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Who is the better poet?
Kipling 50%
Pound 50%

Votes: 12

 The Science of Poetry

 Author:  Topic:  Posted:
Jul 27, 2001

For years now, I have been corresponding with an attractive young woman on the subject of poetry. At the risk of exposing myself to ridicule, I must confess that she is both a Goth and a pagan and adheres to all the silly romanticism that implies. At present she's refusing to correspond with me further until I retract my statement that Kipling is a better poet than Pound.

But my personal circumstances are neither here nor there, I only mention it because this long running exchange of letters has forced me to clarify my views on the Poet and his Art. If my views on this matter can help just one of the world's countless bad poets improve, I will be able to go to the grave knowing that I have made the world a better place.


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The recipe for genius is a simple one. You must approach science with the passion and creativity of an artist and art with the rigorous and careful methodology of a scientist. In terms of poetry, this means choosing your words with surgical precision.

Any fool can wrap a towel around their head and write down what they feel, but a true artist will brandish the flensing knife of his critical facilities and excise the blubber of sentimentality. Every word of a poem should be carefully selected and analyzed. Your goal is produce a work that is rhythmic, melodious, rich with meaning and intense. Excess words should be cast aside and those that remain should be the result of diligent patient toil.

To illustrate my meaning, let us consider a poem that has the very qualities that I have described, William Butler Yeats' Leda and the Swan.

A sudden blow: the great wings beating still
Above the staggering girl, her thighs caressed
By the dark webs, her nape caught in his bill,
He holds her helpless breast upon his breast.

How can those terrified vague fingers push
The feathered glory from her loosening thighs?
And how can body, laid in that white rush,
But feel the strange heart beating where it lies?

A shudder in the loins engenders there
The broken wall, the burning roof and tower
And Agamemnon dead.

                                   Being so caught up,
So mastered by the brute blood of the air,
Did she put on his knowledge with his power
Before the indifferent beak could let her drop?

What is the first thing you notice about this particular retelling of Greek mythology? Hopefully, you noticed that it is a poem in sonnet form, but that's not what I'm getting at. What I want you to see is that Leda and The Swan does not contain a single unnecessary word. The wording of the poem is absolutely flawless.

The first line is quite unusual in that it contains 2 adjectives and an adverb. One of the foremost laws of poetry is that you avoid the use of modifiers whenever possible, but here we've got 3. Yeats isn't breaking this law as his poem has only 14 modifiers total and 14 lines, which makes it even more interesting that he chose to put 3 in the first line. It's clear that the poet wants to evoke a powerful image at the very outset.

A sudden blow

I'd say he's succeeding as this is indeed powerful. Sudden is not only a very beautiful, very rhythmic word, it is also rich with meaning. Sudden means not only "quick," but also "without warning" it implies the impossibility of preparation or resistance.

the great wings beating still

Great is used here, I think, because it has such a marvelously sharp sound. It grates if you'll excuse the pun. Also, it is a loaded word, consider the hymn How Great Thou Art. Clearly the wings are more than simply "large" and "powerful." Beating is a very harsh sounding and loaded term as well. When you consider the first line as a whole, the rhythm and the clang tint of the words combines with their meanings to give an impression of overwhelming force. You aren't thinking of the wings of a graceful swan; you're thinking of the wings of a demon or a dragon or a god.

Above the staggering girl, her thighs caressed

This line is equally interesting as it is an almost complete retreat from the boldness of the first line. Joseph Brodsky argues that this is the best way to differentiate between British and American poets. Americans will start with a weak first line and follow it up with a forceful second line. Whether or not this is the case is beyond my expertise, but the contrast is fascinating. The first line is Zeus and the second is Leda. The use of girl rather than woman is there to emphasize Leda's innocence and helplessness. Staggering is very guttural (particularly when said by an Irishman) and not very poetic. It is there the offset the tenderness and intimacy implied by "caressed." The implication is that the innocent girl has not yet recovered from the initial assault and has not yet realized that she is about to be raped. "Staggered" also implies that the caress is far from gentle.

