Project 3: Ways of saying and seeing

Notes from course material (p.81-2)


  • Comes from the Greek word for “making”
  • Is a literary art using aesthetic and rhythmic qualities of language to evoke literal and figurative meaning(s)
  • Can be very challenging; few of us engage with it outside of an academic context
  • In fact, poetry and prose have a lot in common: the best of both may tell a story, and employ poetic devices and language.
  • Important to come to poetry expecting to spend time with it to understand it (this has also been my experience with viewing and interpreting contemporary art in this course)

Poetry & Theme

  • Aristotle evoked its importance in his early treatise on how to write good drama
  • A theme is an idea explored: can be something concrete and factual, a vague question, a broad subject such as travel.
  • In fiction writing/prose, theme may seem less essential than plot and character
  • In poetry, we often find a writer exploring a theme (the essential reason for the poem’s existence)
  • Theme subject matter.
    • Ie: In Frost’s poem, The Road Not Taken, the subject is a traveler reflecting on which path to take at a crossroads; the theme is that the decisions we make inevitably and irrevocably affect the course and direction of our lives.

Exercise 1

We were asked to read three poem extracts to determine how they evoke the theme of “place.”

In Browning’s The Herefordshire Landscape, the poet evokes a pure sense of place. This is evidenced by almost exclusively visual language and noun-lists meant to paint a vivid picture in the reader’s mind. There is a sense of following someone’s gaze, or constnatly scanning a scene yourself, as language first describes the nature in the background, then the evidence of human life within that background, then the sensory details of a still-distant foreground, with no full-stops in the extract and three consecutive lines beginning with “And.” While the poet conveys a sense of awe and beauty, there is no emotional weight or ambiguity in her descriptions.

In Betjeman’s Slough, the poet intends a harsh criticism of progress and its effects on a specific place. The extract is laced with bitter ironies (the poet’s invitation to “friendly bombs” to fall on Slough; the almost imperceptible transition from taut descriptions of various tinned foods to the essence of human life, our minds and breath, also being tinned) that indicate the place’s total degeneration. We don’t know what Slough was before, but by calling upon Death to “swarm over”, Betjeman makes clear that it’s lost already lost its true life and character: “It isn’t fit for humans now.”

In The Lost Land, Boland speaks about place in relation to identity and exile. The speaker’s strong sense of identification with the place he is presumably losing, separating from, as he observes it from what we can assume is some kind of departing boat, is evidenced by his strong connection to any ancestors who might have shared this experience of land (and, figuratively, identity) lost. At the extract’s close, as the speaker imagines himself drowning, possibly in grief, his (imagined) dying self repeats names “for a lost land: / Ireland. Absence. Daughter.” These terms evoke many different things, but also a keen sense of attachment, of family, of sense (the opposite of absence”), and we understand that what’s being lost here is everything the speaker knows and loves.

Poetry, Modernism & Postmodernism

  • Just as they informed the evolution of art and how we define it, (post)modern “progress” also changed poetry.
  • Historically, art/literature reflected social mores and overarching truths, as dictated by religion, progress, reason, ethics, aesthetics, science, law, language, etc.
  • The end of the 19th century saw all of this uprooted…
  • Modernism set out to render inessential the “beautiful” in art, music, literature, theater.
  • Poetry was also affected, fragmented; previously popular, utterly essential poetic conventions such as meter, rhyme and formality fell out of fashion making way for more compact, anything-goes language and form
  • T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land is a prime example.
  • Today, poetry finds itself in slam and spoken word, hip hop, grime, etc.
  • While modernism seemed to resent the very fragmentation that inspired it, postmodernism seems to take pleasure in the creative freedom it affords.
  • “Postmodernism is popular and commercial” (CAT, p.76).
    • Question: If this is true, why doesn’t anyone I know talk about it? Why do I feel so uncomfortable with this term? Is it that its effects are so woven into the dominant culture? I guess so….

Personal reflection: Modernism or Postmodernism…do I miss traditional forms or enjoy the break from tradition? 

This feels like a trick question, as I tend to feel more comfortable and more attracted to work that is free from the sometimes-cumbersome weight of convention and old-fashioned formality, but at the same time possesses some of that elusive beauty (it’s a term that keeps coming back to me; I know it’s subjective, at the same time I think there’s something to it. In art and literature, a thing’s beauty seems the magical, impossible-to-pinpoint and, in some ways, regressive quality that dictates whether or not it really worms its way into my heart) that those same constraints opened onto. I suppose ultimately I am all for the Postmodernist creative wave: I don’t have to like it all, and I feel inspired by the fact that what I do like/find beautiful could be anything at all, could defy all expectation, could be totally original, could be Beyoncé’s visual album about healing after Jay-Z’s infidelity. In making room for every/anything, I find there’s also room for me.

(Contemporary) Rap or (Romantic) Poetry?

We were asked to try to identify whether a series of poetic lines were extracted from postmodernist rap lyrics today or pre-modernist poetry from the Romantic Era 150 years ago.

  • Her untimely exit from her, heavenly body (I guessed it was a Romantic poet; in fact, it was the rapper Nas.)
  • Five miles meandering with a mazy motion (I guessed rap: in fact it was Samuel Coleridge.)
  • Victims of wordly ways, memories stays engraved (I correctly guessed rap.)
  • A dead bird flying through a broken sky (I correctly guessed rap.)
  • Drive my dead thoughts over the universe (I correctly guessed romantic poetry.)



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