Towards a Definition of Poetry

Towards a Definition of Poetry

_____ "Who needs a definition of poetry?

_____ Poets. Readers can pick up a poem, enjoy it, toss it aside and never give poetry another thought. They don't need to be told what they like and they don't need to be told what they should consider poetry, good or bad. In fact, readers should be telling us what poetry is. In a roundabout, filtered, slow, convoluted and arcane way (i.e. prosody), they do!

_____ Only the magician needs to know how a trick is designed and performed. Similarly, poets--and judges, editors, critics and creative writing teachers--need a workable definition simply because they are on the supply side (including quality control). Imagine if you ordered a 6th Century European armourer to manufacture a gun, saying only that guns are things that kill people. What do you suppose the chances are of that craftsman producing anything that fires a bullet?

_____ "Yes, but unlike the armourer, budding contemporary poets have seen a poem."

_____ True, but those new poets have also seen a lot of things presented as poetry that, frankly, weren't. Thus, they're back at square one, all the more confused.

_____ What, then, is poetry?

A Definition

_____ Definitions and evaluations of poetry fail due to a number of reasons, chief among them:
  • They confuse an application with a definition (e.g. "Poetry is a form of seduction");

  • They confuse the subset (e.g. metrical, philosophical, classical) with the whole (poetry);

  • They confuse quality (i.e. good versus bad) with identity (i.e. poetry or not);

  • They confuse the cause (poetry) with the (emotional, intellectual, informative or humourous) effect; or,

  • They confuse the vessel (poetry) with the cargo (content).
_____ Banana boats are not made out of bananas nor do they transport only bananas (especially on their return trips). Any statement that begins with "Poems must convey..." or "Poems must be about..." is demonstrably wrong. How many times must we hear a judge or critic saying "this poem is great because of [its subject, storyline or message]"? Defining poetry by content is like trying to grab a drowning donkey by its bubbles.

_____ Of course, many of the definitions that we'll encounter were never meant to be taken seriously; the commenter is merely posing for tourists. For example, this nonsense could describe anything from the Midnight Express to a hemmorhagic fever:

"Poetry is a rich, full-bodied whistle, cracked ice crunching in pails, the night that numbs the leaf, the duel of two nightingales, the sweet pea that has run wild ..."

_____ It is as if they are entrants in a contest to see who can produce the most ridiculous and useless "definition". If so, this would be my contribution:

_____ "Poetry is a dagger to the heart, minus the dagger."

_____ Nor does it get any better when these people try to define poets, as this leg-pull suggests:

What is a Poet?

_____ A poet is somebody who feels, and who expresses his feelings through words. This may sound easy. It isn't. A lot of people think or believe or know they feel -- but that's thinking or believing or knowing; not feeling. and poetry is feeling -- not knowing or believing or thinking. Almost anybody can learn to think or believe or know, but not a single human being can be taught to feel. Why? Because whenever you think or you believe or you know, you're a lot of other people; but the moment you feel, you're NOBODY-BUT-YOURSELF.

_____ Some attempt an ars poetica approach:

John Ashbury's "What is Poetry?"

Lawrence Ferlinghetti's "What is Poetry?"

_____ To be fair, the latter might have been intended as a lecture with linebreaks but, with Ferlinghetti, one can never be sure.

_____ Clearly, none of these definitions would help us write a single line of poetry. Where else to look? Why, a dictionary, of course! How can we go wrong there? Well...

Collins English Dictionary (2003)

poetry [NOUN] from Mediieval Latin poetria, from Latin, poeta POET

  1. literature in metrical form; verse;
  2. the art or craft of writing verse;
  3. poetic qualities, spirit, or feeling in anything;
  4. anything resembling poetry in rhythm, beauty, etc.

