Friday, January 19, 2007

Why Do We Like Certain Poems?

Nick Seddon, who learned 100 poems off by heart last year, asks an interesting question in The Guardian, and has set me thinking of my answer.

"Why do we like certain poems?... What Yeats called the "singing school" is made up of all of us who value poetry and want to remember it and make sense of it in our lives. But when we say we value a poem, when we say it's our favourite poem, can we say why?"


Cailleach said...

Ooh, interesting reading that little gem, Rob. And when I go to answer it I find it quite hard to quantify. i'd be hard pushed to name favourites, because I like so many poems for differing reasons. Sometimes it's the way it's been constructed, with the lines and the words and rhyme and rhythm just so, other times it's because it is quite free and reading and re-reading has unlocked some smidgeon of understanding about something I've not understood before.

It's a poser, Rob, no doubt - and I realise I haven't really answered the question - I'm still thinking!

Ben Wilkinson said...

In relation to this, I'm reminded of Don Paterson's excellent TS Eliot lecture, which I read not long ago. Here he states that within poems

"there's a deeper unifying force at work. Our defining heresy as poets is that we know that sound and sense are the same thing. Everyone else thinks them merely related. The acoustic and semantic properties of the word are not even interchangeable for us; they are wholly cosubstantial."

Here, I would extend what Paterson says to include not only poets, but also good readers of poetry. A good poem is the marriage of sound and sense; it is the perfectly pitched delivery of something (ideas, emotions, etc) that gives the poem a slow power so that it not only resonates long after reading, but also becomes "a little machine for remembering itself".

Rob said...

I was thinking in terms of music and trying to think of how I could express the idea that when music and content converge in a way that I find myself drawn completely into a poem's world, then I can say confidently why I like a poem. Then you reminded me of Don Paterson's commemnt, Ben, which says it pretty well.

I also like poems which seem to meander about aimlessly but then suddenly cohere in a startling way. The coherence must be made to seem inevitable but impossible to see coming until it happens.

Cailleach said...

Oh I do like that idea, Ben, of " a little machine for remembering itself". That makes it seem to me that poetry is like a meme. Is that what good poetry is, a meme that will insinuate itself deep into your brain :)

"The coherence must be made to seem inevitable but impossible to see coming until it happens." Tough methods by which to judge a poem. Really good way of putting it though.