Friday, February 12, 2016

Book review: Classic Writings on Poetry

Book review: Classic Writings on Poetry
William Harmon, ed. (b1938)
Columbia University Press, New York, 2003
538 pages

This is a somewhat bountiful book about the history and the nature and the practitioners of poetry. It seems to offer a point of view for every taste. It is an eye-opening primer for a new student of poetry.

In his introduction, Harmon says:
“…In none of [these] documents is poetry as such distinguished very crisply from prose…(1)
Poetry resists absolute definitions…Rhyme, for example, has been an incidental blemish of prose in many literatures, especially those of classical antiquity…in time, however, in the poetry of Europe, rhyme turned into an ornament so important that ‘rhyme’ itself virtually came to mean ‘poem’…”

But before that happened, “…during the Middle Ages…rhymed accentual verse was introduced for certain religious texts set to music, but rhyme was so alien to true poetry, according to many conservatives, that such texts were called ‘proses.’ “(2)

Indeed, poetry resists a commonly accepted definition.

Wordsworth offered this:
“…all good poetry is the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings: it takes its origin from emotion recollected in tranquillity (sic)…”

William Hazlitt (1778-1830) said:
“The poetical impression of any object is that uneasy, exquisite sense of beauty or power that cannot be contained within itself; that is impatient of all limit…”

If you can read the following quote without quivering, there is no need for you to pick up Harmon’s collection.

From Sir Philip Sidney (1554-1586):
“But if…you be born so near the dull-making cataract of Nilus, that you cannot hear the planet-like music of poetry; if you have so earth-creeping a mind that it cannot lift itself up to look to the sky of poetry…”

I trust you will join me in pledging to do everything possible to sing poetry to such of our fellow creatures as suffer the burden of an earth-creeping mind, yea, as we feel their hurt and wish them no ill, but rather the complex rapture of the sunset.

Copyright © Richard Carl Subber 2016 All rights reserved.

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