On poetry and the arrangement of words

Ikebana – Rachel Martin (Wikimedia Commons)

The Indian philosopher Bhaṭṭa Jayanta once speculated on the limits of expressive possibilities as follows –

“How can we imagine something new?
Here I will just develop variety in the arrangements of words.
Having once made a garland of flowers, we can make a new one using the same flowers.
Just a new arrangement stimulates the curiosity.”

[from Nyāyamanjarī; opening lines; my own translation]

The above statement may be simply Jayanta’s modest profession of his own limited ability before presenting his work, rather than a serious position in the philosophy of language.  Nevertheless, it raises a question about how each of us can use the finite set of words that we know in order to say something new and meaningful.

Reflecting on this, we might perhaps be led into a profoundly pessimistic view, whereby the fact that we are limited to just rearranging existing words limits our scope for creativity and innovation in language, thought and expression to what is already known.  Thus it would not be possible to imagine anything genuinely new at all.  This may remind us of John Stuart Mill, who was apparently seriously worried that, because there are only so many ways of rearranging the seven notes of an octave, we were soon to hit the limit of all possible musical melodies.

On the other hand, and especially when we consider Jayanta’s prolific literary and philosophical output, we might conclude that for Jayanta, ‘variety in the arrangement of words’ was more than enough.  And we may wonder whether it is indeed possible to say something new and meaningful using our fixed stock of old words.  The poet Shelley talks very similarly about the arrangement of words in the context of poetry, and goes on to identify the poetic faculty as being responsible for a suitably poetic arrangement –

“poetry in a more restricted sense expresses those arrangements of language, and especially metrical language, which are created by that imperial faculty; whose throne is curtained within the invisible nature of man.  And this springs from the nature itself of language, which is … susceptible of more various and delicate combinations, than colour, form, or motion … the poetical faculty … engenders in the mind a desire to reproduce and arrange them according to a certain rhythm and order which may be called the beautiful and the good.”

[from ‘A defence of poetry’, Percy Bysshe Shelley]

Indeed, it is perhaps in poetry that the expressive possibilities of language are most fully explored and elaborated, and so this article will just consider a few examples of how poets have been able to use ‘variety in the arrangement of words’ to be creative and original.  In a famous poem written to remember those who died in the first world war, we read –

“They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old”

[from ‘For the fallen’, Laurence Binyon]

Here the poet chooses the simplest of single-syllable words, avoiding any grandiloquent style that might have the effect of glamorizing or glorifying warfare.  Yet at the same time the line has a certain weight and profundity to it.  The poet plays with the expected order of the words, writing ‘grow not old’ rather than the expected ‘not grow old’.  This seems to slow down the reader, lending a sense of gravitas to the line whilst remaining clean and spare in word choice.  Another carefully chosen arrangement of simple, one-syllable words is seen in these lines from a poem written for a child, where the unusual syntax adds complexity and a fresh emotional tone.

“Leáves, like the things of man, you
With your fresh thoughts care for, can you?”

[from ‘Spring and Fall: to a young child’, Gerard Manley Hopkins]

Gerard Manley Hopkins also channels a powerful emotional sensitivity towards the natural world into his poetry, and his syntax is often stretched and strained so that the overflowing arrangement of words in the line seems to reflect the overflow of his feelings.

“How to kéep—is there ány any, is there none such, nowhere known some, bow or brooch or braid or brace, láce, latch or catch or key to keep
Back beauty, keep it, beauty, beauty, beauty,… from vanishing away?”

[from ‘The Leaden Echo and the Golden Echo’, Gerard Manley Hopkins]

We are reminded of how, for Shelley and the other romantic poets, poetry should come to the poet naturally as a form of inspiration, especially from nature.  As Wordsworth writes –

“Poetry is the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings: it takes its origin from emotion recollected in tranquillity”

[from ‘Preface to Lyrical Ballads’, William Wordsworth]

The Indian tradition somewhat similarly holds that true poetry is an immediate and instinctive act of the poet at the moment when he or she is struck by inspiration.  In an earlier article, I discussed two examples of this from Indian literature, that of Vālmīki in the Rāmāyaṇa and that of Duṣyanta in the Abhijñāna-Śākuntalam.

For some modernist poets, a breakdown in the arrangement of words in the poetic line and on the page seems to represent the breakdown of society and culture in the first world war and the nothingness and lack of meaningful connection in its aftermath.

[from ‘The Waste Land’, T.S. Eliot]

We find similarly innovative use of syntax in a lot of modern poetry, such as in this passage from ‘Crow’  –

[from ‘Crow Tyrannosaurus’, Ted Hughes]

Indeed, Simon Armitage suggests that even the arrangement of words on the page, as we see in these two passages, is important to the poet –

“Poetry stakes out a position on a page: it takes a shape, occupies territory, becomes its own autonomous region.  Surrounding the poem stands an apparent blankness, but one that conceals many of the poem’s codes and switches … such oxygenated spaces, such ventilated cavities between titles and first lines – between stanzas or verses, beyond the line break, where the mind’s vapour trail overshoots, and the imagination undergoes millimetres of freefall and milliseconds of weightless abeyance, before the eyes fully execute the carriage return procedure – that airspace is our one inherited kingdom.”

[‘A Vertical Art’, Simon Armitage, p.31]

This passage draws attention to the way in which the poem is not only a linguistic fact but also a physical artefact which first of all has a visual presence. It thereby seems to give new meaning to Jayanta’s analogy in our opening quote above, as he likens literary composition to what is very much a physical artefact, a garland of flowers.

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