According to Eliot:
One of the facts that might come to light in this process is our tendency to insist, when we praise a poet, upon those aspects of his work in which he least resembles anyone else. In these aspects or parts of his work we pretend to find what is individual, what is the peculiar essence of the man. We dwell with satisfaction upon the poet's difference from his predecessors, especially his immediate predecessors; we endeavour to find something that can be isolated in order to be enjoyed. Whereas if we approach a poet without this prejudice we shall often find that not only the best, but the most individual parts of his work may be those in which the dead poets, his ancestors, assert their immortality most vigorously. And I do not mean the impressionable period of adolescence, but the period of full maturity
This approximation of rhythm and syntax in verse is not idle but ultimately closely related to each other. And thus we come to ‘synaesthesia’ – sensory images as empowered by diction and as these, in turn, inform rhythm and syntax or vice-versa. Sensory images would be inherent in words appealing to the senses of sight, touch, taste, smell, hearing, feeling of action and of general sense impression. Diction that has more of such evocative appeals, and which are arranged in the ‘right order’, help to achieve the aforementioned ‘lighting’, that is, the right syntax, needed to ‘photograph’ the healthy poem. A keen ear or a good musical sense aids in arranging evocative diction to arrive at the right metre- even though it is that of free verse- and thus the right syntax. Of course ‘wit’ or the ‘defamiliarised’ expression should be interwoven into syntax. Here is one from Elliot and Okigbo respectively both fine modernist poets: “I will show you dust in a fistful of dust” and “how does one say No in thunder…” The first quote is from Eliot’s The wastelands, and the second from Okigbo’s “Silences 1: Lament of the Silent Sisters” in Collected poems. The best way to learn to do this is to read other poets who have done it successfully (was it Dryden who opines that ‘imitation is the spur of wit’?) from the ancients to the moderns: Dryden, Pope, Hopkins, Elliot, Coleridge, Walcott, Okigbo, Soyinka, Tati-Loutard and uncountable others. In short the poet’s recourse can only be to tradition.
Bad lighting or opaque diction does not, naturally, improve syntax since it is bound to remove something from wit, probably restrict the field of signification and distort overall musicality. The idea is that the poet should strive for “a fine balance”, which allows for an appeal to the rhythm of contemporary speech, without sounding pedestrian, while simultaneously achieving syntactical grace and escaping a feeling in the reader of the contrived. To take an example, here is Olu Oguibe in his collection, A gathering Fear: “I am bound to this land by blood/That is why my vision is blurred/I am rooted in its soil/ And its streams flood my veins...”! It is simple, everyday diction, strengthened in its emotional reach through its imagistic appeal as in ‘bound’ (i.e. being tied and constrained, imprisoned) and in the metaphorical resonance of the same ‘bound’ heightened by the alliteration and assonance in ‘blood’, ‘blurred’ and ‘flood’. The lexical displacement of ‘blood’ for streams in “and its streams flood my veins” is powerfully effective as ‘and its blood flood my veins’ will never ever be! Besides, the word stream, read through the lenses of M. Freeman’s cognitive linguistics and prototypical semantics (1997: 4) as refracted through Belekova’s “Cognitive Models of Verbal Poetic Images”, immediately and clearly suggests to the reader, in its archetypical coding, that the poet is in a big city and misses a small town or village; it is a cry from the metropolis to the town; “a song from exile”. The “poetic image space” of the work is very evocative and moves under a lyrical tug that is the syntactical construction, fusing sound and sense, wit and meter. That is a poet working in true modernist mode, borrowing from tradition and finding his own individual voice in a very resonant manner. Image and diction mesh with rhythm and syntax in the utterance to arrive at meaning and poignancy.
This example shows how important image/diction is to rhythm/syntax and wit/sense. A further reading of the poem simply confirms and emphasises this probing. There are numerous examples of powerful poetry like this one, but sadly, there are also even more numerous examples of bad poems out there, chief of which are the so-called prose poems, slam poetry, dub poetry, sound poetry and so on. They coalesce within the ambience of the contemporary avant-garde. Of course such forms of counter-culture are useful and necessary but fall short of what one would refer to as poetry, whatever other form of art they might be called. Luckily there is still good poetry for the careful seeker: the temptation is strong not to exclude example such as “the night is dark/the waters are deep/ and the lost child flounders/ between the dark and the deep” from Harry Garuba’s “Fragments” in the BBC anthology, The Fate of Vulture. Another example is Chiedu Ezeanah’s lines “go to water, go rivering/where the eye that looks becomes a brook” from “Song of the Musician of Waters” in The Twilight Trilogy.
It is not a clear-cut matter to decide when the syntax overshoots the mark or stays within or behind the limits of proportion. The result is usually immediately apparent though – especially when the poem is read out loud or in contemplation. It is remarkable that, mostly these days, a poet, in straining for the cadence of common speech within a syntax that is, at the same time poetic, vacillates between sheer prose and contrived inversion or versified or rhymed prose, opaque diction and sometimes bombast – disguised, perhaps, as a sentimental unrestrained political harangue. One good bad example is “Someone Bombed America” by Amiri Baraka.
Sentinel Poetry (Online) #43 - June 2006. ISSN 1479-425X
The International Journal of Poetry & Graphics...since 2002. Editor: Amatoritsero Ede