What is Poetry?

An Essay by Christopher Lewis

Poetry: what is this exalted mystery? How is mankind shaped by poetic experience?
Is it as essential to our existence as the acts of waking and breathing? Or do we wake and breathe in order that we may experience the fullness of our existence, which we enter in moments of poetic intuition?

One might approach the question of poetic theory, and the history of poetic theory. This is the history of thought itself: a history of philosophic development, nothing short of fascinating. On the other hand, any attempt at poetic theory must fall short even of a feeble sketch of the principles at work.

History itself emerges out of poetry. The history of a people, of the native American, ancient Celt or Greek of Indian, begins in legendary antiquity with the mysterious origin of man which is poetically expressed and poetically experienced: the song of Orpheus by which stones lifted themselves from the ground and built themselves into cities; the Vedic hymns; the first utterance of God through which Creation began. That original poetry is magical, incantational, ritualistic. The poetic experience continues to have an echo of that power.

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I. Poetic Experience

That exaltation when we are unexplainably moved by poetic thought – what is it?

Poetic experience. Not the
sweet aftertaste in writing;

the expanded sense of existence
when you walk out in the morning.
Fog has frozen itself on the naked branch.
And cobwebs in ice and frost gone to seed

in delicate skeletons of tall grass:
world remade in white. And you see it.
No thought. Knowledge rolls into you
like the power of rising invested in the sun.

- from “How to Write Haiku (if I Could)”

It is the ability to enter poetry that makes a poet. It is an ability to awaken suddenly to the overwhelming reality of beauty and tragedy.

Poetry does not begin when one sets his pen to the paper. Rarely does a poet succeed in his first attempt to record such an experience. He learns skill from study of poets and from practice, and he develops a unique style through his own struggle and failure to express the shreds of his vision. It is not easy even to learn to trust the authenticity of one’s own voice.

Social conventions force us, often subconsciously, to learn to speak in a manner that will be accepted by others. While to a degree this is necessary, it teaches us to interpret our thoughts before speaking, and therefore to speak in a language foreign to that in the hearts. To speak honestly becomes a difficult task. The same kind of social expectations often ruin one’s first attempts to write poetry, as we try to imitate someone else’s voice.

Walk until I hear the ocean breaking, believing
in a voice I’ve never heard, my voice.
“This is not it,” I said as though to someone.
“I am the voice of fifty million years
of the mountain ranges of this region broken in half by the bay…

… you are still in me, voice, brought out only with a lifetime of hard work.
Yes, you compiled great sagas out of the intimate sounds of the
rain and splashing wings of fallen quail,
calligraphy definite as the sharp undersides
of steep roofs drenched with wet oak leaves, until
I speak in a new voice the children understand…

…But what has still to come is singeing my throat. Voice!
At least tell me what to do…

…One voice, you beat against me,
embedded in heartbeats. What am I saying?
Can I do this? This must be the last song.
Just poetry, just echoes of revelation.
Just writing, just a false start.

Voice!

- from “There is No Hidden Waterfall and Exaltation”, in the collection, Fields Notes: Green Gulch Farm and Zen Center, 1980.

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II. Poetic Thought

It is important to understand poetic thought in terms of its content. The poetic form, the metrics, rhyme, or any other adornment of verse should be chosen only as it accords with that content.

Poetic thought is to be distinguished from philosophical thought; it is a more mysterious, more ancient wisdom. The content of poetry is metaphor. This is where the meaning of one word is “carried over” and applied to another thing, while something altogether new is implied. Transference of meaning is not to be underestimated; it is the mythical act of the legendary poet-priest. It is the transference of the power of things, the power through which things came into being: the power of meaning. It goal is metanoia, the transformed mind that results from the revelation of the deeper meaning of things.

But language itself is metaphoric, as can be seen in the attempt to translate a word into another language, and especially a word in the context of a translated poem. Does one translate according to literal meaning or according to intended meaning? Both will not likely translate into another single word.