By the dark webs, her nape caught in his bill,

"Dark webs" is brilliant. It's superficially a reference to the webbed feet of a swan, which are indeed black, but it's obvious that more is meant. After all, a web evokes spiders, traps and cunning snares - this is reinforced by the use of "caught" later on in the same line. Yeats is alluding to the spinning of the three fates here. Note that it is the dark webs that are caressing Leda's thighs, an allusion to the tragedy that will result due to the children of this union. And what sort of union is it? It's clearly an unnatural and unholy union. The dark webs, the nape (which is a mental rhyme for rape) and the bill are all there to drive the point home. If that wasn't enough, Yeats breaks his rhythm slightly between "webs" and "her." Also of note is the fact that Yeats rhymes bill with still. Here he's following the rule that you shouldn't rhyme parts of speech. Nouns you can, verbs you shouldn't and modifiers never.

He holds her helpless breast upon his breast.

This is something of a breakthrough stanza. It recaptures the rhythm and, while it is much less forceful than the previous line, it's far from a retreat. It's the first neutral line in the poem as evidenced by the completely neutral verb "holds." "Helpless" and the double use of "breast" is here to show that Leda is no longer staggering and attempting to recover from the sudden blow, and is now stunned and attempting to mentally take stock of the situation. I'll call this stage two of the rape. Again note that Yeats is following the rules and rhyming a noun with a verb. As an exercise, you should try to figure out why this rule exists. What do you gain by following this rule? It should be obvious with a little thought.

How can those terrified vague fingers push
The feathered glory from her loosening thighs?

The first stanza, while rich with meaning, was nevertheless quite simple to decipher, in the rest of the poem, Yeats begins to let his genius show through. It is complex and layered enough that I doubt even he could fully analyze it (that's the hallmark of literary genius). The question posed by these two lines can be taken in two ways:

  1. It is Leda's attempt to justify her inability to resist Zeus.
  2. It is Zeus wondering why any mortal would even attempt to resist his unstoppable advances.

I think Yeats mean it both ways, and that's why he used the term "vague." "Terrified vague fingers" is another example of heavy utilization of modifiers, and like the first line of the first stanza, it is used to create a powerful image. Leda is now struggling against the rape (I'll call this stage three), but she is doing so ineffectively because she is conflicted. It's worth noticing that she is pushing, not tearing, scratching or prying. Also, she is using her fingers, and not her arms or fists. Part of her wishes to reject Zeus and escape from him, but she is also becoming aroused and physically receptive, hence the reference to loosening thighs. Like most women, Leda longs to be savagely raped. It's worth remembering that Yeats' Leda is an innocent girl, and she is bewildered by both the situation and the way her body is responding. She is simultaneously frightened, repulsed, confused, curious, aroused, receptive and full of self loathing. The self loathing is there because she knows that she should not enjoy being violated, but nevertheless, she is.

"Feathered glory" is both a euphemistic penis reference and an allusion to Zeus' divinity. It echoes and clarifies the "great wings" of the first stanza. They are the wings of an angel.

And how can body, laid in that white rush,

"White rush" is an odd choice of words is it not? "White" has strong connotations of purity and divinity, but it can also convey intensity, as in "white hot." "Rush" is far more complex; the OED entry for rush begins with "The remarkable variations in the vowel of this word make its precise history hard to trace" and ends after listing 27 separate definitions. It's a big word and "white rush" can either refer to the pure, untroubled sleep of a rustic peasant on a bed of rushes or the exhilaration of sex. I'd point out the double meaning this gives to "laid," but the use of "lay" to mean "have sex with" dates from the 1930's and is simply an example of how the evolution of language can add new layers to older works.

But feel the strange heart beating where it lies?

Once again we can take this two ways depending on how we interpret the "rush" of the previous line. If it refers Zeus' feathered chest, than the heart is strange because it belongs to a God and Leda can never hope to understand it. However, if you take "rush" as a description of Leda's emotional state, then the "strange heart" is her heart. "Strange" because it is experiencing new emotions that she did not realize she was capable of. This, of course, give "lies" a double meaning.

