PART 2: CRITICIZING THE STYLE OF POETRY
The formal excellence of a poem could be determined from the style and technique appreciated in the work of art.
What is an effective style in poetry?
A. Selection of Objectifying and Subjectifying Details (Images, Symbols, and other structural materials).
In the process of objectifying his aesthetic experience, the poet, who might have been stimulated by external or internal experiences, generally decides on the shape his experience will take. His imagination supplies this shape which he forthwith communicates in terms of his medium and content. In poetry, medium takes the form of words that suggest pictures, and content suggests a definite, particular situation where the images could assume significance. In technical parlance, these are the imagery and context of the poem.
1. Imagery. The system of images in the poem must create an objective center of significance for the poem. In other words, there must be a central image which is reinforced by minor images. The minor images are related pictures which help in making the central image vivid, definite, and particular. It is the main objectifying element. The central image is needed because of the demands of clarity. When there is pivotal image, the reader will find it easy to pinpoint a carrier of meaning which will become his cue for association.
The use of images is governed by the following:
a. Functional Nature. The image used is not extraneous, in that it is necessary for the objectification of an otherwise abstract idea, mood, or feeling. By its very nature, the central image serves to concretize the “point” of the poem. The minor images assist in this effort by elaborating on the central image such that the latter will become an unmistakable symbol for the as yet impalpable idea.
For example: In Frost’s “Desert Places,” the central image of a “desert of snow” is not only appropriate in the concretization of the loneliness and barrenness, but it is also effective because it prevails throughout the poem as a pivotal or recurring image which the minor image adhere to and gain significance from. The minor images like night, smothered animals, stubble, woods, and grass covered with snow, empty spaces, all define a facet of that physical emptiness of the “desert of snow.” These disparate pictures produce a complete and distinguishable picture which will become the basis for the association of meaning. It is only when the reader can see an entire picture (a gestalt) of all the images that he begins to make mental relations leading towards the comprehension of the poem’s meaning.
The gestalt from the imagery is said to be functional when it leads to an unmistakable association of meaning which when interpreted also jibes with the poetic utterance and the conventional significance of the literary and linguistic devices.
b. Logical Consistency. Minor images must not jar against the major image. They are not supposed to present a counterpoint vis-a-vis the central image to the extent that they become a stark contrast to the main image. In other words, all images must proceed from one principle of meaning; i.e., they are consistent to the logical dictates of the subject matter.
The defect in the following example lies in the inconsistency of imagery:
The ancient willow tree, bent
In a daredevil manner, prays on
The bed of sand in the womb of
There is an inconsistency in the use of “ancient” and “daredevil manner.” It would be uncharacteristic of an ancient man to assume a daredevil stance. Besides, if what the lines imply is that the age of the willow tree makes it look forward to being buried in the bed of sand, the use of “womb of Mother Time” jars against the idea of death (in the ancient willow tree) because the former speaks of birth. Unless what is being conveyed is that “oldness is youth,” and “death is birth.” Even metaphysical poetry would not get away with that in terms of forced conceits. The sample is a case of “mixing metaphors.” The writer should avoid this like the plague.
c. Clarity. Images must be vivid, picturesque (in the sense that they create recognizable phantasms), and exact. Images are said to be vivid, exact, and picturesque if they have objective correlatives in physical existence which are known to and verifiable by the beholder.
Because the poet is engaged in the “earning” of his meaning through the images, he must use those words that suggest pictures which may unmistakably be associated with the point being made by the poem.
Hardness of image calls for the recognition of something palpable and existing, or something capable of existence and participation in external reality. Figures of speech like metaphor, simile, personification, metonymy, synecdoche, and apostrophe ordinarily serve this purpose of making an image “hard,” “exact,” and “clear.”
When the evening is spread against the sky
Like a patient etherised upon a table. 1
The picture of the evening looking like a patient etherised upon the table does not only suggest its blandness but also the ennui and the moribund mood of the evening being described.
d. Harmony. When the major image and the minor image make each other clear in a vice-versa relationship where one defines the other, and both contribute to the objectification of the experience such that a gestalt is produced, the imagery is said to have harmony.