Anyway, the etymology of any word will trace its meaning through translation from earlier languages and thus reveal metaphors in the very meaning of the word. This pursues the word into antiquity until one arrives at the mythology of some original language, Greek Celtic, Hindu, Semitic. One arrives at mythology, so full of images of the breathing world, with the “foot” of a mountain, the “mouth” of a stream, the “hands” of dawn. Here anthropomorphism implies a deeper relationship between the world and man than exists between the world and the man we seem to think we know.

The study of the early Greek philosophers before Socrates often becomes an exhaustive search for entire philosophies locked in the meaning of one word: physis [“matter”, but in a fluid, not a static, state: “physics” in the ancient understanding of it]; alethea [“truth” in the sense of, literally, “unhiddenness”]; or, most significantly, logos [“word”, or, at the same time, “language”].

Indeed, it seems philosophy developed as an attempt of the reasoning mind to understand an older wisdom. Might not ancient philosophy be described as a commentary on religious poetry? Perhaps the extended Homeric simile was the inspiration for interpreting whole stories of Homeric myth as similes themselves. This kind of expanded simile, known as allegory, identified the characters and events of the myth with the elements and movements of the psyche, the “soul”, according to the principles of idealistic philosophy.

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III. The Music of Poetic Thought

Free verse exists for a reason. But it is in danger of outliving that reason, and becoming a disease that threatens to kill the power of music in poetic thought. Too much modern verse lacks any cadence, even in the pattern of thought. It is no coincidence that such “verse” seems merely prosaic. The new Formalism is a reaction against the excess of free verse. Nevertheless, it is not easy to force the syntax of modern English dialects into the strict scansion of classical meters, which were built for the language structure of Greek and Latin, and still retain the kind of natural flow in poetic thought that will influence the future shape of our language. The greatness of Dante for Italian, and of Chaucer and Shakespeare for English, was in a lofty use, a “high style”, of the normal vernacular. The future of our own poetic language lies most likely in some combination of classical metrics with the freedom of newer verse styles. Yet poetry must insist on some sense of music.

Verse originates in song. West European song, dominated by the ballad form that grew out of the liturgical Latin chant, tends to be simple in form. Anything more complex in Western literary tradition is usually classical; that is, it is a descendent of pre-Christian Latin and Greek verse forms. This is the origin of blank verse (regular unrhymed meter). Most verse forms that come ultimately from Latin poetry tend to be very regular, with rhythms that do not change much from line to line. They originated in singing styles which, whether lofty and dignified on the one hand or plain and pretty on the other, were simple and repetitive in melodic structure.

The exception is sometimes in the lyrical poetry of Horace and Ovid, where line lengths and meters vary within the stanza. The effect is that of a unique melody, repeated in every stanza. But this melodic structure does not seem to originate in Latin song; rather it is an imitation of ancient Greek lyrical poetry.

Greek lyrical poetry did indeed originate in song, in hymns to the gods accompanied by lyre and flute. And although the lyrics of many later secular lyrical poets whose names have come down to us may not have been written as music, they were written in imitation of melody. We know that Pindar’s odes were sung and danced by choruses during the sacred festivals to the gods. Even the regular iambic line was originally accompanied by a flute. The hexameters of epic poetry were chanted. If we believe the convention depicted in the body of the Homeric narrative, where Homer illustrates the bard at work, the epic poet filled his meditative pauses with preludes and interludes on his lyre. When Hesiod claims to have been taught the vision of the order of created things by the Muses, we know at the very least that he imagined a rhythm that could be danced as well as sung.

Literary history assigns the union of poetry and music to the distant past. In fact, folk songs, working songs, and military marching songs never went away. In formal literature, however, the actual singing of poetry remains only as a convention. The rhythm of poetry became a spoken rhythm. Accent became syntactical and rhetorical, but without the heightened accents of melody.

