Poetry and Cathedrals: An Introduction

When I think about poetry, I often think about cathedrals.

This does not mean that I think poetry is a place to get lots of people who believe more or less the same thing, and a bishop who would probably LOVE it if they actually did, together to sing really loud so it echoes a hundred feet up in the rafters where the gargoyles can sing along, although that is nice too.singing gargoyle

Nor am I necessarily thinking of it as a place where a thief on the run could claim sanctuary from the posse carrying torches and pitchforks and chasing him down, although, now that I think of it, it would be very cool if poems could do that.

No, I am thinking about the architecture, the repeating fractals of the arches and windows and niches for statues of saints, repetitions like rhymes in stone. Salisbury_cathedral_plan

I am thinking about how, back in the twelfth century or so in Europe, they did not have a single consistent unit of measurement. A foot in a particular building was based on the length of one guy’s foot, say, Geoffry the masterbuilder. Then they figured out a good solid square size, say, twenty feet by twenty feet, and they repeated that square size outward to create the cross-section that made the plan of the cathedral. Given this apparently random style of measurement, the classic Gothic cathedrals of Europe are remarkably consistent, each within itself, even if not compared to each other.

Poems are like that. Even when there is a formal form, like a sonnet or a haiku, each poet is going to interpret it in his or her own way, turning something that is, after all, just a rule driven construction into a piece of art, a place where we can go to inhabit the poet’s ideas and imagination and hopefully his or her love of language. (I say hopefully because, unfortunately I think many poets are so in love with rhyme for its own sake that they don’t give the words they choose enough thought. And that can’t be good.)Salisbury_Cathedral_Detail_Arches

This blog will examine these kinds of ideas about poetry. There is a great line, attributed to Martin Mull, that says, “Talking about music is like dancing about architecture.” It is difficult to talk about one sense without referring to the other senses. Similarly, trying to elucidate structure means we use whatever language we have for structure, which is often architectural. I believe that to best represent the work of creativity that is poetry, I am going to have to draw on a lot of fields and the language of a lot of different arts. (Whoo hoo! Research party!)

I also intend to be very opinionated, because after all, I have been writing poetry for over thirty years, publishing it for more than twenty, and I feel that I have a right to my hard-won professional opinions. I can tell you what I have learned from my students, and also hopefully teach you the things I taught them that they have found useful.

We will also have fun, because I grew up reading the poetry of Ogden Nash, Dr. Seuss and Walt Kelly, and if I had only read the Terribly Serious Poets, I would most likely not be a poet today. So I will end with the words of Dorothy Parker:

“In youth, it was a way I had,
To do my best to please.
And change, with every passing lad
To suit his theories.

But now I know the things I know
And do the things I do,
And if you do not like me so,
To hell, my love, with you.”
Dorothy Parker, The Complete Poems of Dorothy Parker

One comment on “Poetry and Cathedrals: An Introduction

  1. Interesting post, and I love the analogy. I’m a fan of Catherdrals too, visited Exeter cathedral recently – stunning. You’ve given me much to ponder – thanks! H xx

    Liked by 1 person

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