A shudder in the loins engenders there
The broken wall, the burning roof and tower
And Agamemnon dead.

The moralist in Yeats now reasserts himself. The third stanza could be interpreted as glorifying rape, so he corrects it with these very harsh scenes of destruction.

To begin with, he uses the very neutral terms shudder and engenders as well as the euphemism "there" in order to retreat from the previous stanza. Once he has returned to neutral ground, he then moves to a harsh and unromantic 2nd and 3rd lines.

He also clarifies the dark webs of the first stanza. Leda had 4 children, 2 sons, Castor and Pollux and two daughters, Clytemenstra and Helen. Helen ran off to Troy with Paris, and it is the destruction of Troy that Yeats refers to in the second line. Clytemenstra married Agamemnon, who lead the Greeks in the Trojan war. Agamemnon sacrificed their daughter, Iphegenia to appease the gods and gain favorable winds for the voyage to Troy. Upon his return, Clytemenstra and her lover killed him to avenge Iphegenia. The young prince Orestes then kills his mother to avenge his father.

So Yeats is saying that the violence of the rape of Leda results in the violence that is the destruction of Troy and the continuation of the curse of the House of Atreus. It's worth noting that the House of Atreus is descended from Tantalus, another son of Zeus.

The break in the rhythm in the third line here is similar to that in the first stanza, but much stronger. It emphasizes the word "dead" with considerable force.

Being so caught up,

But Yeats isn't going to fully recant the sentiments of the second stanza. Here he repeats that Leda was responsive. Caught up in passion if you will.

So mastered by the brute blood of the air,

Brute blood of the air is a marvelous phrase. Here he's ignoring the personality of Zeus and focusing on the element and the essence that he represents. I wonder what Andrea Dworkin would say about this line.

Did she put on his knowledge with his power

Note that power rhymes with tower, thus implying that the power of Zeus is the power of destruction. This is emphasized by the phallic character of towers. It's also a tarot reference. Yeats was a minor league occultist (is there any other kind?) and was rather fond of such things. Knowledge is of course the knowledge of sexual pleasure and it is a rhetorical question. Yeats has left know doubt that Leda enjoyed the experience.

Before the indifferent beak could let her drop?

Indifferent is perfect. Zeus hasn't the slightest interest in Leda once he has shot his load and could care less about the consequences of his actions.

This is by no means a complete analysis, but it should give you some idea of how much effort Yeats put into the poem. Like a miser counting out coins, he used his words sparingly and only when it would profit him. If you are given to composition of verse, you should take this example to heart. Most bad poems are excessively wordy and could be raised from the abyss of sheer awfulness to the plains of mediocrity by careful editing.


I know nothing about poetry, but... (none / 0) (#10)
by Anonymous Reader on Fri Jul 27th, 2001 at 03:01:15 PM PST
You have an opinion. She has a differing opinion. Conclusion: oh well.

Hmmm... (none / 0) (#13)
by Anonymous Reader on Fri Jul 27th, 2001 at 03:32:21 PM PST
Way to respond to an article without reading anything but the intro. Very useful.

Did I lie? (none / 0) (#14)
by Anonymous Reader on Fri Jul 27th, 2001 at 04:00:34 PM PST
I came out and said that I'm not good at dissecting the intricacies of poetry. He clearly stated that she won't talk to him any longer because their opinions differ. Considering the amount of effort both of them must have put forth on this subject, I sincerely doubt that either person will change their position unless Kipling and Pound both rise from their graves and start posting on and tell the author their inner thoughts on their work.

Congratulations, you now agree to disagree. Nothing to see here folks, move along, move along.

Way to not understand the big picture.

It is about Nietzsche's Will to Power (5.00 / 2) (#11)
by bc on Fri Jul 27th, 2001 at 03:02:46 PM PST
It seems very clear to me that Leda and the Swan is massively in debt to Nietzschean ideas. Leda, it can be seen, has come to love, rather than resist, her fate - the fate of rape.

How can those terrified vague fingers push
The feathered glory from her loosening thighs?

