What is Poetry?

For anyone perverse enough to enjoy violent, unproductive argument I suggest going into a college classroom and putting to the students the very simple question, “What is poetry?” You will find this a more effective means of sewing discord than discussing politics or religion at the dinner table—particularly if any of the students in the room believe themselves to be writers of poetry. Woe to the person whose definition of poetry excludes the productions of a person who deems himself a poet!

It has not always been this way. For a long time, the word “poetry” referred to a readily identifiable form of literature, governed by certain explicit rules, distinguishable from prose, drama, and grocery lists. Now, however, the rules that once governed the form and identity of poetry no longer shape the definition of “poetry” in the minds of most readers of literature. Thus the title of this essay—On Poetry—tells the prospective reader next to nothing—except that perhaps I am going to write about what I think poetry is, in contrast to what my readers may think it is; and clearly I am going to offend a lot of people, and may have begun offending them already.

Much of this problem arises from the fact that the word “poetry” has taken on a powerful positive connotation that overshadows the word’s denotative meaning. This condition afflicts also religious designations (“Christian” and “un-Christian”) and national designations (“American” and “un-American”), among other important terms, such that use of the terms describe a personal emotion (“I like it” vs. “I don’t like it) rather than stating anything at all about whether the so-described object is in fact poetic, or Christian, or American. Such emotional connotations undermine their terms’ denotative meaning, making it impossible to productively use the terms, or discuss their definitions. I trust my readers will avoid this problem by laying aside how they feel about our subject long enough to consider what it is they are feeling about in the first place.

Let us then step back a moment in time—before relativism, before modernism, before free verse, before modern democracy, before Romanticism—and let us ask, “What is a poem? What distinguishes a poem from prose? from drama? from a grocery list?”

One may be tempted to define poetry in terms of its object (its purpose or function), and therefore consider emotion, or exalted language, to be the defining features of poetry. But closer examination contradicts this hypothesis: the object of prose or drama might also be the expression of emotion, and may be expressed through exalted language still as prose or drama. What then separates poetry from these classes of literature?

The answer—obvious to another era but often overlooked today—lies within the form, not function of a poem: the words in a poem are ordered according to a specific pattern or rhythm—in addition to the grammar of a language, which may be deviated from to a greater extent than in drama or prose—which is the dominant feature of the work. This pattern or rhythm is termed meter.

Many forms of meter exist—though as a general rule there is one dominant meter for any given language. For example, Classical Greek and Latin meter is governed by syllable length; Chinese, Japanese, and Korean meter by syllable number; Old English meter by alliteration and stress (accentual-alliterative); Hebrew meter by parallel thought. English meter—English poetry—is governed by syllable stress and number (accentual-syllabic). It is the shaping of a subject into a sequence of words ordered according to alternating stresses (stressing either every other syllable or every third syllable) and numbers of syllables per line that defines traditional English poetry—and the very structure that contemporary “poets” rebel against.

(The governing principle of English meter is not rhyme. English poetry has been written with and without rhyme—rhyme being an optional rule applied in addition to the metrical rules which created poetry. This is important to note, because many writers today mistakenly associate rhyme with the governing principle of English verse, and consequently misconstrue the debate over meter. Milton’s Paradise Lost is written in blank verse—an unrhymed metrical form—not free verse.)

The task, then, for a poet is to find the proper words and the proper word order to express his or her subject within the boundaries of his or her chosen meter. The genius of a poet lies in his or her ability to do this in such a manner that the form complements the subject rather than restricts it. In contrast, bad poetry is created when the poet must change his or her subject, or throw in meaningless words, in order to fit the rhyme or rhythm of the poem.

For traditional English poetry, the art of poetry and the artifice of poetry are inseparable. This describes the historical reality of English verse—make what value judgement on it you will. Yet this is clearly not a description of contemporary English poetry (if indeed any description is possible). What happened?

Actually, no one thing happened; rather, several literary and cultural changes occurred that simply recast traditional English meter as unfashionable, favoring instead a “freer” form of expression. We begin with the Romantic cult of artistic genius.

The form of Romantic poetry (not to be confused with romantic poetry; capital letters are important) is traditional enough: the Romantic era poets wrote in English meter, attending to the principle of alternating stress. What was not traditional about them was the way they perceived themselves, and their work.

