What Is Poetry, and What Does It Do?

Leslie Odom Jr., from left, Phillipa Soo, Lin-Manuel Miranda and Christopher Jackson appear at the curtain call following the opening night performance of "Hamilton" at the Richard Rodgers Theatre on Thursday, Aug. 6, 2015, in New York. (Photo by Charles Sykes/Invision/AP)

The kerfuffle over Vice President-elect Mike Pence’s run-in with the cast and audience of “Hamilton” provokes me to raise another issue: I won’t go to see “Hamilton.” I don’t like rap in any form, even in the sterile, commercialized version in the popular musical. Poetry elicits powers of mind more intense and elevated than quotidian thought, and it does so by forcing us to think of poetic rhythm at a higher level. By contrast, rap imposes an unchanging sing-song rhythm that does nothing to provoke us to think in this way.


In poetry as well as non-verbal music, regularity (of meter, rhyme, voice-leading) exists to create expectation. Without expectation there can be no surprise, and it is surprise that awakens our higher powers of mind and evokes a sense of wonder.

There are many aspects to poetry, but the one that lends itself most readily to analysis was the subject of Book Six of St. Augustine’s De Musica, the first treatise (to my knowledge) asserting the existence of a hierarchy of numbers including, at the peak, “numbers of the intellect.” I argued some years ago in First Things that a red thread connects Augustine’s treatise on poetic rhythm and meter to the scientific revolution of the 17th century and the discovery of calculus in particular.

Augustine asserts that some faculty in our minds makes it possible to hear rhythms on a higher order than sense perception or simple memory, through “judgment.” What he meant quite specifically, I think, is the faculty that allows us to hear two fourteeners in the opening of Coleridge’s epic:

It is an ancient Mariner,
And he stoppeth one of three.
“By thy long grey beard and glittering eye,
Now wherefore stopp’st thou me?”

Read by a computer’s text-to-voice program, this will not sound like what Coleridge had in mind. A reader conversant with English poetry intuitively recognizes the two syllables “And he” as a replacement for the expected first syllable in the first iamb of the second line. The reader will pronounce the first three syllables, “And he stoppeth,” with equal stress, rather like a three-syllable spondee, or a hemiola (three in place of two) in music. Our “numbers of memory” tell us to expect ballad meter and to reinterpret extra syllables as an expansion of the one expected. The spondees in the second fourteener, moreover, grind against the expected forward motion, emulating the Mariner’s detention of the wedding guest.


The subtle (and sometimes not-so-subtle) rhythmic shifts in Coleridge’s poem force us to reflect on the content. There are innumerable examples. Consider Keats’ sonnet on first reading Chapman’s translation of Homer, a version contemporaneous with Shakespeare that employs ballad meter (for The Iliad) and iambic pentameter (for The Odyssey). It begins:

Much have I travell’d in the realms of gold,
And many goodly states and kingdoms seen;
Round many western islands have I been
Which bards in fealty to Apollo hold.
Oft of one wide expanse had I been told
That deep-brow’d Homer ruled as his demesne;
Yet did I never breathe its pure serene
Till I heard Chapman speak out loud and bold:
There are two distinct meters: a quasi-dactylic imitation of Homeric meter in the first line, alternating with iambic pentameter in the second. Even if the reader is not aware that the meter of the odd-numbered lines evokes Homer’s own Greek meter, the contrast between the two evokes ancient vs. modern, the world of heroic legend vs. modern imagination. Keats’ achievement here is breathtaking.

Or consider Shakespeare’s Sonnet 116 (“Let me not to the marriage of true minds admit impediments”), which claims: “Love is not love which alters when it alternation finds,” and then intones: “Love’s not Time’s fool.” With these two spondees the rhythm comes to a dead stop, and time ceases to rule: We are left with love’s metrical triumph.

Of course, even sing-song can convey powerful poetic content if it is employed ironically. A favorite example is one of Heinrich Heine’s last poems, which declares that his mind will continue to pursue his public even when his body is in the grave. His mind, he tells the reader, dwells in your heart like a house kobold: “Stets weht dich an sein wilder Hauch/Und wo du bist, da ist er auch.” More or less: “His savage breathing weighs on you/And where you are, why he’s there, too.” The flippancy of meter and rhyme set off the uncanny content.
There are countless examples and the reader no doubt will supply many others. A lot of bad poetry is taught in the schools, to be sure: Edgar Allan Poe, or Matthew Arnold. Most of today’s high school students will struggle with sonnets of Shakespeare or Keats. But the goal of poetry is not to be achieved without struggle. The great mathematician Felix Klein said that his proudest achievement was to translate several verses from Schiller’s ballad “Ibykus” into Attic Greek as a high school student.
How such devices elicit higher powers of mind from us is a mystery, but not entirely so.
Listen to infants babble: there is a rhythm to their babbling before there are words. Long before they understand what they are saying, babies learn the rhythm of adult speech and emulate it.
Philosophy of language spends too much effort looking for “meaning” and too little trying to identify purpose: We are less concerned with the perfect logical clarity of our speech than with where it is going, where it takes us, and how it conveys what we think and feel to those whom we address. The German term “Sinn” (the cognate of “sense”) translates as “meaning” in the dictionary, but conveys a sense of intent and will, not simply “meaning” in the mere contemplative sense. Viktor Frankl’s famous book (Der Mensch auf der Suche nach Sinn) is better translated as “Man’s search for purpose.”
Poetry propels a thought to a conclusion, employing rhythm and rhyme to show us where an idea is headed and when it achieves closure. Great poetry requires us to think and think again about what we have heard, and hear not only with our ear, but with our mind’s ear. Great poetry opens our mind; advertising jingles, greeting-card verse, and rap do no such thing.
No doubt someone will accuse me of hostility to African-Americans for speaking ill of rap. Rap is a very small part of the African-American contribution to popular culture, though. The only worthwhile popular music that America has produced came from black musicians. The black spiritual is the first truly American art form. The musical tradition of the black church has produced many of the best artists in their fields–from Aretha Franklin to Kathleen Battle, without doubt the best coloratura of her generation, far better than (for example) Joan Sutherland.

That is why I won’t see “Hamilton.” I have no time for rap. If Moses came down from Mt. Sinai and rapped the Pentateuch, I would read the Targum.



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