Friday, April 14, 2006

On Poetry

Back when I was an arrogant, cocksure kid in high-school (as supposed to an arrogant, cocksure eikaiwa sensei) I remember mouthing off at one of the teachers in a Grade 11 English class. It wasn't that I didn't like the teacher, understand - he remains one of the few teachers that I ever actually respected - simply that I disagreed with what he was saying. The topic in question that day was poetry, and he was trying to start a discussion on what, exactly, poetry was. So I stuck up my hand and said, "Poetry is words in a pattern." Of course that wasn't the answer he was looking for, and he proceeded to take the class down a long, boring, and pointless discourse on the nature of poetry, including such flowery assertions as poetry being akin to hyacinths (bad pun intended) or some such damn fool thing.

Frankly, I stick by my description. Poetry is just words set down in a pattern. Modern 'poets' would disagree, of course, but then they mostly produce unreadable crap that no one outside of government-supported arts communities pays any attention to (personally, I blame T.S. Eliot, as it was him started the whole free verse thing ... though actually, if you read his stuff, there is a pattern, or rather several patterns: they just keep changing so fast you're barely aware of them. More recent generations seem to have ignored this, and simply decided to chuck 'pattern' altogether in favor of clumsy metaphors and political posturing, resulting in stuff that is more accurately called 'bad prose.') Anyhow, if you want modern poetry, you listen to hip-hop; regardless of what you think of the subject matter, it's hard to deny that the best of it is constructed as skillfully with regard to rhyme and meter as anything by, say, Byron or Tennyson.

What interests me, actually, is the way in which the particular kinds of patterns that are selected for poetry seem to be predetermined by the structure of the language in which it's composed. The main criteria is that, for a pattern to be impressive, it must be difficult.

European languages, for instance, almost universally favor verse that includes rhyme (or alliteration) as well as some sort of meter. This makes a lot of sense when you consider that all of those languages, Romance or Germanic, share two properties. First, they are sound-rich (ie make use of a large number of phonemes.) Second, they all include some degree of rhythym in their languages: spoken English, for instance, has a tendency to blur together words of little importance (a, the, kind of, to give a few examples), while it exaggerates words of larger importance (or, within a given multi-syllabic word, exaggerating one particular syllable.) The rhythm always follows a sort of 'DUM-dum-dum-DUM-dum-dum-dum-DUM-dum....' rhythm, which never repeats exactly, but also very rarely includes, say, three consective 'DUM's or five consecutive 'dum's.

Property 1 - sound-rich - means that it takes a certain amount of skill to find appropriate words with a similar sound at the end (ie, rhyme), whereas property 2 means that arranging the words in a predetermined rhythym is also quite difficult.

Now, compare to Japanese. First, Japanese is sound-poor: there are only about 50 sounds in the Japanese language, and consonants are almost never found separate from vowels. Thus rhyming in Japanese is ridiculously easy. Second, rhythym: Japanese doesn't have rhythym, but rather a machine-gun like 'dum-dum-dum-dum-dum-dum' with every syllable exactly the same length. Thus the very concept of arranging words into a rhythym is basically meaningless in Japanese. The result, of course, in haiku: only the number of syllables is of importance, with that number very very small (5-7-5), thus forcing the poet to load maximum meaning into each word.

Interesting, no? And the obvious reason why poetry - like comedy - is virtually impossible to translate between languages.


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