_____ Hmm. #1 and #2 ignore free verse while #3 and #4 involve poetry as a metaphor. Let's try a more aesthetically inclined source:

Merrian Webster's Encyclopaedia of Literature (1995)

poetry [Middle English poetrie, from Old French, from Medieval Latin poetria]
  1. Metrical writing.
  2. The production of a poet; poems.
  3. Writing that formulates a concentrated imaginative awareness of experience in language chosen and arranged to create a specific emotional response through its meaning, sound and rhythm.

_____ #1 is the usual confusion of subset and whole. #2 is tautology. #3 comes close but fails by stating that all poems attempt to elicit an emotional response.

_____ "I should rather be skinned alive than exploit my feelings in writing. I refuse to consider Art a drain-pipe for passion, a kind of chamberpot, a slightly more elegant substitute for gossip. No, no! Genuine poetry is not the scum of the heart."

- Flaubert Gustave Flaubert (1821-1880)

_____ In fact, many if not most poems in the 20th century have sought to provoke a decidedly intellectual response. Ballads often serve no other purpose than relating the facts of an event, like a news story. Is laughter an emotion?

_____ At this point, many will fear that a definition of poetry is impossible. Think of all the conditions such a definition would have to satisfy, starting with:
  • It must be independent of culture and language;

  • It must be objective and verifiable, relying on identifiable and universal traits;

  • It must not amount to "prose with linebreaks" or "whatever the writer presents as poetry";

  • It must be acceptable to all of the different significant readerships, present and past; and,

  • It must include all existing genres, from nursery rhymes and humour to epics and Shakespearean dramas.

_____ So far, the best attempts to define poetry have focused on its components: rhythm(s), rhyme, sonics, deft use of grammatical constructs and rhetorical devices, original language, trope, etc. These are certainly improvements on Frost's synechdochical fallacy ("Poetry is metaphor") and they dismiss the legions of vendors hawking "poetry without poetry". The problem with this approach is that by not pinpointing poetry's most fundamental characteristic we miss the one unifying principle that accounts for the very existence of all these technical refinements. We'd like a more fundamental and succinct description.

_____ It's time for some good news: Not only can poetry be defined, it can be done so in one word! What is more, it is a definition that I believe everyone can accept.

_____ Before getting to that, though, we need to take two side trips. First, we need to go to our local library and look up Aesop's Fables in a number of different sources. Note that the wording changes from one telling to another.

_____ Second, we need to travel through time back to the advent of language itself. Standing around campfires, our cave-dwelling ancestors would have had two forms of entertainment: storytelling versus poetry/song. What arbitrary distinction separated these two? The answer is as obvious and undeniable as the difference between "The Iliad" and Aesop's Fables.

_____ Storytellers needed to get their facts straight but, beyond that, exact wording was unnecessary. Indeed, it may even have been incumbent on them to change the wording with each recounting. Five speakers could tell the same story and it might still be interesting due to these variations.

_____ By contrast, poetry had to be recited word-for-word. If someone liked a particular rendering of a story so much that they memorized and repeated it, that became a poem. This, then, is poetry's definition, one that has not changed in the eons since the dawn of language itself:

_____ Poetry is verbatim.

_____ Of course, others have said much the same thing:

"Poetry is like making a joke. If you get one word wrong at the end of a joke, you have lost the whole thing."

- W.S. Merwin

"A poet can survive everything but a misprint."

- Oscar Wilde

_____ Yes, I know that it seems disappointingly slap-your-forehead obvious and simplistic, but there you have it. Radically revise the words--but not the facts--to a story and it remains intact; make wholesale changes to the words of a poem or song and you have a different work.

_____ Let us not underestimate the profound impact this fact has even today, though. It goes well beyond competing on television's "Don't Forget the Lyrics". We see the ramifications not only in our canon but in every poem published and in every slam, open microphone or recital ever held. If nothing else, it explains why some reciters want to shoot themselves if they mess up even one word during their performance.

