“Year of what?”
For anyone just tuning in to this blog, once a week (or so) since the start of the school year I’ve turned my attention to writing about poetry. It started with a hike along the Oregon Coast and a bunch of buzzing bees, and has since then led across continents and centuries through a roll call of amazing poets, alphabetically from Angelou to Walker. The merit of an enterprise like this? Well…
I think it’s helped me slow down, look more philosophically at the world around me, no, not philosophically, but poetically. There’s a line by Mary Wollstonecraft that reads: “The generality of people cannot see or feel poetically, they want fancy, and therefore fly from solitude in search of sensible objects; but when an author lends them his eyes, they can see as he saw, and be amused by images they could not select, though lying before them.” Poetry has done that for me this year.
And as I enter the final stretch of this Year of Poetry, with just a handful of books between me and the end of the series in June, I wanted to spend a week with a book that is not written in verse: Sir Philip Sidney’s A Defence of Poetry.
It’s a slim volume that has been on my bookshelf since I was an undergraduate, and the marginalia I re-read when I picked it up this week (scrawled in the cursive of a nineteen year old) reminded me of a time, a lifetime ago, when people like Philip Sidney were a bigger part of my life.
I’ve come a long way since I first picked up my copy of A Defence of Poetry at the Pacific University bookstore. It cost me $8.95 back then, a steep price for 112 pages, but if my jottings in the margins are any indication, I dug it back then.
I certainly enjoyed it now.
A Defence of Poetry was written in the late 1570s, and at the time was Sidney’s attempt to define and explain poetry, its place, its power, and its purpose. With the thoroughness of a classic scholar, Sidney takes readers through a history of poetry, explicating the value of verse across cultures, and emphasizing the power of a poet “freely ranging only within the zodiac of his own wit.”
Poetry, Sidney explains, can sometimes tell truths unavailable in prose, and its influence reaches beyond rhyming verse. “It is not rhyming and versing that maketh a poet—no more than a long gown maketh an advocate, who though he pleaded in armour should be an advocate and no soldier. But it is that feigning notable images of virtues, vices, or what else, with that delightful teaching, which must be the right describing note to know a poet by.” It is a concept echoed centuries later in that line from Wollstonecraft, and articulated in some of the prose poems I’ve seen in the volumes I’ve read since September, from Snyder and Borges this winter to Daley-Ward last week.
Spending the year with a cavalcade of poets, I’ve come to appreciate Sidney’s perspective that a poet is not tied to describing nature, but “lifted up with the vigor of his own invention, doth grow in effect another nature, in making things either better than nature bringeth forth, or, quite anew, forms such as never were in nature.”
Sidney’s “Defence” does much to categorize and rationalize the making of verse, but the middle aged reader I have now become focused less on his argument and more on the flashes of wit dotting the plain of his rhetorical battlefield. “Since the excellencies of [poetry] may be so easily and so justly confirmed,” he tells his readers midway through the text, “and the low-creeping objections so soon trodden down: it not being an art of lies, but of true doctrine; not of effeminateness, but of notable stirring of courage, not of abusing man’s wit, but of strengthening man’s wit.” He goes on, summarizing his careful arguments in bursts of sixteenth century insight.
He does this not only as a critic, but as a poet as well. Sidney wrote the Astrophil and Stella sonnet sequence and other short verse, and comes to his work in A Defence of Poetry in “the company of the paperblurrers” adhering to the “old proverb” orator fit, poeta nascitur (an orator is made, a poet born).
And while across town a scruffy playwright/actor was having his character respond an aging courtier who asked him what he was reading with the line “words, words, words,” Sidney spends a detailed section looking at the “diction” of poetry, or as he says from “the outside of it, which is words.” Critical of imitators whom he wishes would “not so much keep Nizolian paper-books of their figures and phrases, as by attentive translation (as it were) devour them whole, and make them wholly theirs.” Poetry is about sincerity and truth; imitating without owning an idea is, to Sidney, like casting “sugar and spice upon every dish that is served” regardless of taste.
That ownership of poetry is particularly praised with regard to the “lyrical kind of songs and sonnets, which, Lord, if He gave us so good minds, how well it might be employed.” He calls out Dante (though Shakespeare’s sonnets were too close for a contemporary nod) and those ideas Sidney lays out in the 1590s ring as true with poetry written today.
Reading A Defence of Poetry during this 2020 COVID-19 quarantine was a nice reminder that my own little appreciation for verse over the course of this year is something that an old courtier like Sidney would think is okay.
And since this is a “Year of Poetry,” not a year of essays about poetry, as I near the end of this post I’ll include Sidney’s own Sonnet 21, from Astrophil and Stella. It says in verse some of what Sidney suggested in A Defence of Poetry, particularly the value of the heart as captured in a poem.
Your words my friend (right healthful caustics) blame
My young mind marred, whom Love doth windlass so,
That mine own writings like bad servants show
My wits, quick in vain thoughts, in virtue lame,
That Plato I read for nought, but if he tame
Such coltish gyres, that to my birth I owe
Nobler desires, least else that friendly foe,
Great expectation, wear a train of shame.
For since mad March great promise made of me,
If now the May of my years much decline,
What can be hoped my harvest time will be?
Sure you say well, your wisdom’s golden mine
Dig deep with learning’s spade, now tell me this,
Hath this world ought so fair as Stella is?”
Sidney’s self deprecation continues in his closing paragraphs of A Defence of Poetry, when he writes: I conjure you all that have had the evil luck to read this ink-wasting toy of mine, even in the name of the nine Muses, no more to scorn the sacred mysteries of poesy; no more to laugh at the name of poets, as though they were next inheritors to fools; no more to jest at the reverent title of a rhymer; but to believe, with Aristotle, that they were the ancient treasurers of the Grecian’s divinity.” Why a year of poetry? Just maybe because poetry matters, poetry tells the truth, and poetry can make a difference.
Continuing this year of poetry next week with The Complete Poems of C.P. Cavafy.