On Modern Poetry, A Rant

A Rant, 16 May 2020. Copyright 2020 Forgotten Fields. All rights reserved.

Poetry is not without its rules, and just as in every other discipline they must first be assimilated before they can be effectively broken, so in Poesy, there are basic mechanisms a poet must grasp and diligently seek to master in his work.

In contemporary poetry, this is a skill notably absent.

A failure to comprehend and appreciate the principles of expressive language is a scourge upon it. Nearly all compositions in the style would be vastly improved had the poet a rudimentary understanding of what makes a poem a poem.

There exists a fine line between prose and free verse.

Writing something that resembles a poem does not make it one. How much of what one reads today has themes not worth contemplating, blurted out (for composed they are not) in lumbering stanzas that do nothing to give them form?

Not every man who fancies himself a poet can verse.

For a poem to be good, it must resound in the halls of human experience. It must elevate the mundane through a celebration of language and a distillation of thought that compels the reader to exclaim: Yes! I know—I feel—your meaning!

Is such a thing too great a task for the modern poet?

Perhaps. Consider what we who long for a sublimation of the modern experience are presented with in vers libre: the poetic equivalent of Yeezy—crude phrasal fragments that barely resemble language, unworthy of the ear and soul.

On Translating Poetry

Young Shepherdess by Jean-François Millet (1870–73) in oil. Public Domain.
Young Shepherdess by Jean-François Millet (1870–73) in oil.

Different Language, Different Opportunities

I recently stated that poetic subtleties rarely migrate between languages, and as I attempt to cast “Shepherd Girl” into “Skaapwagtertjie”1, an Afrikaans translation, the statement rings true with every stanza. Even in the rare instance where the Afrikaans allows for a faithful rendition of any given line, with all its poetic content intact, another becomes semantically impossible—either for lack of an appropriate rhyming word or some other linguistic complication.

This is, of course, the result of the inherent differences between languages, for just as each affords unique opportunities for polysemy and rhyme, so do its mechanisms for producing meaning—what word must go where (syntax), what syllable must be emphasised (accentuation), what rhythm must connect this word with that (cadence)—dictate the rules a poet must follow (or flout) to establish meaning and style.

The poet’s use of expressive device (through onomatopoeia, understatement, alliteration, imagery, cliché, symbol, metaphor, simile, hyperbole, personification, idiom and prosody) in one language, may simply not be available in another, and thus the essence—the gestalt—of his poem is compromised or even lost entirely when translated. The result, therefore, will be an inferior facsimile—an approximation that is no more than a shell of the original. Allow me to illustrate:

An Example

A. G. Visser’s “Die Ruiter van Skimmelperdpan” (“The Rider of Dapple Grey Flat”) is a tense poem describing the gruesome ghost of a headless soldier on a fleeing horse. Impossible to translate in English are the movement and contextual dread contained within what is arguably its simplest line:

“‘Die galop … die galop … die galop?!’”2

In the Afrikaans, the natural downbeat of the syllables and the way in which the sounds of the two words connect in the repetition perfectly mimic the rhythmic doo-doo-DOOF, doo-doo-DOOF, doo-doo-DOOF of galloping horse (and racing heartbeat): [dî-KGa-lop, dî-KGa-lop, dî-KGa-lop].

Moreover, the depth of the [duh] in [dî] has the impact of a hoof stroke and the sliding guttural [KG] connecting the two syllables before and after it imitates the sound of gravel. All of this is lost in the staccato of an English rendering: “‘The gallop… the gallop … the gallop?!’” The downbeats, cadence and pronunciation—the “feel” of the English—deliver none of the urgency, desperation, tension and sheer terror that the very nature of Afrikaans invokes and sustains.

A poem—indeed, any artwork—is untranslatable because its Form and Content are inextricably linked. Just as Millet’s oil painting Young Shepherdess (if I may select a work particularly apt3) in watercolour loses a fundamental part of its import (namely the solemnity that oil imparts), so does rendering “Shepherd Girl” in Afrikaans sacrifice something integral to it. Changing the medium changes the meaning, wherefore a translation must take on a life of its own.

From “Shepherd Girl” to “Skaapwagtertjie”

Thus, I depart from the English where the Afrikaans demands it. I have already moved content from one stanza to another to recreate the narrative of the ballad within the confines of Afrikaans rhyme, introducing different details from my mother’s shepherding youth to facilitate the change. It is an enlightening and thrilling project. As I extract from the English original an Afrikaans counterpart, my goal is not to compose a copy, but an Afrikaans poem in its own right.

