The Lower Slobovian Test

_____ How important are rhythms and sound in poetry? Robert Frost said that "poetry is what gets lost in translation". While this is true, it is equally accurate to say that poetry needs no translation to be recognized as such. That is, if someone were to recite a poem in an accented language utterly unknown to us (say, Lower Slobovian) we would be able to distinguish it from a prose excerpt or laundry list in that same indeciperable language. It follows that, with the exception of shorter pieces (e.g. haiku, aphoristic poemlets, etc.) our poems--if they are to be poems--should sound like poetry to everyone whether they are familiar with English or not.

_____ Without understanding any of the words how would anyone distinguish a poem written in an incomprehensible language from prose?

_____ The answer, in a word, is repetitions. In accented languages like English (and virtually all other European languages, at least) the pattern of accented syllables among unaccented ones is noticeable, whether the poem be in meter (with one rhythm) or free verse (with more than one rhythm). In addition, sounds are repeated, ranging in length from whole stanzas (choruses) down to lines (repetends), phrases (anaphora), words (anadiplosis), syllables (rhyme) and individual sounds (alliteration, consonance, assonance).

_____ Does this mean that the poem doesn't have to make sense? No, the poem should be comprehensible to someone who does understand that language. Gibberish is not poetry.

_____ Does this mean that anything coherent that sounds good is poetry? Hardly. Few song lyrics, for example, would qualify as poetry. Caruso singing scales certainly wouldn't.

_____ N.B.: The pleasing repetitions of sounds and rhythms are often conspicuous in their absence from novice work. If, as new poets, we wonder why our work is being rejected by experienced readers, this is a likely reason.


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