Greek and Latin, despite a common origin, seem to have displayed a wide divergence in the musical ability of the language itself. We are speaking now of the cadence of spoken language, which is artificially simplified when cast into verse. And there is no way to know how either Greek or Latin sounded in the streets in normal conversation; the one language is no longer living, the other has changed its vowel sounds and its very accentual nature. But it is clear from texts, both prose and poetic, that Greek had a flexibility that Latin followed syntactically but could rarely find in its cadence. As a result, the verse forms of the Romance languages descended from Latin, though they can be very pretty, tend to remain confined within the limits of a certain regularity.

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The English language, though, was born from the turbulent confluence of French, a Romance tongue, and Anglo-Saxon. Apart from the grammatical tangle that is forced on our school children, it must be recognized that the rhythmic structure of the ancient Germanic languages, especially as it was high-lighted in Anglo-Saxon alliterative poetry, is a world away from the gentle rhythms of any Mediterranean tongue.

Chaucer established French rules for English poetry: metrics determined by the syllabic accent of recognizable Greco-Roman “feet”, and rhyme. His English had the elegant flow of French, not the wild, erratic swagger of Anglo-Saxon chant. The anonymous poet of Gawain and the Green Knight and Pearl showed mastery of both kinds of poetry, but his influence was not permanent. Spencer brought Chaucer’s verse forms into modern English, where they stayed.

The fact remains that there are few real masters of rhyme in the English tongue. The language does not have the easy facility of rhyme that exists in Romance tongues. There are not enough grammatically determined common endings to words, as determined by rules of verbal inflection, for example. The cache of rhyming words is therefore very limited. It is a marvel that it is accomplished at all in English; but the ballad singers, whose descendents still exist in popular music, kept the art alive, despite the clumsiness of their syntax to make it so. The delightful effect of old English ballads shows how the simplest music can make language do what it would not otherwise want to do, and proves, thereby, the power of poetry.

Though there are other fine practitioners of rhyme in English, especially among the Romantic and Victorian poets, there are no other real masters of the art. Even the Shakespearean sonnet does not demonstrate the translucent power of language in rhyme that we see in Chaucer and Spencer. Shakespeare is unequalled in English blank verse, where the metaphysical dimensions of our language are heard as nowhere else. Only in the mouths of his characters in the early comedies (and in Romeo and Juliet) do we find rhymed couplets, light and easy as they are, that approach the skill of Chaucer’s. For rhyme to display its muscle, an almost prophetic linguistic finesse must be present. The rhyme must be the word that culminates not only the poetic line, but is the climax of thought as well. The poetic line with which it rhymes, should, likewise, rhyme in thought; there should be a rhetorical parallel between the two rhyming lines, that fully justifies the rhyme. When this is successfully accomplished, the rhyme enhancing the magic of metaphoric thought, rhyme is a bell chiming with harmony of meaning.
The only poet in modern times to have truly mastered rhyme to the highest degree is Yeats. He returned poetry to its original incantational power.

The English language has its own rhythms, in the turbulence from the clashing Anglo-Saxon and Romance linguistic features. Its natural poetic structure cannot be entirely dominated by Romance grammar and syntax. The complexity of its sound lies in an odd mixture of consonants and vowels, fighting for accentual attention. The syntactical rhythm of thought in modern speech, meanwhile, is fairly simple, with little alteration. This is a feature of the Anglo-Saxon, where poetic variety was provided mainly by the insertion of elaborate qualifiers, adjectives and adverbs.

But while Anglo-Saxon verse was ruled by the force of alliterative half-lines, modern English also inherits some of the dominant assonance of Romance tongues. The undeniable influence of assonance shows beautifully even in the Middle English Green Knight poet and, astonishingly, in the alliterative Morte D’Arthur. And yet assonance, the rhythm determined by vowel sounds, could never have the impact on English that it did in classical prosody, where the ordered prolongation of vowels determined the accent. Still, the musical influence of assonance even within modern meters determined by syllabic stress-accent was beautifully proven by Keats, for example. Assonance remains as much a part of the language as the continual echo of the tendencies of Romance language, deeply embedded in English, to yield to rhymed couplets and quatrains.

