish sinne, / That I became / Most thinne”) to exalted joy in companionship (“With thee / O let me rise /… / With thee / Let me combine”). But Herbert’s lineation achieves this effect at the same time that his word choice connotes flight. The ‘funneling’ in shape that accompanies the speaker’s own transformation mimics the effect of a bird or other winged creature flapping its wings, just as the speaker himself manages to fly with his companion. The last line of the first stanza – “Then shall the fall further the flight in me” – communicates that transformation both visually and semantically: naturally his “fall” from grace has spurred him to take flight, but so too do the ‘sinking’ lines give way to expanding lines with rising vowel sounds (note the aural progression in the second stanza from “Thou” and “punish” to “thinne” and then up to “combine,” “advance,” and “flight“).
These days, concrete poetry can feel less like poetry and more like a visual gimmick or clever graphic design (or are they really the same thing?). It’s a valid criticism too, as the sense is that shaping poetry into deliberate forms sacrifices one’s attentiveness to sound; in other words, it’s much harder to recreate the object of a concrete poem when that poem is only read aloud. But that’s precisely the kind of issue that drives back to the question I began this post with: what is poetry, after all? And how can poetry, among other artistic forms, connect what is to what we think, is?
Lastly, I’ve been trying some concrete poetry on my own, with some embarrassingly awful attempts. I’ll end with one of the better ones.