“Poetry,” declared Wordsworth, “is the spontaneous overflow of emotion, recollected in tranquility.” This definition shifted the identity of poetry away from its form and towards its function—and so did much to alter the popular conception of poetry. One of the consequences was the suspicion of meter: whereas formerly meter had created a poem, now it could be construed as an obstacle: how can one express “the spontaneous overflow of emotion” if one is confined to meter? Never mind that Wordsworth wrote in meter, or that he “recollected in tranquility” the emotion that inspired the poem—for now emotion was perceived to be the poem itself. Hence the Neoclassical poetry of Alexander Pope, being the creation of reason and meter—wit—was to become regarded as illegitimate verse.

Shortly after Wordsworth’s spurious [re]definition, Shelly declared that “poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world”—a statement characteristic of the cult of artistic genius in Romantic literature, music, and painting. Artists became the true men and women of the world, Promethean heroes who challenged the gods and society, living as superior beings outcast from the world. (Of course, readers who understood and appreciated their work could share in this vaunted superiority.) Poetry had undergone a transformation in terms of its social significance: formerly the work of learned intellectuals, it was now the proper domain of the individual of passion.

The poetry-as-emotion theory, fairly created in the Romantic era, continues to be championed today, and has become so much a part of our culture that many people simply assume it to be the natural, eternal definition of poetry—despite the fact that it is a relatively recent phenomenon. Meanwhile, the theory regards metrical poetry as suspect—artificial, with all the negative connotation that word now can muster.

Another consequence of this theory is the perception that poetry is the sacred expression of the poet, and therefore a poem cannot be termed good or bad without making a judgement upon the poet. Such is our cultural view of personal emotion.

But the Romantic re-definition of poetry is only part of the story. For the next part, we must cross the Atlantic Ocean to America, land of rampant individualism and Walt Whitman.

Whitman (who interestingly enough, could write outstanding metrical poetry) pioneered the style of poetry that later became known as free verse—though this is not the same type of free verse as that which dominates the twentieth century. Whitman’s goal was to develop a form of poetic expression independent of traditional metrical forms—not to develop a poetic expression that was formless (a distinction rarely recognized by most writers of “free verse” today). His work expressed the values of individualism and personal expression (two forces which also chafe under traditional forms, which they regard as restrictive), and has come to embody the spirit of American poetry.

What happened to poetry afterwards happened also to painting, for the same cultural reasons. Between Whitman in poetry and the Post-Impressionists in painting, Pandora’s Box was opened: new “forms” multiplied themselves, and artists in every corner were preaching the end of the traditional along with the purer—more “authentic”—virtue of the new. But while in visual art we at least have some names to identify types of work (cubism, fauvism, futurism, suprematism, etc.), in poetry we have only the catch-all term, “free verse”—and as this expression continues to proliferate, it becomes increasingly difficult for readers—and authors—to identify what shapes that verse. Some readers may regard this artistic proliferation—this unrestrained freedom of expression—as a good thing; others may regard it as travesty.

Poetry-as-emotion and poetry-as-individual-expression are invoked to describe the creations—but no one can cogently identify what qualifies this emotion and individual expression as “poetry” in contrast to prose rendered in short lines and sentence fragments. The situation is further compounded by cultural devotion to moral relativism, which annexes the realms of visual literary art: now nobody has the right to say anybody else’s creation is not “art,” or “poetry.”

Thus the cynic defines poetry as “whatever people say is poetry”—and is justified in doing so.

The entire malaise of identification is ironic: if a word refers to everything, that it effectively refers to nothing—yet so powerful is the positive emotional connotation of the word “poetry” that authors of what is in truth a nameless category of linguistic production—insist upon calling their work poetry.
it sucks
could count as poetry—though nobody could say why, and nobody could dare to say why not.

Of course the devotees to formal poetry—for traditional English meter has only been marginalized, not eliminated—could say (without value judgement, even—but value judgement is nevertheless assumed) that the above example does not constitute a poem. But formal poets today are few and far between, and often regarded as the Oppressors of poetic expression, in exactly the same way traditional churches are regarded as the Oppressors of the expression of faith.

Unfortunately, there is no solution for this dilemma of definition—or at least no solution that will ever be accepted culturally. One might think it simple enough to invent a new term to designate “free verse”—one that would be regarded as taxonomically equal to the terms Drama, Prose, and Poetry—but again, the term “poetry” has such a desirable connotation that writers of free verse will never relinquish it. Therefore to me, the term “poetry” alone is meaningless: either use the term “formal poetry” or the term “free verse” (and don’t forget that blank verse is metrical, formal poetry); then we can hold a meaningful conversation.


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