In a word, ours is a strange mingling of languages still trying to find its own music. Thus the experiment, primarily American, of free verse. This is an attempt to allow thought to find its own rhythm and music, in poetic phrases of unequal length. Despite the criticism of classicists, it has proved itself with amazing facility in modern poetry.

A line of free verse often represents a single phrase of thought. The following thought is suggested by the one before, rather than forced into any artificial melody. The effect is sometimes most akin to ancient Hebrew verse, except that Hebrew thought was always expressed in couplets, with rhetorical links between every parallel set of lines. Free verse abandons even the attempt to form thought in couplets. Whitman’s verse in particular set out to consciously imitate the rhetorical force of the Hebrew prophets. Whitman even conceived himself to be the self-proclaimed prophet of the new American.

Nevertheless free verse remains verse, remains poetry in the sense that lines of thought retained a sense of rhythm, if not in scansion, at least in thought. It can allow a certain freedom of thought that is natural to the initial poetic experience, or of the first sketched attempt to express that experience. Many possibilities began to unfold, practiced by many poets, from the long rhetorical line of Robinson Jeffers to the constant musical experiments of W. H. Auden. The best poets began to listen more carefully, and even with a sense of wonder, both to the complex rhythms of normal spoken speech as well as to the uninhibited rhythm of their own thought, set free to wander and soar.

I do not believe the influence of free verse upon the language of English poetry, or at least American English poetry, can be underestimated.

At the same time, wading where there is no rhythm at all, thought will suffer, will fall and drown from lack of breath.

Poetic thought, even while it uses the same language, is not the same as rational thought. Its structure, and therefore its rhythm, is not that of prosaic common speech. Rhythm holds a secret power to build thought and launch it toward inspiration. Even good speech writers understand the necessity of building rhythmic thought for rhetorical power.

The possibilities opened by free verse are not made more promising by abandoning verse. More is possible than simply the arranging of thought in lines. Listening for new rhythms in language, one can discover thought that is intensely rhythmic, but with a degree of conversational freedom. The greater and more natural the rhythm, or combination of rhythms, the deeper the intensity of thought, springing toward an unexpected climax.

There remains a difference between talk and song.

A poet at the turn of the twenty-first century has access to verse styles of all ages. In spite of this, he is perhaps more limited than any poet growing up within one tradition which he could fully master, like the ancient Celtic poet:

And you, beardless, with your whole burning soul
today for the first time sit at a druid’s feet
with such an intense, unnamable desire
to know the mysteries of our sacred lore,
kept by our priests in the language of poetry!
This is how you will have to learn to sing
the ancient poetics of enduring traditions
inspired poetics, higher even than knowledge,
liturgical in the measured power of chant,
the metamorphosis of thought itself:
lifting the entire concentration of your mind
to its source, pure and brilliant as the sun
which sees, in soaring bliss, the unfolding vision
of all the ages, in perfect comprehension!

…Three things a singer of histories must know:
every story since antiquity,
the style and rhythms of the recitations,
and all the meanings contained in every tale.
Historians, therefore, are called ‘wise leaders, guides’.

Three classes of poets: historian, bard, and druid;
and the Archdruid is responsible for all.

Three things a bard must know:
the lists of triads, and the stories they contain;
genealogies of gods and kings;
and the prophecies revealed in earth and sky.

Three things a bard must learn to read in the earth:
the speech of stones, and of rivers, and the language of trees.

Three things a bard must learn to read in the skies:
the flight of birds, the language of the clouds,
and the stories that are written in the stars.

