Master Class Lecture on Poetry 1: What Makes a Poem

Master Class Lecture Series for Lit 14: Introduction to Poetry and Drama, Second Semester, SY 2016-17, Ateneo de Manila University

Laguna Lake, photo from ABS-CBN News.com
Laguna Lake, photo from ABS-CBN News.com

Poetry usually comes to a lot of people as rather perplexing. Many think its perceived “depth” requires special skills for unlocking. Many also mistake “mysterious,” even flowery and winding expression for poetry; feelings, or “spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings,” as we would often quote from the poet William Wordsworth, more often than not become the final arbiter of one’s understanding of the poetic. In both cases, poetry is seen as something that necessarily evades our understanding, something that must keep meaning to itself in order to be, and because it is, poetry. What is often neglected is its being a kind of imaginative language use, a moment where words, put together, are shaped to precisely transform and mean something else. This moment seems to validate the said notions about poetry: after all, doesn’t this meaning something else create “depth” and a certain kind of indirection? However, when we exclude poetry’s languageness we simply miss the point. Every reading of poetry is an experience of language, and since poetic meaning is the ultimate subject of everyone’s curiosity, let us begin this discussion by tracing back how meaning is made to emanate from poetry’s most basic unit: words. I have already said that poetry is saying something but meaning something else. When we were first taught about vocabulary, we were introduced to the two levels of word meaning: (1) denotation, the most basic level, which generally refers to the dictionary or literal meaning; and (2) connotation, the level of other meaningful possibilities. All of literature, as imaginative language use, is made to mean bearing these two levels of signification. This is precisely why, for instance, we never ended talking about short stories or novels as simply what they have narrated; they contain ideas, and these are embedded or suggested, especially in plot and action. This linguistic nature is made more apparent in poetry as it is a heightened use of imaginative language. A more compressed, condensed one where the choicest of words are placed in, as the say, the best order.  The National Artist for Literature Edith Tiempo, in her work Six Poetry Formats, properly distinguishes prose and poetry in this manner: “Whatever the substance and format, what is therefore the fundamental element that does make poetry the unique species of literary art that it is?  Fortunately, as we see it today, the question is quickly answerable regarding the bottom agent responsible and as they say, No sweat: Prose is direct statement and direct exposition, whether written in versified lines or in paragraphs.  On the other hand, poetry has traditionally been acknowledged as indirect, as structured in metaphor.” She even emphasizes: “Without structuring of metaphor there is no poetry.” The “structuring of metaphor” being mentioned by the great poet explains whatever depth or mystery may be found in poetry, for after all, metaphor, etymologically, is not only a suggestion of resemblance between two different things, but actually a representation that entails some form of “a transfer”, a leap of meaning, I say. However, we have long been impelled to immediately search for meaning in a poem—and possibly, its “lesson” or “moral” as many of us have been taught—without actually first considering the poem’s “structuring of metaphor.” Where does a reader find it then? Poems, for them to transform metaphorically, utilize images in their heightened language use. The assemblage of words in a poem create impressions in the mind that are perceptible because they recall our sensory experiences—the visual, auditory, tactile, gustatory, olfactory, and the kinesthetic. Images comprise the literal figures and phenomenon we see in the poem; they are precisely what’s in there, and what’s happening. In any search for meaning, we must not immediately strive for what may be called “higher” meanings. We must learn to linger a little. We have to start somewhere. The connotation, say of the word “mother” as nurturer works because of its denotation. The literal must cohere with the figurative, with the metaphorical, and our useful key in “unlocking” poetry, as they say, is to linger at imagery. Poems transform into meaning because of images. The image is, we must say, the most fundamental element in poetry. It is structured in metaphor, ang metaphor happens in the image. It must not only be perceived then on its face value.

 Edith Tiempo, National Artist for Literature: “Whatever the substance and format, what is therefore the fundamental element that does make poetry the unique species of literary art that it is?  Fortunately, as we see it today, the question is quickly answerable regarding the bottom agent responsible and as they say, No sweat: Prose is direct statement and direct exposition, whether written in versified lines or in paragraphs.  On the other hand, poetry has traditionally been acknowledged as indirect, as structured in metaphor.”