These lines show that not only can she not resist Zeus, but that, as Peter says, she enjoys the process of rape, her fate. This is the opposite of the disease Nietzsche termed ressentiment.

Meanwhile, Zeus himself is clearly the ubermensch, the superman, or (strictly) `overman`. He has overcome himself and reached a state where he is no longer affected by `pity, suffering, tolerence of the weak, the power of the soul over the body, the belief in an afterlife, the corruption of modern values`. Perhaps this line best illustrates this:

Did she put on his knowledge with his power

The type of power Zeus has is very specific - he has the Will to Power. Compare this line to this paragraph from Nietzsche's Will to Power:

My idea is that every specific body strives to become master over all space and to extend its force (--its will to power:) and to thrust back all that resists its extension. But it continually encounters similar efforts on the part of other bodies and ends by coming to an arrangement ("union") with those of them that are sufficiently related to it: thus they then conspire together for power. And the process goes on--

I think this makes it very clear. Leda is being co-opted by Zeus, and taken into his power. As Peter says, Zeus doesn't care about Leda, but he never cared about her at all. Likewise, Leda does not care for Zeus, she only cares for the knowledge and power she can gain from him & with him.

What we see in this poem is Yeat's desire for a new, modern morality Beyond Good & Evil. He can see that in this new system, `rape` is not a term that can be applied to the Superman (or woman) in any meaningful way. Zeus is the stronger of the two, and Leda accepts this. By doing this they both improve through the process of this sexual encounter. Perhaps Leda does not Will it, but as long as she recognises that this is because Zeus' Will to Power is superior to her own, and as long as she recognises that there is no reason to resist a Will so superior, she knows she can learn and profit from it, however fleetingly.

By showing her will to be `raped` by a superior power, Leda shows herself superior to the sort of woman who would resist. If only modern women were as morally advanced as Leda, the problem of rape would not exist, as it is, as Yeats makes clear, purely a creation of the mind. She is a superwoman, one who has moved beyond the petty contradictory moralities we hold so dear.

♥, bc.

Maybe Leda liked it (none / 0) (#23)
by Anonymous Reader on Sun Feb 17th, 2002 at 07:59:39 PM PST
7 years ago, when as an eager first year uni student, I raised this point in my tutorial, I received daggered glances from all directions. How could I say such a thing? The tutor almost threw me out of the class.

This has been plaguing me for years. I never dared raise it again in fear of offending sensitivities.

Now I am glad that at least two others agree with me.

By the way, I am a woman. I acknowledge the violence but let it not be said that a grown woman can't do anythnig to protect herself against a bird, no matter how amorous.

Simplistic as it may sound, swans have no hands. They can't hold you down. And what's more, you can wring their necks if they become two pesky with the beak around the neck thing.

Thanks Peter and BC (if I recall your names correctly) for bringing this to the world's attention. I don't agree fully with either of your analyses, but they both have very valid points.

Best regards and don't overanalyse, lest the poem lose its flavour.

Please, you couldn't have been more wrong (5.00 / 2) (#15)
by suick on Sat Jul 28th, 2001 at 01:00:05 AM PST
Yeats was a charlatan--and of the worst kind. His poetry was worded so ambiguously that Leda and the Swan could easily have been interpreted as ESR raping RMS in one of his many, many costumes. Furthermore, to argue that great poetry is marked by a restraint in the use of words is simply misguided--no doubt the result of whatever fad is sweeping the nations coffee shop and "vinyl only" record stores found in every American college town. No Peter, I'm sorry, but the true sign of genius is the ability to fortify one's words with archaic language designed to pull a readers emotions into the authors world. It's what made Shakespeare great, and is the only reason scholars give credence to the poets of the Harlem Rennaissance (not due to the actual poetry, but rather it's due to the name itself).

I'm going to attempt to set the record straight about great poetry, and what constitutes it as such. For this, I'm going to use a poem which came from the brilliant mind of Lavenderwater, entitled When I am dead my dearest.
When I am dead, my dearest,
Sing no sad songs for me;
Plant thou no roses at my head,
You'll notice that right off the bat Lavenderwater throws in the word "dearest," which, unlike the more common "dear" found in modern society, has an archaic ring to it. It also serves the dual-purpose of letting the reader know that Lavenderwater is both eloquent in her word-choice and talking to the one most dear to her.