How all things strive and grow beneath the moon
in the bright half of her month, and the darkest
parts of her calendar, he observes,
under the fixed revolutions of the stars
suggestive of those thoughts of divine order
which a clear mind is able to discern
with the faculties the gods have placed in our nature,
as when our enlightened ancestors
moved the great stones into circles and trilithons
in an ecstasy of contemplation.

These are the things a bard must know.

And the druid
has mastered knowledge. His measured words of power
raise storms, call spells, deprive men of speech,
move the hours and centuries, to pass
the unspeakable borders into paradise.
Only to him is given the art of writing.
Letters will not blind him to immediate knowledge.
All stories in his far-ranging memory,
songs of waters, writings of earth and sky,
he understands the intended use of letters
and their sacred combinations: poetic knowledge
given by inspiration to the heart.

- teachings of Bran the Archdruid in the epic poem Weapons from Paradise, Books III and XI.

If one is a true poet, he is hungry for knowledge. The tradition of the modern poet is not limited to modern thought. Modern thought is the most impoverished of all, precisely since it rejects tradition. The tradition of the contemporary Western poet is the literary tradition of all the ages. He should study it. He should not be ignorant of the unequalled accomplishment of Longfellow at the head of the American literary tradition. Throwing open the door of the American consciousness to world literature, Longfellow not only almost single-handedly established the respectability of the American university, but he made our own language sing in ancient and classical meters so flawlessly as to seem natural (The Song of Hiawatha in the meter of the Finnish Kalevala, and Evangeline in Homer’s meters)! One should understand that the enormous influence of Pound and Eliot at the beginning of twentieth century free-verse literature would not have been possible without their mastery of polished metrical style. One should study and understand how their thought is driven and heightened by the rhetorical force of their rhythms.

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IV. Poetic Theory: Language, Logos, and Theoria

Poetic theory becomes a historical study with Socratic commentaries in the text of Plato’s Dialogues, and with the systematic cataloguing of Aristotle’s Poetics. Before that, we see poetic thought in the philosophies of Heraclitus’ logos and the great unifying “One” of Parminides. Much in Pythagorean theory could be applied to poetic theory, especially as it relates to thought and music at a time when the poetry was still music. Mathematical theory applied to music in Euclid follows Pythagorean thought. When we speak today of mathematical theorems or musical theory, we forget that “theory” to the Greeks meant theoria, a glimpse into the mind of God as revealed in universal order. Mathematics, music, astronomy and geometry, the quadrivium of classical education, being four aspects of the one same knowledge, sets in place the universal superstructure of ancient poetics.

Platonic poetics struggles with the tension between the ideal of Divine Vision and all the distortions of the ideal due to ignorance and misrepresentation. In the dialogue Phaedrus:

There is a form of possession and madness, of which the Muses are the source. This seizes a tender, virgin soul and stimulates it to rapt passionate expression, especially in lyric poetry… But if any man come to the gates of poetry without the madness of the Muses, persuaded that skill alone will make him a good poet, then shall he and his works of sanity with him be brought to naught by the poetry of madness.

After condemning the poets to death in his imagined ideal Republic because of their scandalous tales about the gods, it seems Socrates was seized by this madness himself. Of course, this was the day he sat near his dearest friend by a stream, in the shade of a tall tree fragrant in full bloom, on the thick grass with the music of the cicadas to inspire him to his most exalted description of the eternal Vision of Beauty.

In Greek mythology, a sacred fountain was believed to have sprung on the slopes of Mt. Parnassus. It gave the power of divine knowledge to anyone who drank from it. The poets especially revered the idea of this sacred fountain, which was said to have been guarded by the Muses, the goddesses of inspiration for the nine arts. The epic poet Hesiod, in the beginning of his Theogony, which sang of the creation of the world and of the pagan gods, sings that the Muses appeared to him, kissed him and gave him to drink of these waters while he watched sheep on that sacred mountain; and that he was then filled with divine song.