Let’s take for example two traditional poems from Tagalog, a dalít and a tanaga, which I have translated for you. The dalít (a quatrain with a feet of 8 per line, monorime) is a proverb that juxtaposes two situations. The first couplet conjures the image of a wound, and how a person of will would cope with its pain: “Enduring the wound/ makes bearable pain,” while the second clearly shows the opposite: “(T)he one who resists and persists/ wails at the merest scratch.” The dalít tells of two situations that oppose when it comes to the experience of the wound and being wounded [perhaps in literal battles or squabbles]; but instead of telling directly the ancient Filipino listener that one must learn how to bear one’s challenges or suffering with dignity [and not with a lot of whining and complaint], the poem, which must be commonly shared in times of strife or adversity, opted to utilize a more vicarious experience—an image! An image of wounding! It presented two possible responses to it. The literal wound transformed into something else, a condensed lesson on life’s disposition powerful enough to change perceptions, especially when times get rough. Meanwhile, the tanaga (a quatrain with a feet of 7 per line, monorime) utilizes what is called in figurative language as personification to characterize the inanimate speaker or persona of the poem. The personification process already shows the leap from the literal to the figurative [and this makes language new and unfamiliar], and it heightens the statement even more when the poem imbues the speaker with audacity, as it addresses another inanimate object in that watery world, perhaps of a fishing village: “Be warned, firm Stake/ when waves come rushing!/ I, a minute moss/ will coil on you.” In the literal level, a tension is being suggested between the characters of the poem, one that must have to do with their positions in that water world. A “minute moss” warning a “firm Stake”? If you have been to lake or seashore towns in the province, you will surely encounter stakes or bamboo poles planted deep into the waters to make fish pens. They precisely lord it over the fresh water world, and this image of firmness was recaptured by one anonymous mind, the nameless persona, who seemed to have had more empathy in the nondescript moss, which basically glut the waters. This dynamic between the “firm Stake” and the “minute moss” evoked a sense of awareness about polarity among members of a society, and what happens when towering, domineering figures seem to throw shade onto the minuscule, or as we are wont to call it nowadays, the marginalized. Mosses may be minute but “when waves come rushing,” they could conjoin with others to create a hefty weight that may coil the stake and dismantle its firmness. That sounds like a revolution to me. This very short monologue, ala-David versus Goliath, illustrates, in the connotative level, the potential of the small (and usually the many) in the face of an imperious, and perhaps, autocratic figure. In its minuteness, its being from below, the moss had the temerity to threaten the “firm Stake” because time will come that the small would awaken and be able to muster all courage to push for a final reckoning. This very old poem from lifted from an entry of the Vocabulario de La Lengua Tagala (where the earlier dalít also came from) captured the imagination of the oppressed during the Marcos dictatorship. Despite the distance in time, the tanaga spoke of the same sentiments the “minute moss” was striving to articulate. It may be speaking of the same views nowadays, but Filipinos, as was suggested by the dalít, are generally patient, as much as they are also persevering, to a fault. The belligerent “firm Stake(s)” of today, who, we could imagine, must be bearing so much accumulated moss, has to be warned, because “when waves come rushing” they might suddenly find themselves submerged deep in the waters, demolished from the very silt where they used to be firmly planted. That doesn’t need much of what we call recently as “creative imagination” to decode.

The belligerent “firm Stake(s)” of today, who, we could imagine, must be bearing so much accumulated moss, has to be warned, because “when waves come rushing” they might suddenly find themselves submerged deep in the waters, demolished from the very silt where they used to be firmly planted. That doesn’t need much of what we call recently as “creative imagination” to decode.

Another thing that could be said about imagery is that it thrives in particularity. The general or abstract is given form by way of images, is made more specific and palpable, as we may have seen in our earlier examples. Suffering was made more acute by way of the comparison of the reception of wounds, and revolutionary potential dramatized through a personified audacious moss. Imagery is description coming to life, and as images are assembled together in a poem, they bring forth, a scene, an event that comprises the lyrical experience of a poem we usually call a dramatic situation. Briefly, the poem’s dramatic situation, also sometimes called the objective situation, is what is generally happening in the poem [with emphasis on the situation, and not on the drama (in the way we understand the word today), though they are very much related, since poetry is indeed the primary form of drama; in dramatic parlance, the dramatic situation may also be described as the scene we witness in the moment of the poem; it is its staging, so to speak]. The poem calls forth a worlding of images, and they are put together to pursue a meaningful experience. The dramatic situation usually works this way: in poems, we always have a speaker, a persona, talking about something. That moment of speaking is occasioned by an experience that is supposedly suggestive of something else, as we say regarding metaphor. The persona’s moment of speaking assembles the imagery that is being put together to articulate insights or contemplations about whatever experiences. Once asked about the dramatic situation, one is basically being made to think about two questions: (1) what occasioned the speaking?; and (2) what has been worlded as the persona articulated thoughts or statements? Understanding the dramatic situation and its consequent imagery unlocks the denotative level of the poem. One cannot simply move onto any particular interpretation without unpacking the dramatic situation and image. One would see later on that the dramatic situation and its scenic assembly actually support the connotative prospects of a poem. The poem’s connotation is always founded on its denotation, as to be seen in the dramatic situation. In the dalít, a learned persona, perhaps a wise elder or a community philosopher, seems to speak about the wisdom of endurance, as an invisible public listens, being reminded of common and shared experiences of loss, pain, or suffering. The comparison of how wounds are received becomes an illustrative dramatic situation. Clearly, a lesson has been effectively conveyed. In the tanaga, a minute moss speaks tenaciously to the silent but intimidating “firm Stake.” Its “speaking truth to power,” so to speak, situates its subversive possibility in that world where systemic injustice persists. In time, injustice will be acted upon and the proud will be brought down. This is precisely what the moss warns the Stake about. The Stake, which may represent a collective’s leader, is responsible to its constituency. If a leader turns tyrannical, the way the stake is being characterized in the tanaga, people are entitled to make him answerable for it. Power emanates from the people, and this is what the “minute moss” intends to reiterate. The moss’ speaking and speaking truth to power comprise this poem’s dramatic situation (In terms of drama, we know that this is dramatic because characters in conflict were created, with one of them given the stage for a very short but powerful monologue). The event that unfolds in the poem shapes the idea it tries to articulate. The dramatic situation and its consequent images provide concreteness to the abstraction of ideas. The concretization of the abstract, as many poets and critics have already said, bestows poetry, and all art, the transformative capacity.