  1. Afrikaans, [skaahp-vuKG-teR-ki], pronounced as one word, with the [u] in “up”, the guttural [KG] in the Scottish “loch”, a trilled [R] and the [i] in “in”.
  2. [dî KGalop] with the [î] in “in” and the guttural [KG] in the Scottish “loch”. The line is uttered by the soldier’s wife, who also appears in the haunting, as she implores him to stop tormenting her with his nightly race past their cottage (hence the unorthodox punctuation): “‘Waarom rus jy nie, rus jy nie, Jan van der Meer? / Waarom jaag jy my elke nag op? / Sal daar nimmer ’n einde kom … altyd maar weer / Die galop … die galop … die galop?!’” (“‘Why rest you not, rest you not, Jan van der Meer? / Why chase me up every night? / Will there ne’er be an end … again and again / The gallop … the gallop … the gallop?!’”)
  3. Young Shepherdess was one of Millet’s largest and last works, the lowly peasant elevated to near godlike divinity by medium, composition, pose and halo-like lighting—not unlike the way in which the eight-year-old poet within me elevates his mother. (Incidentally, today is her 66th birthday.)

On the Nature and Purpose of Art

Der Mönch am Meer (The Monk by the Sea) (1808–10) by Caspar David Friedrich
Der Mönch am Meer (The Monk by the Sea) (1808–10) by Caspar David Friedrich

The Way We See the World

When we look at a painting, it evokes within us a combination of thought and emotion, a reaction that wells up almost involuntarily. It happens when we read a novel, recite a poem, view a sculpture, or hear a piece of music. Our response feels so natural—so correct—that it informs our judgement of the work, the artist and our companions. The source of these judgements is our view of the world, that is to say, our concept of the way things are (our reality) and our concept of the way they ought to be (our values). Through these concepts, we interpret our experiences. They are a vast collection of ideas about the human condition that comes sharply into view whenever we encounter a work of art.

These concepts exist in the mind: they are complex, often speculative, dis-integrated, ill-defined and confused. They are, moreover, by their very nature inaccessible to our senses and our conscious minds. We cannot examine them as we might any object in the physical world to gain insight into their nature and determine their implications. As such, they lie beyond the reach of the tools through which we best comprehend reality. Nonetheless, it is vital to our course in life that we think deeply and at length about the concepts that form our worldview, for they encapsulate our life philosophy and determine who we become. But to contemplate so great a subject in the realm of the imperceivable is no easy task.

The Creation of the Concrete

We need, therefore, some way to experience these concepts directly, as if they were real: a mechanism by which we can render the invisible visible, the silent audible and the abstract concrete; a process that embodies in a perceptible work what is inherently imperceptible. This process must provide a means by which we may perceive a thought as an entity, and must, therefore, re-create what is real to express what is not real. Such a process must make accessible to our minds and senses a view of the world and deliver to us a work that captures fully and succinctly, in both its substance and execution, the concepts within that view.

Art is the purest form of this process. Its media are melody, language, colour and solid form, and it produces works through which invisible concepts can be directly perceived by the mind as abstractions (e.g. a theme) and the senses as attributes (e.g. a melody). The creators of art—artists—express in music, literature, painting and sculpture a set of values (their view of the world) and present it to us for contemplation. They do this through the application of creative skill, which they assiduously develop to create works that are valued not only for their aesthetic and technical excellence but also their emotional and conceptual power.

The Work of the Artist

The artist does this work of expression through the stylisation of essential elements from reality, producing an eloquent representational or abstract work that is not merely a reproduction, recording, documentation, illustration or decoration of reality but a transformation of it, imbued with meaning. Only such a work is a work of art. In music, this is done through composition in sound; in literature, through composition in language; in painting, through composition in pigment; and in sculpture, through composition in solid form. In these primary media, the artist enshrines the human psyche in distinct, directly experienceable manifestations that have, by virtue of their elements, the capacity to make a concept real¹.

Our experience of these works brings us face to face with concepts, engineering an interaction that is otherwise impossible. Suddenly, we are able to hear, see or think about our worldview as never before: through the realised worldview of another, the artist. Art shows us the values of the artist (its primary function) and in doing so, helps us discern and evaluate our own (a secondary function). When we react to a work of art, it is not a matter of mere taste: we react because, by its very existence, the artwork pronounces a judgement on us—on our view of the world. The better the artwork, the more exquisite the creative expression of that judgement and the more intense our declarations of admiration or revulsion.

The Function of Art

This reaction has little or nothing to do with correctness or objectivity. What we are saying is some variation of: “Yes, this is how I see the world” or “No, this is not how I see the world.” We rely on artists to make comprehensible and perceivable to us their view of the world, thereby illuminating our own. Without art, we would experience these concepts exclusively in the mind—as something nebulous, fragmented and remote. It is the sole purpose of art to make them accessible and fathomable. Artists create mirrors for the mind, giving us a glimpse of who we are, allowing us a moment to reflect on what we see.


  1. The process of integrating a concept into an artwork—the artist’s choice of medium, genre, theme, subject, inspiration, style, technique, composition and so forth—is beyond the scope of this essay.