Such myths honor the sacred tradition out of which poetry emerges. Lyric poetry has its origin in divine hymns, sung in the ancient modes. According to another story, the god Hermes made the first lyre and gave it to Orpheus. The power of Orpheus’ song exalting him above what is permitted for mortals, the gods assigned him a tragic fate: he was torn apart by frenzied women during their Dionysian revels. The lyre floated across the sea and was found on the shore by Terpander, the first lyric poet.
Except for the fragments of a few hymns, Greek lyric poetry has already been secularized by the time we associate these lyric modes to historical poets.

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We come across this tradition of divine inspiration again in the early Christian era. This school of poets is not yet well known in Western literature, yet their influence is monumental. All of them are recognized as saints, all of them attributed with miraculous inspiration: the Syrian Ephrem, and the Greek poets Romanos and John of Damascus, and, later, Symeon the New Theologian. The Latin hymn-writer Ambrose is better known, but his influence in shaping Western lyrical poetry cannot be emphasized enough. Ambrose is said to have invented the short quatrain, so well adapted to Gregorian chant, immensely popular for a thousand years before giving birth to the primary lyrical form of Western secular poetry, the rhymed quatrain.

Poetic theory finds itself subject to profound transformation when it approaches the work of the Byzantine sacred poets. On the model of the most elegant and complex of ancient lyrical forms, the Pindaric ode, they erected new melodic forms, brilliant in intensity of thought, and of highest inspiration. They thus represent the culmination of everything ancient poetics could offer. At the same time, they stand at the source of the literary tradition that has come down through the ages to us.

These are the poets who stand closest to the source of inspiration.

Greek poetry was in decline in the late antique era of Alexandria. It was a scholarly age, in which ancient thought and art was studied and classified. There was very little that was new and creative in inspiration and art. Yet just as philosophy underwent a complete transfiguration with the early Greek Fathers of the Church – who are now receiving recognition even in the West to have been the most brilliant and highly educated men of the ancient world – so also sacred hymnography blossomed in the genius of new musical forms.

The Pindaric ode was a complex group of lines of varying meters following an original melody. The melody might vary over several stanzas. Once the ode [literally, “song”] was set in the stanzas that comprised the strophe, it was repeated exactly in an anti-strophe. These were followed by a concluding epode in which any new alterations in the melody presumably served the purpose of resolving both the melodic and poetic theme.

Romanos introduced his kontakia [“chant”, again in the sense of “song”] with a short prelude introducing the musical and poetic theme, then established his original melody in the longer and more complex stanza of the ikos. Any number of stanzas following repeated this melody line for line. These kontakia were highly dramatic, often introducing characters in dialogue as in a stylized play. They were deeply theological and rich in poetic content. Their performance in the great church of the Holy Wisdom in Constantinople must have been the pinnacle of performance art, like hearing an aria in a sacred temple.
The structure of the canon, which reached its height with John of Damascus, was more complex still. It was constructed of nine odes. Each ode was introduced with an irmos [“link”] that linked the poem’s subject to Biblical themes. The melody of the irmos was copied exactly in a group of following stanzas, the troparia. Then the next ode was introduced by a new irmos with more troparia. The melody was usually a variation of that in the preceding ode; the melodies of each of the nine odes were slightly unique. The nine odes typologically followed the progress of nine songs from the text of Scripture, beginning with the song of Moses, through the songs of the prophets, and culminating with the song of the Mother of God, which was the fulfillment of all the songs from the Old Testament. The thematic unity of the whole composition, musically and poetically, was, in the hands of John of Damascus and a few others, outstanding.

The building block of church chant was the troparion, a short stanza of simple melody and simple language, but usually of great theological depth of meaning. Both the kontakia and the canon were composed out of individual troparia, each in their own way. Ambrose of Milan found the simplicity of the troparia ideally suited to the genius of typological thought in Latin. By contrasting one simple thought with its opposite or compliment in the following line, allegorical tropes were made to yield lofty visions built out of very simple thoughts. Two such couplets forming each quatrain, Gregorian chant, as though by a ladder, climbed the allegorical levels of Biblical figures toward a glimpse of Paradise.

