And this reminds us that there are two important ways in which a rash formalism in poetry bastardises that genre. One is in the actual obsession with appearances, deliberate or occasioned by an unconscious mis-appropriation of the modernist syntactical pattern and another is in the direct uses to which language is put- the extent or lack thereof of the ‘defamilarising achieved through the imaginative and charged use of literary tropes; their succession or distribution within the poem; the extent to which signification is widened beyond or narrowed down to merely the surface level of the text –this last is, of course, very much intertwined with profundity of thematic delivery. Most poets fall very short in the first consideration of syntactical brevity or shoddiness; they descend to plain prose in a poetically failed effort at an approximation of the language of everyday speech. In the second consideration of a thematic felicity to contemporary realities the same failure in rampant, rather sadly or sometimes there might be an effort at a lofty, worthy subject but the impact is dulled by a shortcoming in depth of language; some poets become, in this way, merely ‘topical’. A falling short in either direction is common, or a success in the one and a failure in the other. The poem becomes a cancellation of that Yoruba adage, “the word is an egg” – if we approximate the ‘word’ with poetry as a unit of signification with meaning and import just like a word. This symbolic egg is then empty inside as far as most contemporary poetry is concerned. A diseased egg that is rotten within or barely edible but that will hardly become a live chick. “There are eggs and there are eggs”; we end up with a rotten egg, foul and nauseating!
Wordsworth believed that what might otherwise descend into plain prose can, by throwing “a colouring of imagination” over it, shine with the light of the spheres. What would be the use of stars in broad daylight? But with the proper ‘ambience’ a star becomes a “little diamond in the sky” to borrow from a popular nursery rhyme. It is the cultivation of that ambience and that craft, which the careful poet has to work at ceaselessly in repudiation of a hollow form; ‘form’ - that accursed pretender to the throne of poetry appears in multifarious shapes. It could appear as, first, the contrived ‘stanz-ring’ of what should otherwise be arranged in prose pattern; as end-rhymes, internal rhymes; as representational objects – a bottle, a cross etc - which have no bearing or logic to theme- especially in that poor thing, experimental poetry. The worst aggravation of form will be found in most present-day avant-garde poetry – especially those kinds that incorporate childish sketches to augment an absent sense. And we should note that modernist poetry actually started out as avant-garde, so it is not that the avant-garde must necessarily descend to the level of banality prevalent in contemporary times. It can actually be novel and original and inspiring if it is allowed to develop in that direction.
Not to digress too far afield, the main thrust of this argument is simply that substance is subsumed under form in today’s poetry. There is a mimicry of the ‘free verse’ of modernist poetry, towards an approximation of everyday speech, without that ‘colouring’ over of imagination needed to differentiate it, or that profoundness as far as the thematic thrust is concerned, especially a thematic thrust having a bearing to the malaise of our times. Sometimes contemporary poetry, in its mimicry of the modernist, breaks down into plain prose syntactically, or handles the subject in such a manner that it becomes narrative prose arranged as poetry, as verse, no less – light or heavy! It is such that the contemporary poem, in the main, rest so much on obese form as to crush meaning and import till both disappear completely. The subject matter of most poetry today is banal indeed. The crime is compounded in the avant-garde, where all pretensions to meaning or import are completely discarded for the sheer intoxication of form. Again we should not depart too much from the main thrust of the argument here, namely that form supersedes profundity of expression and, substance- in terms of theme- in contemporary poetry. It has been made clear that such deficient formalism is not only escapist but also ritualistic in ‘appearance’ or outer shape.
Sentinel Poetry (Online) #41
INTERNATIONAL JOURNAL OF POETRY & GRAPHICS...Since 2002 ISSN 1479-425X April 2006
Editor: Amatoristero Ede