Readers can sense poetry's roots in such ordinary, popular forms as the ballad, the lullaby and the hymn. On the other hand, the art also seems to have roots in the customs of social elites such as the royal courts of Southern Europe and the sensitive scholar-diplomats of old China.
Poetry is in some ways lordly or aristocratic: It gets bored more easily than prose, it likes to skip steps, and it is very interested in pleasure. The rectangular blocks of print embodying its young, middle-class nephew, the novel, seem too confining for poetry, which prefers speed and glamour.
Yet at the same time it feels at home in the street, the kitchen, the playground and the tavern. It likes a good time, and it sometimes mocks or parodies solemnity. These two historic elements of the art persist -- and frequently combine. Here is a good example by Wallace Stevens:
The Pleasures of Merely Circulating
The garden flew round with the angel,
The angel flew round with the clouds,
And the clouds flew round and the clouds flew round
And the clouds flew round with the clouds.
Is there any secret in skulls,
The cattle skulls in the woods?
Do the drummers in black hoods
Rumble anything out of their drums?
Mrs. Anderson's Swedish baby
Might well have been German or Spanish,
Yet that things go round and again go round
Has rather a classical sound.
The poem makes both more and less sense than a prose discourse might make on subjects Stevens keeps in the air like a master juggler: the circularity of experience, the absence of transcendent meaning, the arbitrariness of death, the mysterious, primitive power of incantation.
But it is the play that makes the poem: not merely the playful joke about Mrs. Anderson's love life in the last stanza, but also the poem's serious play between high and low, sophisticated and naive, reality and talk about reality -- above all, between the cycles of life and our ancient, deep need to make word music about them.
By writing a profound poem that also resembles a playground rhyme, with a ribald joke in it, Stevens comments on the grandiose or pompous nature of formulation. In a way that is characteristic of poetry, he lets us both feel moved by the language and enjoy it as ridiculous. His lines are as gorgeous and fierce and silly as the feathers of his rooster in
Bantams in Pine-Woods
Chieftain Iffucan of Azcan in caftan
Of tan with henna hackles, halt!
Damned universal cock, as if the sun
Was blackamoor to bear your blazing tail.
Fat! Fat! Fat! Fat! I am the personal.
Your world is you. I am my world.
You ten-foot poet among inchlings. Fat!
Begone! An inchling bristles in these pines,
Bristles, and points their Appalachian tangs,
And fears not portly Azcan nor his hoos.
This is the language of animal pedigrees, of poetry, and of the chants we enjoy and respond to even before we begin thinking about them. (Wallace Stevens's poems "The Pleasures of Merely Circulating" and "Bantams in Pine-Woods" can be found in "The Collected Poems of Wallace Stevens." Knopf. Copyright © 1923, renewed © 1954, by Wallace Stevens.)