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As with Nicene Theology, the root of this vital transformation in poetic thought is in the transfiguration of language itself. Struggling to express inexpressible truths and inspiration, theologians experienced in the illumination of the mind [Greek: nous, “Intellect” in the most intuitive and spiritual sense, and often described as “the mind in the heart”] dove into the unknowable depths of language and emerged with words and phrases that now had meanings never conceived before. Physis, “nature”, root of our words “physics and “physical”, applied to the nature of the Holy Trinity, mysteriously revealed consubstantiality. Hypostasis, literally the basis of things in the sense of what lies at the foundation of existence, in the greatest ontological shift known to thought came to mean the Person of Godhead. It was the active Uncreated Personality of God that was the foundation of existence! Words applied to the Godhead received from the Godhead new meanings – and not simply as an artist might apply a new color to a sky, but only as Deity could reveal a new sky beyond our feeble comprehension.

Platonic idealism, even when it allowed for the possibility of ecstatic vision, the Vision of Beauty, never entered into the Power of Logos. Although the universal order and perfection of ideals represented by word and language was identified ultimately as God the Logos, he remained a god of the created order, simply because philosophy was not able to see beyond what was created in the beginning, and therefore not able to distinguish it from the Uncreated. Even the gods were created, and the only thing to exist eternally was primal matter in its unformed state.

Beyond both the visible an invisible creation, no glimpse into the active realm of the Uncreated was possible until the Logos became fully man.

This itself was impossibility to the Greeks. Logos existed in the perfect World of Ideas, which certainly influenced the temporary forms in this imperfect world of things always striving to become the Ideas. But the Idea could never be perfectly incarnate in corruptible matter. The two worlds, Spirit and matter, for them, were forever separate. Like most pre-Christian thought, the Greeks blamed the material world for all evil. Gross flesh was the prison-house of the soul. God, in all the light of knowledge, would never be born; to do so would be to enter mortality.

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The Judeo-Christian Creation is distinct, however, in affirming the original purity of the physical and visible world. The Fall was spiritual, not material: the Intellect was darkened not by flesh, but rather by pride.

But when God did indeed become fully man, it was so that man could become Godlike to a degree not possible before.

A corollary of the Platonic barrier between the World of Being and the material world of imperfect becoming was that the Vision of Beauty, the glimpse into the realm of pure Ideas, was limited to the intellect.

But when true theoria erupted in the light of the Transfiguration on Mt. Tabor, when the Uncreated Light of Christ’s Divine Nature was unveiled in the human face, and even in His garments – and even this was so unbearable that they threw themselves on the ground and covered their own faces – it was so that the whole human person, physical and spiritual, could be transformed in that light. The mystical experience of theology born of that revelation, and continued in the lives of the Holy Fathers and Mothers, could only be expressed in a vigorous poetic manner.

God Himself spoke in poetry throughout the divinely inspired Scriptures, not only in the prophets, but also in the Lord’s own parables. The fullness of understanding in the Scriptures was given on the day of Pentecost, when the Uncreated Light of Mt. Tabor, the Divine Energy of the Holy Spirit, was given in tongues of fire that illumined each one of Christ’s disciples. The vast corpus of Patristic Scriptural commentary, proceeding in the experience of the same enlightenment, is also poetic, not just in form but in its essence, built of noetic tropes, figures and allegories of great rhetorical finesse and uncannily convincing power.

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We are no longer speaking of poetic theory in the same way at all. Though using the same terms, we are speaking a new language: the language not of intellectual concepts, but of Divine Vision. Theoria, Vision of God, is the experience that comprises the content of all the poetry of St. Symeon the New Theologian. Joseph the Hesychast, a recent holy father of Mt. Athos, said that in moments of theosis waves of divine vision break over one’s being more rapidly than one could ever think to put in speech.

