A poem is a strange creature in the modern world. Language, thought, and idea are now transmitted primarily through print, and are ingested in silence through the visual medium of reading. But long before written language was even imagined, poetic rhythms and cadences formed an essential means of carrying particular stories and thoughts across time and distance in a relatively stable form. A poem was an oral mnemonic device, an arrangement of sounds that the pattern-recognizing brain found pleasurable, relatively easy to recall, and repeat. Poetry developed as an oral container for stories and ideas.
Now that written language has been developed, and mechanical print has made the practice widespread, words and language can be locked in place in a form that is transmitted from mind to mind across time and distance. We read precisely what our progenitors wrote, the words in exactly the same order, even if the sounds are not in any particularly memorable arrangement. The starkly compelling visual component that language took on in writing and print steamrolls the more subtle dance of sound on which we once relied.
A poem on the page is a script held in a reliquary—a container contained. When we encounter a poem on a printed page the tendency is to treat it as we would any other written character, and read it with our eyes and brain. Looking in through the glass of the secondary container, reading the silenced words, we may be imagining the sounds, to some extent, but we don’t experience the poem. Like so much in life, we imagine living instead of doing it. No wonder there is a tendency to feel like something is missing.
I don’t mean to imply that there is anything wrong with the evolution of language into written form; it’s just what has happened. I’m interested in noting and exploring the effects and opportunities brought about by what has happened.
The reliquary is right here in front of you. Caged in print under glass a world of wonder awaits the sacred technician who learns to unpin the old jeweled box, open the dry-hinged, squeaky lid, and speak the poem aloud a few times. Try a few variations of style, shout it, whisper it. Listen to how the poet pronounced the poem, if you can. Get out the dessicated relic and rehydrate it with your breath and energy.
Let me warn you in advance, this practice will bring you quickly to another topic that needs to be explored: “how come I hate most of the poems I come across.” We’ll get to that. Stay tuned. Meanwhile, try reciting a few more poems until you find one that hits paydirt. It’s so worth it.
Art and Practice
Don Freas is an artist, writer, and poet in Olympia, Washington.