Our Book Club recently read various works by Edgar Allen Poe, including his poem “The Raven.” This led to a discussion of poetry in general and complaints about the awarding of the 2016 Nobel Prize for Literature to Bob Dylan for his song lyrics.
In contradiction to the opinion of my colleagues, I think awarding the Nobel Prize to Dylan was appropriate. I have long believed that popular songwriters were the poets of our society in the late 20th century.
Interestingly, I counted 47 recipients of the Prize for Literature since 1901 who include poetry as one of the forms of literature they practice. However, there were only two – William Butler Yeats and T. S Eliot – whom I recognized. Dylan makes three. Too bad the judges in the earlier years didn’t consider Ira Gershwin, Johnny Mercer or Cole Porter — they, too, were excellent poets.
Thinking about poetry, I have concluded that I enjoy it more than I realized. I certainly have always liked the long narrative poems of the Longfellow style, especially “Paul Revere’s Ride” and “The Song of Hiawatha.”
Beyond that, I certainly like all of Robert Frost’s poems. Each one is a classic; in total, they paint myriad images of Americana that are dear to all of us.
The current definition of poetry focuses on the aesthetic and rhythmic qualities of language to evoke nonprosaic meanings. Prose mimics the natural flow of speech, completely ignoring rhythm and meter. Rhyming is merely a characteristic of a special form of poems, one that I consider an enhancement.
Last week, my daughter Elizabeth gave a talk on behalf of the Japan-America Society at City of Asylum on the North Side. Her subject was “Beyond Haiku: Japanese Poetry in Time and Art.” She did an excellent job of tracing the evolution of poetry in Japan from the “choka” of the eighth century to today’s interest in haiku.
Haiku is highly formalized, three lines (phrases) in a five syllable, seven syllable, five syllable sequence. References to nature and seasons is common. It is also typical for a haiku to include two dissimilar images and ideas with a transitional idea linking them.
I am comfortable with the concept of contrasting images that are well presented, but it is not clear to me where the idea of rhythm and meter applies. Recognizing rhythm in such a short poem is akin to clapping one hand. Perhaps if one understood the subtle meanings of the Japanese words and heard the haiku recited, one could appreciate its poeticism.
Years ago, I took a course in Appreciation of Poetry at Carnegie Tech; the poems we read and discussed continue to be favorites of mine. “Pied Beauty” by Gerard Manley Hopkins; “Dover Beach” by Matthew Arnold; “anyone lived in a pretty how town” by E.E. Cummings — I remember and enjoy re-reading each of them.
What a shame that I have to study a poem to enjoy it. My wife used to tease me about my inability to appreciate something without dissecting it into its tiniest constituents.
The introduction to our text book states that its purpose “is to train young people in the intensive reading of literature.” Its author would be surprised to know this octogenarian is still referring to it six decades later.
John F. Oyler is a contributing writer. You can reach him at 412-343-1652 or [email protected] Read more from him at mywutb.blogspot.com.