_____ With the development of writing and, later, the Gutenberg press, prose seemed to become a verbatim art form. After all, your copy of Timothy Findley's "Headhunter" is identical to mine. Nevertheless, we can finish the greatest novel of our time, not remember a single sentence of it and still consider it a classic. Even today, some people memorize Homer's epics but not Harper Lee's "To Kill A Mockingbird" or Herman Melville's "Moby Dick". We can note how fiction outsells poetry 1,000 to 1 yet it is poetry that is quoted more often. What about the theatre? Scripts have to be memorized by performers but is the audience tempted to do so? What plays are quoted other than Shakespeare's dramatic poetry? Poetry will always remain the only verbatim art form where it matters: in the minds of performers and audience members.

_____ Poetry, then, is verbatim for everyone, not just the performers. "Everyone" means exactly that. Poetry is often designed to reach well beyond those in attendance. With this in mind, let's consider a sibling closer to poetry than the theatre: rhetoric. The orator and the poet have always been raiding each other's pantry. Great speeches can be every bit as memorable and quotable as great poems. The two have a lot more similarities than differences, to be sure. The distinction arises from a speech being slightly closer to the road sign: the orator wants to inspire people with a message that addresses an immediate concern. The speaker and orator are one, without a narrator or "voice". The entreaty is not generally intended to outlive the cause. The audience rarely exceeds those within earshot (including those hearing the speaker on radio or television). Win or lose, a general doesn't usually care if his exhortations are forgotten after a battle. By contrast, poets, who may also be advocating a course of action, are not necessarily speaking for/as themselves and are often including a broader, less immediate audience, perhaps even one as yet unborn. Thus, rhetoric tends to concern the present, poetry the absent. In order to access short term memory, orators tend to employ the more obvious devices (e.g. anaphora, anadiplosis, referent sharing, sloganeering, etc.) rather than subtler, longer term memory aids like sonics and rhythm. In short, orators repeat words and phrases, poets repeat everything, right down to the phonemes.

_____ In any event, it may be enough for now to accept poetry as being a verbatim rather than the verbatim art form.

_____ The memorization of poems became a major cultural, historical and religious undertaking in preliterate societies. Prosody may be humankind's first science, predating even astronomy and the crudest medicines. Its raison d'être was to facilitate the memorization of poetry by measuring how easy it was for reciters to assimilate and for audience members to be impressed by the phrasing. Over the eons, whatever worked became technique or device; whatever didn't would be soon lost. Poetry, then, became what was memorizable for the reciters and memorable for the listeners. In short, poetry is what remained.

_____ It goes without saying that poems didn't always remain 100% intact over time. An author or authority might deliberately revise the words, in which case the newer "official" draft would be memorized--often creating two or more versions. Despite the diligence of tribal elders and pedagogues, variations would creep in over time for any number of reasons: imperfect memories, sloppy renditions, differing dialects, evolving language, disasters affecting the population of reliable reciters, et cetera. What mattered was the attempt to retain the words as uniform as possible, not the relative success. That said, anyone who has ever flubbed the words of a prayer, a national anthem or a presidential oath of office can confirm the importance of accurate replication.

_____ This retention wasn't left to chance. Mnemonic tricks were developed. Thus, if we don't mind going from the standard (i.e. verbatim) to the method we might say:

_____ Prosody is mnemonics.

_____ Of course, this is simply another view of:

"A poem is just a little machine for remembering itself."

- Don Paterson

_____ The tricks used in designing these "little machines" can be categorized in two words: brevity and repetition. In the case of "minipoems" or "poemlets" (e.g. haiku, tanka, small aphoristic or imagistic pieces, slogans, etc.) compact size may be the only mnemonic required. There is no challenge in memorizing this:

Christmas Tsunami, 2004

Look! Starfish
on treetops.

_____ Question: "Hold on. How can we call small size a 'mnemonic'?"

_____ Answer: By bearing in mind the process of refinement and compression that got us to that miniaturized state.

_____ Note: I didn't say the mnemonic couldn't be "transparent to the user".

_____ Some argue that this compression itself defines poetry.

"Poetry is a language pared down to its essentials."

