Poetry - insights into ‘the nuts and bolts’
Before we get down to discussing individual poets, why not ask
ourselves what a poet actually is? The word “poet” comes from the Greek
“poietes” meaning “maker”. In fact, maker was the older English word for
poet. So a poet is one who makes, and what he makes is verse.
T S Eliot
“Verse” comes from Latin “versus”, meaning “line”. So a poet makes
lines and a collection of lines is called verse. “Versus” also means
furrow or turn of the plough. A poet is like a ploughman in that the
lines he makes don’t follow each other, as in prose, but lie alongside
each other like furrows in a field. As with furrows the lines can be of
Another way poetic lines differ from prose is that they are closely
related to each other. This is primarily because they share a
distinctive rhythm or flow. This is usually based on an underlying
metre, which is a pattern of stressed or accented and unstressed or
They can have other similarities such as rhyming ends, internal
rhymes and other sound connections such as alliteration, (words starting
with the same letter,) or assonance, (words that have similar vowel or
Lines of verse also differ from prose in that they rarely follow the
order of words or syntax observed in prose. Lets observe this and the
other principles mentioned at work in a line from Gray’s “Elegy Written
in a Country Churchyard”. Appropriately, it is about a ploughman!
“The ploughman homeward plods his weary way”
In prose the same words would have been arranged, “The weary
ploughman plods his way homeward.” The words are differently arranged
partly because of the demands of the metre/rhythm, in this instance what
is called iambic pentametre, that is five feet or units of two syllables
each, the first unstressed and the second stressed. In this case the
stressed syllables would be “plough, home, plods, wea(ry) and way”.
Reading with emphasis on the rhythm of this metric pattern is what you
call “scanning” or “scansion”.
But there is more to it. After all, in prose all that would have been
required was the statement, “The weary ploughman makes his way home”.
That is what you would call a prosaic statement, meaning it is not only
prose, it is drab or commonplace .By his choice, number and order of
words, hoever, the poet achieves so much more.
The weary walk home is not only described, it is virtually enacted by
the monotonous-seeming rhythhm: the monsyllabic and accented word
“plods”, being also in alliteration with “ploughman”, suggests a tired
heaviness; and the both alliterative and assonant effect of the words
“homeward”, “weary” and “way” reinforces the idea of the laborious
journey home. Another poetic touch is that the adjective “weary” is used
to qualify “way” instead of “the ploughman”.
This makes the road home itself seem tired, apart from being tiring!
This device is called the “transferred epithet” (adjective). By using
these typical tools of his trade, the poet ia able to make the reader
not only think of the experience he is describing, but actually feel it
Written in a Country Churchyard
A ploughman’s furrows eventually combine to form a certain pattern
which is determined by the shape and contours of the field. So too, the
poet’s lines of verse are cast in a pattern, which is either
predetermined by the poet or developed as he goes along. The overall
pattern is called “form”.
A favourite traditional form is the sonnet,which is a poem of 14
lines usually in iambic pentametre with alternative line ends rhyming
and the endings of the last two lines, or couplet, also rhymed. This
rhyming scheme could be depicted as “abab, cdcd, efef, gg”.
Shakespeare’s famous sonnets follow this form.
Another well known form is successive quatrains, ie four line stanzas
or verses with alternating rhymes, like Gray’s Elegy itself.. But form
does not have to consistent throughout. Verse sizes frequently vary
within a poem or the entire poem could be in undivided verse, though
this is rare .
Once furrowed, the plougman uses his field to raise the desired crop
to nourish himself and others. In other words, he is more than a
ploughman, he is a farmer. Likewise, the “maker” is not just a
versifier, he is a poet who by means of his verse produces poetry for
his own nourishment and that of his readers.
In this instance the nourishment is not just of the mind, as in the
case of most prose, but of the heart, the seat of emotion, that deeper
level of consciousness with which we feel, suffer and experience life.
Every poet, as TS Eliot put it, starts from his own emotions. In
Wordsworth’s famous definition, “poetry is the spontaneous overflow of
powerful feelings: it takes its origin from emotion recollected in
These feelings also “overflow” to the reader producing a
corresponding emotional response, the deep of the poet’s heart calling,
as it were, to the deep of the reader’s. Consider, for instance, the
powerful emotional motivation and appeal of this verse by Hopkins, even
when quoted out of context:
What would the world be, once bereft
Of wet and of wildness? Let them be left,
O let them be left, wildness and wet;
Long live the weeds and the wilderness yet.
That which makes the difference between great poetry and ordinary
poetry is the poetic imagination. This is how Shakespeare, centuries
ahead of his time, described its function:
And as imagination bodies forth
The forms of things unknown, the poet’s pen
Turns them to shapes and gives to airy nothing
A local habitation and a name.
This makes the poet, in Owen Barfield’s words, “the interpreter and
part creator of a whole unseen world”. With his imaginative insight into
life and his imaginative use of language the poet leads us into areas of
experience that we would not have visited but for his guidance. As when
For I have learned
To look on nature not as in the hour
Of thoughtless youth; but hearing oftentimes
The still, sad music of humanity,
Nor harsh, nor grating, though of ample power
To chasten and subdue.
The poet’s realisation that the natural world reflects the sadness of
the human condition is so powerfully conveyed to us as to become our
own. Interestingly, the “still, sad music of humanity” is often the
stuff of great music itself.
Ultimately, a great poet seems to be seeking to achieve what the
great composer achieves in his different medium. Which is why I would
like to close this brief account of what constitutes a poet with this
quotation from Baudelaire:
“It is at once through poetry and across poetry, through and across
music, that the soul glimpses the splendour situated beyond the grave;
and when an exquisite poem brings tears to the eyes these tears
are....the testimony....of a nature exiled in the imperfect, and now
desiring to take possession of his world.”