Absence of harmony can result in all types of mnemonic irrelevancy because of the confusing references and cross-references among the images. The “single-effect” of the poem on the appreciator will naturally be scuttled. “Desert Places” reflects such harmony among the images.
e. Integrity. The wholeness of a poem depends on whether there is one and only one central image, and all other images are tributaries to the major image. Their relationship is a case where the central image literally “gives birth” to the minor images and the latter bear witness to the former as fragments from the whole which makes the central image what it is --- exact, vivid, and hard.
The defect in Joyce Kilmer’s “Trees” (2) lies in the absence of a central objectifying image --- he uses three disparate images as objective correlative of the “beauty of a tree,” so that one is left to determine what the persuasion of the poem is. Is it a man, woman, or child which could best objectify the uniqueness or loveliness of a tree?
A tree whose hungry mouth of pressed
Against the earth’s sweet flowing breast
. . .
A tree that looks at God all day
And lifts its leafy arms to pray
(A Praying Man?)
. . .
A tree that may in summer wear
A nest of robins in her hair(A girl with ribbons on her hair?)
. . .
Upon whose bosom snow has rained
Who intimately lives with rain. . .(Woman-Plant?)
How can the tree be all these at the same time? The difficulty of imaging lies in the disparateness of the images. The reader has to determine which mode of loveliness among the images best objectifies the experience of a lovely tree.
2. Symbols. These may either be images or objects which have conventionally accepted significance, such that when they are used, they invariably assume an institutionalized meaning. They, too, are used for objectification and subjectification. For instance, a rose is an accepted symbol of “love.” Hence, when Burns says, “O, my luv is a red, red rose,” he probably meant his love is intense or burning (no pun intended).
Symbols vary from time to time, depending on the use people have for them. The symbol of a generation may not be the same as that of the next. A study of symbolization will take the reader as far back as Greek mythology to contemporary signs like the “peace” sign of the middle and forefinger resembling a “V”.
When they are used, symbols must be governed by the same criteria for images, since these, too, in a sense are images.
3. The Context. When the poet engages in the objectification of an aesthetic experience, he invariably thinks in terms of a situation which is most familiar to his reader. This situation --- which may be a dramatic incident, an assertion or a statement of a fundamental truth, or an argument --- is the simplest form that the experience can take. It is usually a human experience which is demanded by the subject matter and the theme of the poem.
For instance, in “Desert Places”, Robert Frost, when asserting a truth about the human condition, chose to dramatize this truth in terms of a situation where a man is confronted by an external barrenness which he later related to his condition. This incident, which bears a beginning, middle, and an end, could easily be visualized by the reader. If this situation is known to the reader, he would find it easier to associate the images and symbols with his stock experiences. If these stock experiences jibe with the significance found in the text, it is altogether possible that the reader will render a valid interpretation of the work’s point.
The poet, of course, cannot choose such a situation arbitrarily. This situation must be consistent to the demands of the subject matter as well as theme.
Ordinarily, a lyric poem uses an assertion for a context. A narrative poem uses a dramatic incident; a dramatic poem uses both types.
The context is the most recognizable mode of objectification. This is the reason for the reader’s effort in determining initially the context in which images and symbols are used. As soon as he recognizes the context, he may now be able to interpret the significance of the images and symbols as seen in their proper context.
A context which best objectifies the experience is one which presents situations textured by symbols and images that create the picture which best represents the experience being conveyed. It is a picture or image which becomes the material for the beholder to gain his aesthetic experience from.
Different moods of art, of course, present the context peculiar to their traditions. For instance, Surrealistic and Symbolist poetry may find the Realistic context, as we know it, inadequate. So, poets of these trends create their universe of meaning and try to define another reality by using dreamlike situations, fantasy, and the like.
(To be continued)
1 T.S. Eliot, "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock," The Complete Poems and Plays. Harcourt, Brace, and Co., Inc. 1952
2 Joyce Kilmer, "Trees". In fairness to the poet, the whole poem is reproduced here in full:
I think that I shall never see
A poem as lovely as a tree,
A tree whose hungry mouth is pressed
Against the earth's sweet flowing breast,
A tree that looks at God all day
And lifts its leafy arms to pray,
A tree that may in summer wear
A nest of robins in her hair,
Upon whose bosom snow has rained
Who intimately lives with rain,
Poems are made by fools like me
But only God can make a tree.
Next: Part 3 Criticizing the Style of Poetry --- Linguistic Devices