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THE art of poetry owes its great and wonderful power to the fact that it has for its medium man's faculty of speech.
Like all art, poetry seeks to re-create life in terms of its own chosen medium out of delight in that medium.
The painter sees the joy and harmony of life in line and colour. The musician seeks it in sound. The poet in words.
Therefore the word “poetry” calls up to us a double significance, and from the very nature of speech it does this more fully than any of the other arts.
We think of poetry as an attitude to life itself; showing us things which are great, sublime or significant. And so we speak of the “poetry of motion”; of the "poetical attitude to life.” Even of a "prose poem." Or again, we speak of poetry in a more definite and formal sense when we mean the expression of these things in ordered and harmonious patterns of words: in what we call verse. Here we feel something has been created out of words as perfectly as a flower or a jewel, and we cannot divide the harmony of the words from the significance they express. How close this double use of the word “poetry” lies to the very nature of speech may be seen if we consider it a little more deeply. In speech we are conscious first of what is called content"-of something we wish to say. Then we give this expression by the audible movements of utterance; and in between stands that mysterious and individual thing which we call vocabulary; this each generation accurately teaches to the next, and the power of speech which results from all these is so intimately our own, so unconsciously ours, that at last we hardly know whether we can or cannot think without words. We only know that it is through words that we limit, order and define our thoughts, till words in turn grow so charged with significance that it is not easy for us to share with others all they convey to us.
The poet is the man who does this most completely, whose mastery of words gives them an appeal so universal that it traverses time, race, class, individuality itself. And it is this “universality” that distinguishes above all other qualities the greatest poetry.
And o'erthrew them with prophesying
To the old of the new world's worth;
(O'SHAUGHNESSY.) Is there any way by which we can enter more fully and reverently into the poet's work so that we may give him the one thing he asks of us, understanding of his art?
We recognise perfunctorily the greatness of the poet's gift, yet many people are not at all ashamed-indeed they seem sometimes rather proud—to say "Oh, well, of course, I don't understand poetry and all that sort of thing; it does not appeal to me.” Some people are colour-blind; many are tone-deaf; some few are wordblind and cannot trace the meaning of a printed page, but none of these people go about boasting of their deficiencies; they are a little sorrowful, a little ashamed, and one has to cheer them up; often they try every means, however costly, to cure themselves. Some people, in the same way, are rhythm-deaf, and cannot appreciate pattern by the sense of hearing, but the majority of those who do not love poetry are the victims of bad teaching, and we ought to find a way of lifting this burden of deafness from them.
The best way would be a great revival of the art which has declined ever since the multiplication of printed books, the art of speaking verse as the poet wrote and felt it.
Words, unlike harmonies, possess logical meaning, and it is this which blinds us to the fact that many a casual reader knows very little more about a poem by letting his eyes run over and translate the meaning of the words than he would know of the music of a great song by reading the words printed between the musical staves of its score.
If we are to help people to read poetry for themselves, or if we are to venture to act as interpreters, as executive artists, standing between the poet and those who have not the leisure or taste to learn to hear for themselves, we must go through an arduous technical training.
Above all, we must throw away the horrible false tradition of "recitation," which stood self-condemned in that it never succeeded in interpreting anything but the worst, the most vulgar and meaningless of verse, because in that it could find room for the personal self-assertion which destroyed all true faculty of poetic interpretation.
This book is an attempt to set down something of the practical technical knowledge acquired in many years' study of a difficult subject.
It is very slight and very imperfect, but it may serve to help those who will go further, and it may at least prevent a certain number of teachers from involuntarily standing between their students and a love of poetry.