- Ezra Pound

_____ The argument is that poetry is the most efficient use of language. The flaw in this position is that it isn't true--or at least it isn't exclusively so. Any imperative ("Go!") or road sign ("1" on Highway #1, "55", "Stop") is at least as clear, concise and informative as any poemlet. So why is Basho a poet while the typical drill sargeant or sign writer isn't? The command or signage demands to be understood and, we hope, obeyed. A poem asks only to be remembered and, perhaps, quoted. Thus, what matters is not the distillation of language but the purpose of that process.

_____ Short poems are by no means the only ones that practice concision; even epic poets demonstrate an economy of words. As poems get longer, though, we need to use more and more "pit stops" or repetitions. What is it that we repeat? Everything from phonemes (assonance, consonance, alliteration) up through syllables (rhyme), feet (rhythm), stich length (meter), words and phrases (anaphora, anadiplosis) to whole lines (repetends) and stanzas (choruses). To stretch a point, form can be viewed as one poem repeating others. While reciting a villanelle we know that Line #3 will rhyme with Line #1.

The Role of Memory

_____ For the consumer, especially, the test is memory. If you don't remember a single phrase of a reading what does it matter whether it was poetry or prose? Nevertheless, this is a reliable indicator that, for you, the offering was not a poem. If no one can recall any of it we have the consensus we need to say that it wasn't poetry.

_____ If you'll excuse the pun, memory is a gray area. A photographic memory is, ironically, useless to this endeavour because the person can remember soup can instructions as easily as "Musée des Beaux Arts". Similarly, we aren't talking about short term memory; almost anyone can recall something they heard or read five minutes ago. The question is whether we can reconstruct any part of something days or weeks later--long after we have forgotten the "tropeless minutiae of life" that transpired just before and after experiencing the poem.


_____ "So we have to listen to something two or three times over the course of weeks, months or years before we can say that it isn't poetry?"

_____ No. Most people are quite good at predicting what they will recall and what they won't. Conspicuous presence or lack of technique can serve as a guideline. Still, some poems may surprise--"grow" on--us after a rencontre or two.

_____ "So if we can remember even a single phrase of a piece it becomes a poem? The Hope Diamond in a gaudy setting is still a gem but is it jewelry?"

_____ "Filler & killer" poems are designed to highlight one particular phrase. These are recognized by the less pronounced but still evident poetry aspects in the "filler" parts underscoring the "killer" line(s) sonically, rhythmically and thematically. "Hookers" by Marco Morales is a perfect example:

Missing you again
I embrace shallow graves.
Pale faces, doughlike breasts
help me forget.

_____ Obviously, L2 is the keeper. The quirky iambic meter continues throughout, marked by acephaly (L1), double iamb (L2) and spondaic (L3) and trochaic (L4) substitutions. We regard L2 as "sonics central", with the assonance of "again" and "faces" keying on "embrace" and "graves", "breasts", "help" and "forget" hitting on "embrace". The last syllables of the even numbered lines alliterate: "graves" and "forget".

_____ In addition to "filler & killer" efforts we will see poetry embedded within prose. This can be intentional but, sadly, is far more frequently unintentional. Often we'll encounter "experimental" poets throwing a bunch of (often inchoate and/or imagistic) lines at us in the hope that one of them will stick. Scattergun writing. 100 monkeys, 100 keyboards, 100 publications, 100 years.

_____ "Assuming it makes sense, if something has meter and, say, rhyme, is it automatically a poem?"

_____ Yes, although it may be a terrible one. Note how predictable such poems are on a second pass. Hell, some are predictable enough on the first pass!

_____ "I have trouble memorizing my free verse poems, even after I've recited them a hundred times. Is that significant?"