One cannot simply move onto any particular interpretation without unpacking the dramatic situation and image. One would see later on that the dramatic situation and its scenic assembly actually support the connotative prospects of a poem. The poem’s connotation is always founded on its denotation, as to be seen in the dramatic situation.

Another poem that may interest us in further understanding how imagery and dramatic situation work is the poet Marne Kilates’ “Python in the Mall.” It is a poem in free verse of four irregularly arranged stanzas, and comes with an epigraph (a lead-in of the poem) quoting a tabloid story. This is a very important key to what will happen in the poem, as it is clearly “inspired” by this piece of news. In an objective reading of the poem, we always distinguish the poet from the persona. This use of the epigraph may however make assumptions about the news item moving the writer to respond by way of a poem as equally valid as a persona making his/her own response to this thing he/she had read in the same tabloid. Both poet and persona are driving towards a “reading” of the story of this “serpent-like creature” that resides “in the dark recesses of a new shopping mall.” If you grew up in the 1990’s, you surely have been initiated into this urban legend tied with the rise of malling culture along the Epifanio de los Santos Avenue (EDSA). Quite recently, this lore of the “serpent-like creature” was remembered and recreated in a horror film. The story of how this creature would suddenly barge into occupied fitting rooms from secret doors and take captive unsuspecting women, only to leave them dazed in the mall’s parking lot, captured popular imagination back then. An awareness of the context makes a good unlocking of the poem in terms of denotation. In doing this, we not only establish, in the main, the occasion of the poem, which is that of responding to news, but also how the persona (or even the poet, as we said) intended to read the article, as well as the urban lore that came with it. In the poem itself, the “serpent-like creature” transforms into something else, something more abhorrent, if we come to think of it. In the first stanza, we witness how this python in the mall is born. The python, which is a “she”, “hatched in the dank/ Basements of our gullibility,/ Warmed in the gasp of our telling,/ Curling in the tongues/ Of housewives and clerks.” This creature has clearly transformed into lore as it was transcribed in the poem. The public talk—rumors, tsismis, as we call it—about her made her exist. She further finds form in the perpetration of her lore, as we see in the succeeding stanza, which also refers to details I have mentioned earlier: “We gave her a body half-serpent,/ Half-voluptuary, and a taste/ For maidens and movie stars/ Who began to vanish mysteriously/ Behind the curtains of boutique/ Fitting rooms and water closets,/ Never to be seen again,/ Or only to be found in the parking/ Cellars, wandering dazed/ Into the headlights of shoppers’ cars.” The persona, being self-aware, includes himself/herself in the collective, and expands further how everyone participates in this endeavor of scaring ourselves, of making our own ghosts in a supposedly urban and progressive world. As the creature comes alive in the imagination of the public, the python generously bequeaths onto her creators what will fill them: “How she fed on our thirst/ For wonders, fattened on our fear/ Of vacant places. Slowly/ We embellished the patterns/ On her scales and admired/ The sinuous grace of her spine.” In a way, the tables have been turned and the creature has somewhat turned into a deity of sorts, while the creators, willing prey to her inclinations. The creators of their own horror have indeed fallen victim to their own plots. This is sheer irony.