Also, in the second and third lines, you can tell that Lavenderwater is very noble, and does not want her dearest to weep for the loss. This is evidenced by her insistence that no sad songs be sung, and her use of the word "thou."

I'm going to skip ahead a little and analyze lines 7-8.
And if thou wilt, remember,
And if thou wilt, forget.
Now this is a particularly powerful passage--notice that Lavenderwater chose to use two archaic words in a row (for line 7), and then, should the reader have missed this first instance, she repeats it again (line 8). Absolutely brilliant.

Moving on to lines 12-14:
Sing on, as if in pain:
And dreaming through the twilight
That doth not rise nor set,
Notice the apparent contradiction from the second line, where Lavenderwater penned "Sing no sad songs for me." However, when analyzed further, it would be wise to note that here Lavenderwater is saying it's alright to sing in pain, just not in sadness. It's this kind of superb word-dancing which gave Lavenderwater her fame in the first place.

Also, as soon as she hits you with that wonderful little puzzle, she immediately threw in another archaic word, completely pushing the reader off guard--and delighting in the process.

And now, the final two lines:
Haply I may remember,
And hapy may forget.
These two lines simply sum up Lavenderwater's style perfectly, as only a genius could come up with such a beautiful ending. Notice the word "Haply." Now go back and read it again--understand that it looks very similar to "happily," but has a much different meaning--essentially Lavenderwater is saying that she's lucky to be remembering, not happy. Amazing.

Now this last line has puzzled people for years, and Lavenderwater has chosen to let it remain a secret. At first glance, it looks as though she has thrown in another reference to the word "haply," but we see that this is not the case. No, instead Lavenderwater has made up her own word, which we can only guess at the meaning. I personally think it's old english for "happy," which would throw the entire poem for a loop, causing the reader to reevaluate Lavenderwater's relationship with her so-called "dearest," but as I said, the mystery is still unsolved.

So there we have it--true genius defined. This poem has a very somber tone to it, which directly conflicts with the images of birds and nature and the authors message that her dearest should *not* weep. While this could be attributed to the fact that I had Low playing in the background during the analysis, I would rather attribute my mood as being affected purely through the beauty that is Lavenderwater's When I am dead my dearest. It is not the trashy work of Yeats, but rather a poem which embodies a mastery of confliction and establishes Lavenderwater as the premier archaic word-sorceress.


A poem is the proverbial window to one's soul. One of the most ancient, as well as the most beautiful forms of self expression is poetry. Please enjoy the ones i have posted. -- Anonymous

c'mon, lower.

Another Twist on "hapy" (none / 0) (#18)
by Anonymous Reader on Sat Jul 28th, 2001 at 10:24:11 PM PST
Something that you might not know, but Hapy happens to be one of the four sons of Horus, as seen here:

Hapy is one of the four sons of Horus, he was portrayed as a mummy with the head of a baboon. Horus (the elder) had numerous wives and children, and his 'four sons' were grouped together and generally said to be born of Isis. Hapy was one. The other three were Imsety, Duamutef and Qebehsenuef. They were born from a lotus flower and were solar gods associated with the creation. They were retrieved from the waters of Nun by Sobek on the orders of Re. It was believed that Anubis gave them the funerary duties of mummification, the Opening of the Mouth, the burial of Osiris and all men. Horus later made them protectors of the four cardinal points (north, south, east and west). In the Hall of Ma'at they sat on a lotus flower in front of Osiris. Most commonly, however, they were remembered as the protectors of the internal organs of the deceased. Each son protected an organ, and each son was protected by a goddess.

Hapy's role was to protect the lungs of the deceased and was the guardian of the North. He was protected by the goddess Nephthys. He is sometimes confused with the Nile-god "Hapi".

