Is poetry dangerous?

The self botanizes.
He dreams of breeding, one day,
an odorless narcissus.
The otters are gone from the bay
and I have seen five horses
easy in the grassy marsh
beside three snowy egrets.

Bird cries and the unembittered sun,
wings and the white bodies of the birds,
it is morning. Citizens are rising
to murder in their moral dreams.

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The Starlight Night

1    Look at the stars! look, look up at the skies!
2       O look at all the fire-folk sitting in the air!
3       The bright boroughs, the circle-citadels there!
4    Down in dim woods the diamond delves! the elves'-eyes!
5    The grey lawns cold where gold, where quickgold lies!
6       Wind-beat whitebeam! airy abeles set on a flare!
7       Flake-doves sent floating forth at a farmyard scare!
8    Ah well! it is all a purchase, all is a prize.

9    Buy then! bid then! — What? — Prayer, patience, alms, vows.
10   Look, look: a May-mess, like on orchard boughs!
11      Look! March-bloom, like on mealed-with-yellow sallows!
12   These are indeed the barn; withindoors house
13   The shocks. This piece-bright paling shuts the spouse
14      Christ home, Christ and his mother and all his hallows.

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R, M, N


he purpose of this post is to begin a running list of key terms or favorite entries from the Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics (2012). I’ll begin today with excerpts or full entries from the following: recitation, music and poetry, and nature.

RECITATION. The act of repeating a written text from memory, often following conventions of elocution and dramatic representation, recitation has been central to the educational and social practices of many cultures. In Islam, for instance, Muslims are expected to memorize portions of the Qur’an, and recitation is a sophisticated art (one sense of the word Qur’an is “recitation”). In most Eur. cultures and esp. the Eng. speaking world, the art of vernacular (as opposed to Lat.) recitation of poetry played an important role in the 18th, 19th, and early 20th cs.

      The aesthetic and literary significance of recitation must be distinguished from the oral trad. In preliterate oral cultures (e.g., Homer’s milieu) and in settings that draw on oral cultures (such as the Appalachian folkballad trad.), the *performance is the text. The performer is expected to improvise and elaborate; his or her fundamental role is to participate in the creation of the poem and its meaning. Thus, the received poem is subordinate to, and dependent on, the performer (see oral poetry). By contrast, recitation, while it has an interpretive element, is not additive or improvisational; the point is to remember the written text accurately and to interpret it correctly. In other words, the performer is mostly subordinate to, and dependent on, the received text.
      Before the 18th c., well-educated boys were compelled to recite Lat. poetry and prose. After the Enlightenment, however, schools shifted their focus to vernacular langs. as they opened their doors to a broader population. By the early 19th c., schools in the Eng.-speaking world were teaching children to recite from poets such as Shakespeare, William Cowper, and William Cullen Bryant. Wide literacy also meant that moderately prosperous people could enjoy poetry at home; on both sides of the Atlantic, Robert Burns rivaled Shakespeare as a favorite because his lyrics in dialect lent themselves to dramatic recitation in parlors (see dialect poetry). During the 19th c., then, and in Europe and Latin America as well as Britain and the U.S., the recitation of poetry flourished in both the private and public spheres, reflecting and influencing the rise of the middle class. The Mexican critic Alfonso Reyes tells of such a family occasion, normally devoted to the declamation of romantic poetry, in which the Cuban poet Mariano Brull introduced the variety of *sound poetry he called the *jitanjáfora.
       In the romantic period and after, the art of recitation depended, in part, on the cult of the singular *poet. Poets became role models, and reciters not only mouthed their words but sometimes internalized their values (see absorption). This sense of identity through performance tended to favor poets whose work seemed to accord with conventional middle-class values: while it led to a backlash against figures like Lord Byron, others such as Alfred, Lord Tennyson and H. W. Longfellow ascended to secular sainthood. Recitations of poetry in schools, parlors, churches, union halls, and settlement houses were believed to have an elevating effect; to recite a poem was to express both ambition and subordination to established cultural authorities. Of course, cultural authority is never evenly distributed, and some poems passed quickly into the oral trad., becoming—like folk rhymes—subject to appropriation and improvisation; examples include Jane Taylor’s “The Star” (“Twinkle, twinkle,” 1806), or Elizabeth Akers Allen’s “Rock Me to Sleep” (1860). But poems by “great men” remained the standard in a culture of recitation that supported established literary authorities and conventions.
       The culture of recitation influenced the contract between poets and their readers, pressuring poets to write accessible lyric poems that sounded melodious when read aloud (see euphony). During the 18th and 19th cs., the most widely read poets produced works that engaged the voice and the ear. Some poems even took recitation as a topic, such as David Everett’s “The Boy Reciter” (1791): “You’d scarce expect one of my age / To speak in public on the stage / And if I chance to fall below / Demosthenes or Cicero / Don’t view me with a critic’s eye / But pass my imperfections by.”
       Elocution manuals stressed the value of both control and emotiveness as readers learned to speak in public while curbing their “imperfections.” Speakers were taught to practice articulation, inflection, emphasis, modulation, and pauses; to control their breathing; and to position their feet and hands properly. The poem was a demonstration not only of literary merit but of the speaker’s training. The link between recitation and bodily control has led Robson to link poetic meter with the experience of corporal punishment. From this perspective, recitation worked as a disciplinary measure that regulated young readers’ bodies and hearts. Many popular recitation pieces thematized self-making or “character building.” Rudyard Kipling’s “If” (1910), e.g., promises: “If you can keep your head while all about you / Are losing theirs and blaming it on you,” then, in the end, “. . . you’ll be a Man, my son.” To remember and recite such lines could be a way not merely to learn Kipling but to make Kipling’s values part of the speaker’s lived and voiced experience.
       Recitation, however, was not only a social performance; it was a feat of memory. William Wordsworth’s The Prelude implies that the self is literally made of memories; from a romantic perspective, then, memorized poems—like other memories—become integral to the speaker’s selfhood. Although many recitation pieces stress character building, many more express and elicit a longing for the past, as in J. G. Whittier’s “Barefoot Boy” (1855): “From my heart I give thee joy / I was once a barefoot boy!” In this poem, the act of repeating a *refrain is also an exercise in nostalgia and in self-assertion. To repeat a poem learned in the past is to, in some sense, recover a past self. Moreover, the practice of recitation raised, and continues to raise, questions about the nature and functions of poetry generally. When a poem is recited, what precisely is being remembered? How much depends on the text, and how much depends on the speaker?
       By the mid-20th c., the practice of Eng.-lang. recitation of poetry was in decline. Progressive 20th-c. educators sometimes called it “drill and kill,” implying that rote memorization deadened both the poem and the reader’s enthusiasm for poetry. However, there have been sporadic calls for a revival. In his intro. to the anthol. Committed to Memory, Hollander suggests that learning a poem by heart is still one of the best ways to understand it fully. He argues that, far from “killing” poetry, the act of recitation brings poems alive by engaging the voice, the ear, and the mind. In much of the world, this lesson remains fully understood.

(A. Sorby)

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