Poetry as Play

Over the past two days I’ve been fortunate enough to attend the Centre for the History of Emotions collaboratory; Play of Emotions. The conference featured guest speakers and UWA researchers discussing the nature of ‘play’ in all its varieties through literature, history and art. To attempt to summarise the diverse themes and material covered would be overly ambitious, so I am going to focus on two ideas that recurred through more than one paper, and opened new lines of thought for me.

The first of these themes is poetry as play. Andrew Lynch’s paper on the vocabulary of play in Middle English introduced the idea of reading poetry as a form of play, citing Chaucer’s Book of the Duchess, in which the narrator seeks a diversion from his insomnia by reading Ovid’s Metamorphoses.

Til now late, this other night,
Upon my bedde I sat upright
And bad oon reche me a book,
A romaunce, and he hit me took
To rede and dryve the night away;
For me thoghte it better play
Then playen either at ches or tables.

(Chaucer, The Book of the Duchess, lines 45-51.)

Kirk Essary’s paper on Erasmus and Ovid’s Nux further explored this idea, with the study of poetry as a form of humanist educational play preferable to frivolous games. Erasmus plays with Nux in his commentary and his lightness of interpretation treats the text as both a serious subject with deeper meanings and an amusing source of scholarly pleasure.

It is interesting that both Erasmus and Chaucer use Ovid as an example of enjoyable, playful poetry. I wonder if this partially due to the nature of the texts, which Chaucer describes as ‘fables’ and ‘a wonder thing.’ Perhaps Ovid’s tales could be seen in this light as fairy stories, particularly from a Christian perspective, and thus more enjoyable and less serious than historical or biblical texts. This is not to say their value is diminished however, as Erasmus clearly sees Nux as a worth the attention and study of young minds.

Bob White’s paper, Playful Keats, explored evidence of the poet’s childhood memories in A Song About Myself and his ability to assume a childlike perspective in Ode on a Grecian Urn. A Song About Myself is reminiscent of nursery rhymes and Jennifer Radden suggested it may have been included in later books as such a rhyme. It’s certainly true that many of us first encounter poetry through childhood play, in skipping rhymes and games like ‘Ring Around the Rosie.’ In childhood, poetry can be educational but it is almost always a game, amusing and pleasurable.

Here we move from reading to writing poetry as a form of play. I was fascinated by Bob’s suggestion that Ode on a Grecian Urn might have been written from the perspective of a child. It immediately brought to mind Kenneth Grahame’s The Golden Age and Dream Days, two books I consider to capture the child’s perspective more perfectly than anything else in English. I was captivated by the idea of Keats writing from this point of childlike wonder, with poetry itself as a means of generating wonder. There is an animism in both the Ode and Nux that is generally attributed to children.

Unfortunately, I feel that playfulness is not something we associate with poetry in the 21st century. Nursery rhymes and childrens’ games are seen as separate from ‘real’ poetry, and analysis of poetry takes this seriousness for granted. Indeed, poetry is so professionalised that many express embarrassment at their own amateur ‘attempts.’ There is a modern notion of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ poetry, which is perhaps only evaded by comic poetry. This is so very different to earlier attitudes. During the 19th century anyone might compose poetry as a diversion or even as part of a parlour game and there seems to be far less shame involved in sharing this ‘word play.’ Perhaps the loss of playfulness in both the reading and writing of poetry has contributed to the gradual decline in its popularity over the past century.

Skye M. W.

Festa della Madonna della Salute, 2015

image: Ring of Roses, Frederick Morgan (1847-1927)

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