One distinction between prose and poetry is that poetry expresses much of its meaning through rhythm. In this it is closely related to music. Listening to a recording by Thelonious Monk, say, or John Coltrane the mind is drawn automatically to the frontline instruments so that you hardly register the rhythmic underlay of the drums and double bass. Sometimes, though, the mind flips and you find yourself concentrating on the rhythm section, while the saxophone or trumpet becomes the background. I like doing this. You are hearing the deep structure of the music, the snags and ripples of the drums as they keep the beat yet vary it; the bass, too, playing in and out of the rhythm, enriching it without disturbing its onward drive.
So it is with rhythm in poetry. Take T.S. Eliot’s line ‘I will show you fear in a handful of dust’ from The Waste Land. The words reverberate with cultural reference to Genesis and The Book of Common Prayer but it is the undertow of rhythm, which gives the line its power. Flip your concentration and listen to the beat:
Í will shów you féar in a hándful of dúst
Superficially, the stressed syllables may seem to have the same value. In fact they do not. ‘I’, ‘show’, ‘handful’ lay down the rhythm, but they are preliminaries, as it were, to ‘fear’ and ‘dust’ which have a slightly weightier stress, the equivalent to a drummer’s discreet emphasis. In this way ‘fear’ and ‘dust’ are coupled, forcing us to stare into the depths of our mortality with a subtlety which barely registers with the conscious mind as we read.
To take one other example, from Louis Simpson’s poem ‘In California’:
There once was an epical clatter—
Voices and banjos, Tennessee, Ohio,
Rising like incense in the sight of heaven…
The poem is about ‘manifest destiny’, the nineteenth-century American belief in its God-given right to conquer a continent, ‘pioneers’ heading ever West, until they came up against the shores of the Pacific Ocean.
From the standpoint of the rhythmic meaning of poetry, it is the first line quoted that is of interest: ‘There once was an epical clatter’. ‘There once was’ is ordinary, a story-teller’s opening; but it is followed by a cluster of clipped syllables that rush into one another: ‘an épical clátter’. The repetition of the hard ‘c’, and the inverted ‘al’/lá’ coming up against the thin, tinny ‘tt’, create in sound the clopping of hoofs, the sharp tones of a banjo played clawhammer-style. They act out the bustle, the vigour, the excitement of the waggon trains as they crossed the Great Plains. The meaning of the poem here is expressed as much through the sound of the words as through the meaning of the words.
I have made a basic distinction between poetry and prose, but there are rare writers whose prose fiction is in fact poetry, the most interesting example to me being Katherine Mansfield. She wrote poems as well as short stories, but the posthumous collection of her poems is disappointing—pedestrian verse, in fact. It is in the short stories that her poetry is to be found.
Take this string of sentences from At the Bay:
The tide was out; the beach was deserted; lazily flopped the warm sea.
‘The tide was out; the beach was deserted’, these are simple declarative sentences, descriptive in purpose. Anyone could have written them. But then you get ‘lazily flopped the warm sea’. A writer of conventional prose fiction would have written ‘the warm sea flopped lazily’ and this would have been adequate. Such a writer would not have thought of the inversion in Katherine Mansfield’s sentence, and would not have dared it even if he or she had considered it.
The inversion, however, is exactly right, and it is the rhythm that makes it so:
‘lázily flópped the wárm séa’
The stress on ‘láz’ followed by the tripping unstressed ‘ily’ which descends onto the more heavily stressed ‘flópped’, followed by the stressed but flattened ‘wárm séa’ expresses exactly the endlessly repeated dreamy collapse of wavelets on a sandy beach. The meaning of the words is clear, certainly, but the real meaning, the depth of meaning, is expressed through the rhythm. Katherine Mansfield was writing a line of poetry, and there are many of them in At the Bay, which is a great short story, but an even greater poem.
I think this is part of what T.S. Eliot meant in his essay on Dante when he wrote that ‘…genuine poetry can communicate before it is understood’. Or, to put it another way, genuine poetry, even when understood, communicates through layers of rhythm that are subliminal in their effect, yet central to the way in which poetry creates itself from the resources of language.
Listen to the rhythm section.