For that reason, the historical record of experiences of the Vision of God comes down to us as poetic song, in the tradition of sacred hymnography.

Poetic theoria is the experience and the expression of divine vision. It is the revelation of the Logos. It is the uncanny harmony of the Old and New Testament revealed in the life of sanctification. The icon of Christ holding the Scriptures in His hand, God the Word holding the Word of God, the Word that was in the beginning that spoke the first word of creation, from the first letter to the last, the alpha and the omega: this is poetic theoria. The complex unfolding of the Orthodox Order of Divine Services, from the psalms of David to the hymnography of the saints, is an expression of divine poetics from beginning to end. It is the fullness of the power of song, capable in itself of planting and watering seeds of divine illumination in prayer.

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With these Byzantine poets, and the tradition that followed them, inspiration returned to poetry as it had not existed since early divine lyricists in the time of legend; and it surpassed them.

As a result, we are still able to experience a living tradition in which the highest expression of music and poetry exist together as one art. The poetic line of Byzantine hymnography is a real melodic line. Its stresses fall on the right words and emphasize their meaning with unimaginable power. These stresses are built not merely of syntactical and rhetorical forces, but with the much brighter and delicate architecture of notes ascending and descending, with melismatic flourishes, melodic caesuras, and other features that form the eight-mode chant systems descended from Byzantine chant.

Beyond this, a study of the best Byzantine poets will yield a stunned fascination with the capabilities of language under the pressure of inspiration of a different order than is seen anywhere in Western literary tradition: God-inspired melodists, gasping, in the presence of Godhead, things not allowable for human ear to hear.

What these poets offer to the poet of our own day is the real possibility, not just imagined, of greater inspiration than we have known.

The possibilities of poetry unfold from this. It increases one’s reverence for speech as a Divine gift.
Speech becomes prayerful: not just dignified and careful, but reaching. The poet’s craft calls him not just to stimulate imagination, not just to invoke a new twist in symbolism, but to search into the fabric of the universe, to dig into language and emerge with intimations of truth, and to tremble under its power. His purpose is not to explain the mystery of language, nor to exalt it above its proper place, which leads only to delusion, but to use both language and silence to approach mystery of existence.

Prayer and the poetic experience are linked. One leads to the other naturally. By “prayer” is meant the effort of inward prayer, pure and contemplative, and receptive to the silent roaring fire from Mt. Sinai and Mt. Tabor.

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V. The Descent of Western Thought

The springhead of inspiration that exists at the source of Western poetic thought has not been lost, even though almost all thinkers of the past millennium deny its existence. Nor is the taste of its waters outdated. It is Western thought that is outdated at every turn, descending in calamitous and sometimes violent falls until it lies still in the muddy, stagnant pools of uninspired modern theory.

Medieval scholasticism was the first turning away from the divinely inspired truths that gave birth to both poetic and musical theoria, turning instead towards rationalism. Scriptural criticism was classified according to allegorical types, and Aristotelian argument stripped them of their real content. This was the age in which spiritual masters vanished in the West, while in the East St. Gregory Palamas was called upon to defend the hesychist prayer of Mt. Athos from scholastic condemnations.

Even in the late Middle Ages, poetry struggled against the current of Scholasticism. This was an age of marvelous flowering in Latin hymnography, the age of the Dies Irae and other masterpieces.

Mystics of the Renaissance, starved for a sense of mystery and knowing little other than rumors of the God-bearing teachers of earlier times, turned to Neoplatonic Gnosticism in every possible flavor, tasting the all powerful destruction of Faustian delusion which is now enjoying another renaissance.

Then came the Age of Enlightenment, and the doctrine of Reason so darkened the spiritual intelligence of man that God became a myth. The history of Western thought is a study in colossal tragedy, swallowing men’s hearts by the millions.

And yet, poetry breathes. In a thousand new voices one can hear it moving, struggling to break the chains.

72 Responses to “What is Poetry?”

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