Friday, August 05, 2016

`Poetry Is Sound Before It Is Anything Else'

Somewhere I found a copy of The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyám about the size of a playing card, small enough to carry in the pocket of a dress shirt. This was 1965, the year T.S. Eliot died and I set out to memorize some of his lines. Partly this was the stunt of a diffident showoff, but even then I thought filling my head with the sort of poetry I liked was an expedient way to stave off tedium. If I had to mow the lawn, I might as well keep myself entertained. So I sat in study hall with Edward FitzGerald’s luscious Victorian reanimation of a Persian antiquity and memorized:  

“A Book of Verses underneath the Bough,
A Jug of Wine, a Loaf of Bread--and Thou
Beside me singing in the Wilderness--
Oh, Wilderness were Paradise enow!”

What the hell is an “enow”? And why “were”? The archaism dampened my infatuation with the verse until I learned “enow” means “enough” and Fitzgerald needed a rhyme for “Bough” and “Thou.” The lines likewise appealed to my half-hearted wish to be a hedonist, even though I hadn’t yet made the acquaintance of the Jug and Thou. The poem’s appeal was pure sound, a music almost unburdened with sense. As Eric Ormsby says in his review of Robert D. Richardson’s Nearer the Heart’s Desire: Poets of the Rubaiyat – A Dual Biography of Omar Khayyam and Edward FitzGerald (Bloomsbury, 2016): “It was not the ‘colours’ of the verse but their music that entranced me then, a melodiousness at once exotic and intimate, as though uttered by a secret friend.” Precisely. Adolescents are especially susceptible to such sonic seductions:

“You know, my Friends, with what a brave Carouse
I made a Second Marriage in my house;
Divorced old barren Reason from my Bed
And took the Daughter of the Vine to Spouse.”

Hubba hubba, as we used to say. But don’t neglect the music. The appeal of poetry is primal, and we hear it long before we think we understand it – young readers especially. Fitzgerald’s Rubaiyat is made for reading aloud, as is the verse of his great contemporary, Tennyson. In his essay “Poetry as Isotope: The Hidden Life of Words” (Facsimiles of Time, 2001), Ormsby reminds us of something I knew at age thirteen without knowing I knew it:

“Poetry is made up of words and words are sounds. Poetry is sound before it is anything else. This is easy to forget. Indeed, this little fact is more usually forgotten than remembered by poets themselves, and it is why much of our contemporary poetry is so unmemorable.”

1 comment:

sunt_lacrimae_rerum said...

This is a fantastic post. I read a lot of poetry before I bothered to think about what it all meant. I memorized "Time, You Old Gypsy Man" and "The Bells of Heaven" by Ralph Hodgson when I was 8 or 9 just because I loved the way the lines sounded. I think it was years before thinking about the meaning stuck me as a rewarding pursuit.

Poetry is ideally a life-long experience which begins with Mother Goose being read with vigor and excitement.