Another net entry has

Hapy - "Runner" One of the "Four Sons of Heru" depicted in funerary literature as protecting the throne of Wesir in the Underworld, Hapy is depicted as a baboon-headed mummified human on funerary furniture and especially the "canopic" jars (the jar held the lungs). Later Hermetic philosophers would equate Hapy with the element of air because of his association with the funerary protectress Nebt-het and the direction of east.

So the association of Hapy with funerary jars, etc. seems to be another touch that combines well with the pun on haply and happily in a poem about death.

That might be the case... (none / 0) (#19)
by suick on Sat Jul 28th, 2001 at 11:38:21 PM PST
However, I'm not going to be bothered to visit your 1337 geocities site if you won't even take the time to href it.

As it stands, I'm not so weak-minded to take information from an anonymous reader as straight gospel. It would be nice if you'd put a link up which would validate your "facts," but, since you obviously made them up on the spot, I sincerely doubt that you can come up with this (and no, some fake geocities site which you posted two days ago doesn't count. Everyone knows geocities is inhabited by 13 year old white "gangstas" sending their "props" out to their middle-class "hos and bitches"). So leave your hopelessly unqualified, slanderous misinterpretations of this poem on your 1337 geocities site.

And look, before anyone else reading this writes me off as being too quick to pass judgement, I'll have you know that I did a few searches of my own. However, as you can plainly see, none of them returned any results. As such, I can only conclude that the previous poster is a liar trying to misinform the general public.

My review of the poem still stands, and Anonymous, a final piece of advise: don't try to analyze the complex piece of poetry that is Lavenderwater's When I am dead my dearest. Also, don't you know that Mommy's going to be pissed when she finds out that you and Biggy-Fry put 17" rims on her tricked-out Civic? Hell, she might even take away your credit card--and how are you going to go gangsta stylin' without her plastic?

c'mon, lower.

i hope you were being sarcastic (none / 0) (#21)
by Anonymous Reader on Tue Jul 31st, 2001 at 09:56:55 PM PST
Of course that poem was written by Christina Rossetti, Victorian-era poet associated with the Pre-Raphaelites.
This sight is either filled with maniacs or people who are bent on sarcasm/satire.

You all drive me nuts.

Gimmicks and wasted words (none / 0) (#17)
by Anonymous Reader on Sat Jul 28th, 2001 at 10:05:24 PM PST
Okay, so here is something that I found a while back, called Crystalline Rain

Now I think this fits into your definition, although there are a certain gimmicks and technique used that you could argue with. It is not great art by any means, but it is decent.

My particular point is that You can impress by level technique and skill alone. A charlatan, if you will. But true art has to have something beyond the technique. A skilled technician can evoke any number of emotions and sensations with the spell of their art.

But to do something else with this is another matter indeed.

copyright 1992 M. Zawistowski

Snow,- Muffled footsteps at night,- Crystalline Rain.
Night,- Open skies filled with stars,- Eyes shut in rest.
Stars,- Jewels floating on water,- Peace remains.
Water,- Gentle laughter from wind,- Pleasant unrest.
Wind,- An unseen hand moving dust,- Shaping land.
Dust,- Stones underfoot with time,- Polished flat.
Time,- Dripping water washing stones,- Cleaning hands.
Stones,- Sounds of children filled with play,- Sleeping cats.
Play,- Hide and seek in forest leaves,- Sunlit, bent.
Leaves,- Pallettes of changing color,- Some subdued.
Color,- Building rainbows of delight,- Triumphant.
Delight,- Birds singing at dawn,- Cool morning dew.
Dawn,- Light dancing on snow,- As sight exclaims...
Snow,- Muffled footsteps at night,- Crystalline Rain.

Nice word analysis (none / 0) (#22)
by WOW on Sat Aug 4th, 2001 at 11:12:03 AM PST
Although Leda and the Swan is not one of my favorite poems, I'm impressed with your thoughtful analysis of Yeats' word choice. Clearly you understand words and Yeats better than you understand women. Hope that changes in the future.

Now, please tell me about this rule that you shouldn't rhyme parts of speech. I've never heard of it and the reason for is not obvious even with a little thought.



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