“I love life; I love each day, // I love when sunlight starts to stray // Through swaying trees, then pirouettes // Enhancing dancing silhouettes.”
I first encountered JM Robertson’s poetry a little over ten years ago, when I found myself in possession of his book ‘Words of an Edinburgh Lad’. It was, amongst others, and in particular, his poem entitled ‘I Love Life’ that somehow made a home amongst the clutter of a teenage mind, vivid imagery determined to remain unforgotten despite the years that went by.
What was it about Robertson’s poetry that made it more arresting than its prosaic counterpart?
Perhaps it was his lyrical use of language that more strongly resonated. Or maybe the clear, steady beat found in each of his stanzas was the cause of such a lasting mark. I discovered, in any case, that long after I had put his book down, the witticisms of his written verse were always easy to recall, and it was thus in Robertson’s voice, I heard poetry’s echo.
Does that sound pretentious? Well, maybe a little. But, my dear reader, consider this: think back to the last poem you read, excluding the one I just mentioned. It may have been today, or yesterday, or last year. If I asked you now to recite it to me, how much of it would you remember before you faltered? And would you remember a greater or fewer number of lines from the last book?
If you’re anything like me, pieces of poetry, spanning from stumbling efforts as a child to published works read later, usually linger. Some can be recollected in their entirety. Others, like snatches of conversation in the breeze, are nothing more than a few broken fragments of word, their context lost to the swirling eddies of time. And yet almost all of them appear more often, if not more readily, to the surface than even the best pieces of prose.
Now of course that isn’t to say that good prose has no lasting effect. After all, if asked, at a push I probably could muster up my favourite lines from Shakespeare, or the first words in Austen. And though admittedly I have a great many other favourites whose exact lines I am unable to recall, their stories and voices still remain as vivid as the day we were first introduced. With the two mediums also differing so widely in nature, nor do I mean to turn this into a debate of which is the better written form. If you’ve read my earlier post, A Personal Tale of Bibliophilia, you’ll know that I have a reading list, made up of mostly prose, that grows at an alarming rate. This, I feel, is testament to one of the greatest attributes of good prose: the ability to ensnare the reader and hold them captive on a journey to escapism, for as long as it takes until that journey reaches its end, and longer. This is why essays, and novels, and other lengthy pieces of prose can be read cover to cover, and are often given second chances if the reader is not hooked from the offset – it is in anticipation of the journey to come that, on occasion, has seen me struggle through page after page of prose, just waiting to be reeled in.
Poetry, on the other hand, serves a slightly different function. While it too can take the reader on a journey and provide an escapism of sorts, unlike in the case of novels, there is less scope for a slow start. Now here I talk not of the length of the former compared to the latter, though it’s true modern poems are often shorter than modern novels, but of the very essence of poetry itself. English poet Coleridge captured it well when he remarked:
“Prose = words in their best order; – poetry = the best words in the best order.”
A defining feature of poetry when compared to that of prose is how each individual word is carefully chosen from the offset, to either set a tempo or paint a picture, designed to enchant and enthrall. This is especially true of good poetry, both long and short, and can even be seen in the oldest type of poem known to man: The Epic Poem. Traditionally shared in their oral form, epic poems make up some of the lengthiest pieces of writing in the world. And in fact, as this essence is found in abundance in this early genre of poem too, it is perhaps through the purpose of epic poetry that the memorable nature of today’s pieces can be attributed.
In a time well before the written word was established amongst society, tales of battle sieges and daring deeds and valiant heroes would be performed to large crowds in verse. To ensure these tales were remembered, elaborate imagery and emotive language would be employed from the start, each word brought together to captivate the audience from the first spoken line. And in order that the performing bard did not lose his way, this was coupled with the set rhythm of dactylic hexameter which, in its simplest form, was made up of six sets of dactyls (one dactyl = long syllable – short syllable – short syllable). With each passing beat, the overall result saw an audience drawn deeper into an epic narrative, and a bard commit even more to memory the tale that he knew.
Though poetry today is now more often penned than performed, the need to reel the audience in from the beginning still remains, and thus we find the principles of epic poetry still holding true in modern verse. Appearing in the form of intricate and evocative narratives in the former, clever word choice today is able to tell an equally compelling story, alongside creating the added ability for each line to work as a stand-alone snapshot also. And though it is clear dactylic hexameter is hardly the meter of choice in modern times, steady rhythm is still employed to provide poetic structure and create lasting impact. In fact, the only added feature used in poems today, and often absent in most epic poetry, is that of rhyme, but this too simply serves to strengthen the hold of the poet’s voice on the reader, and make pieces all the more longstanding.
Robertson’s ‘Words of an Edinburgh Lad’ has the trifecta. His work is made memorable due to a combination of especially skillful word use, rhythm and rhyme, and an added success is the everyday nature of his poetry. There are no extraordinary adventures or angered gods or flowery speeches, and thus, by no stretch of the imagination does his book contain any typical epic poems. What it does have though, are elegantly simple concepts which fit his varied rhythms and rhyme, creating beautiful stanzas that ache to be remembered and recounted once they’re read. Perhaps it is this that truly gives him an echo, and well, that isn’t any less epic at all.