The public whose imagination was fed by mass media—in this case, tabloid news—was in a way, eaten up by its own created terror. They were hungry for more. This is what may be seen in the last stanza: “Avidly we filled our multifarious/ Hungers at her belly, and lapped/ The marvelous tales of her forked/ Tongue. And as the gleaming temples/ Of her worship rose in the midst/ Of our squalor, how we trembled/ At the seduction of her voice,/ O what adoring victims we became.” Horror is both repulsive and seductive, and as people continued the talk of the terror of the mall serpent, the more that they were engrossed in it. We could stop in our reading in this level, since there are already indications that we have already reached a decent connotative level, where the persona is basically making a very sharp commentary on how, as he/she describes it, we fill our “multifarious hungers” and lap “the marvelous tales of her forked/ Tongue.” We know that the persona reads the lore of the serpent-like creature as something to be examined, as it seems to create thoughtless believers (whom we call fanatics nowadays) out of its own invented terror. However, I cannot help but read another meaning from the lines “And as the gleaming temples/ Of her worship rose in the midst/ Of our squalor.” What “temples/ Of her worship” are we really talking about here but the temples of malling culture, of the shopping mall that created both creature and lore in the first place? While the persona is reflecting on the absurd fascination for the story in sensational mass media, he/she is also criticizing the platform by which the figure and the story have been created: consumerism. Like the lore, consumerist culture, brought about by the rise of malls, seduced the public to become mere “adoring victims,” worshipping false needs or branded frills peddled behind department store glass displays or spread across billboards. Is the marvel the same for both the lore and mall culture? Both are serpent-like, hatching in the “basements of our gullibility”, feeding “on our thirst/ For wonders,” and making us tremble “(a)t the seduction of (their) voice(s).” The historical rise and aftermath of malls along Edsa in the 1990’s—and one must note that the poem was dated January 23, 1993—is, I think, the very thing being commented upon by the poem. This is, if we really happen to linger more on the poem. There is even tsismis that such lore was only floated in the media by the competing mall-owning family.  Through his engagement with the phenomenon of the much-talked about serpent creature in mass media, “(s)upposedly the offspring of the mall tycoon himself,” the persona was able to pursue a more pointed account of how malling culture changed not only the landscape of Edsa (where traffic is something we love to hate), but also the way it reordered people’s lives and consciousness based on capitalist interests and gains. Read in this manner, the poem shows the persona as offering a discerned insight, a moment of awakening from the zombie-like collective marvel and seduction perpetrated by this culture, which one way or another has taught us the horrors of our frailties as human beings, which consumerism offers to heal through its myriad market options. Talk about retail therapy. The persona does not directly pass judgment, but roots him/herself in that collective experience. He is very much part of it, yet he awakens from it. He remembers that the collective is in a state of squalor, wretchedness. Malls in the supposed “Third World” or the “Global South”? Quite paradoxical for people who do not have much spending power, don’t you think? How damned we are to spend, spend, spend. We actually believed and internalized the horrors of the materialism we were taught to embrace.  As this is a poem, it is suggested that the spell—of both the lore and mall culture—has to be broken. And how? The persona acted out the best manifestation of rousing oneself: to finally speak and examine the ill effects of the spell. To cast another spell, by way of the poem, which is after all, language, a spell [we are initiated into words through spelling, remember]. And that made the difference. Both the persona and the serpent-like creature transformed towards the end of the poem, with the earlier offering a sharp critique, and the later changing into a figurative manifestation of that which plagues contemporary Filipino society.

DALÍT

Ang sugat ay kung tinanggap
di daramdamin ang antak;
ang aayaw at di mayag
galos lamang magnanaknak.

Enduring the wound
makes bearable pain;
the one who resists and persists
wails at the merest scratch.

TANAGA

Katitibay, Ka Tulos
sakaling datnang agos!
ako’y mumunting lumot
sa iyo’y pupulupot.

Be warned, firm Stake
when waves come rushing!
I, a minute moss
will coil on you.

Translated by Louie Jon A. Sanchez

PYTHON IN THE MALL*

A serpent-like creature has taken residence
in the dark recesses of a new shopping mall.
Supposedly the offspring of the mall tycoon
himself, the creature feeds, by preference,
on nubile virgins.

—Tabloid story

She hatched in the dank
Basements of our gullibility,
Warmed in the gasp of our telling,
Curling in the tongues
Of housewives and clerks.

We gave her a body half-serpent,
Half-voluptuary, and a taste
For maidens and movie stars
Who began to vanish mysteriously
Behind the curtains of boutique
Fitting rooms and water closets,
Never to be seen again,
Or only to be found in the parking
Cellars, wandering dazed
Into the headlights of shoppers’ cars.

How she fed on our thirst
For wonders, fattened on our fear
Of vacant places. Slowly
We embellished the patterns
On her scales and admired
The sinuous grace of her spine.

Avidly we filled our multifarious
Hungers at her belly, and lapped
The marvelous tales of her forked
Tongue. And as the gleaming temples
Of her worship rose in the midst
Of our squalor, how we trembled
At the seduction of her voice,
O what adoring victims we became.

Marne L. Kilates
January 23, 1993

*Printed here with the indulgence of the poet.

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s