_____ Yes. If the person who wrote the poem can never remember all of it there is a good chance an audience won't remember any of it. This is a central irony: most bad poems are metrical simply because most free verse attempts aren't poems.

_____ "What about clichés? Aren't they the ultimate memory aid?"

_____ Yes, but they only work for the clichés themselves. By putting the reader to sleep clichés usually impede assimilation of the rest of the poem. It might be argued, though, that the perverse ambition of every poem is to become one giant cliché.

_____ "What if, as a careful listener or reader, I enjoyed a piece but can't bring to mind any exact words from it?"

_____ Then it has succeeded as storytelling and failed as poetry.

_____ Simplex sigillum veri.

_____ Stories are told. Prose is read, sometimes aloud. Only poetry is recited.

I am not as good as I think I am.

- Scavella's mantra

You may call me a poet when they write it on my headstone.

- Deep Thought by Donner

Even a burning flag has to be waved, if only to put out the flames.

- Dale M. Houstman (r.a.p. 2009-01-21)

A wit is always ready with a clever word. A half wit is always ready with a clever word of someone else's.

- "Leanne" (Freewrights, 22-04-2008)

"His arguments are as thin as the soup made from the shadow of a pigeon that starved to death.

- Abraham Lincoln on the debating ability of Stephen A. Douglas.

Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired signifies, is, in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed. The world in arms is not spending money alone. It is spending the sweat of its laborers, the genius of its scientists, the hopes of its children. This is not a way of life at all, in any true sense. Under the cloud of threatening war, it is humanity hanging from a cross of iron.

- Dwight D. Eisenhower, April 16, 1953

He uses statistics as a drunken man uses lamp-posts...for support rather than illumination.

- Andrew Lang (1844-1912)

As a reader, I didn't come here to use my imagination. I came to use yours.

Common sense is not an open-book test.

Heckler: "I wouldn't vote for you if you were the Archangel Gabriel!"

Sir John A. McDonald: "If you're voting for the Archangel Gabriel you aren't in my constituency."

Art is not a declaration; it's a verdict.

- Leonard Cohen

Art is not what you see, but what you make others see.

- Edgar Degas

I am patient with stupidity but not with those who are proud of it.

- Edith Sitwell

Those who disparage wit are too willing to settle for half.

Write what you know. That should leave you with a lot of free time.

- Howard Nemerov

Everyone has tastes, even those with none.

He'd sell a rat's asshole to a blindman for a wedding ring.

- Richard Brautigan ("Negative Clank", 1970)

Don't worry about your voice until someone is listening.

Writing is to poetry as paper is to stone.

Poetry is not about the writer or the reader. It is about everything in between.

Try to be understood too quickly.

A guppy may think itself a whale until it sees the ocean.

Poetry used to have readers. Now it has constituencies.

Art sustains rather than disdains its audience.

Please tell me there were no dice involved in choosing your words.

- "Sick Mind", Manny Delsanto, 2004

If at first you don't succeed try, try, try a gun.

- "Sick Mind", Manny Delsanto, 2007

You use words like a magpie uses wedding rings.

- Gerard Ian Lewis, alt.arts.poetry.comments, 2007-02-04

Triteness is a minor flaw, easily remedied (should nothing else occur to you) by adding a mysterious reference to a goat in the last line.

- Gerard Ian Lewis, rec.arts.poems, 2008-04-05

Any society that would give up a little liberty to gain a little security will deserve neither and lose both.

- Benjamin Franklin

If you've got no sense of humour you've got no sense at all.

Margaret A. Griffiths (1947-2009)

Tribute by Alan Wickes

Obituary in the Bourne Mouth Daily Echo

Eratosphereans say goodbye

Studying Savonarola


"Let us go then, and feign our love of verse"
by Giles Coren


Lost Generation
by metroamv (Jonathan Reed)

by Tim Minchin

Sonnet XVIII
sung by Pink Floyd's David Gilmour

Sand Animation
Kseniya Simonova

The Death Cat
from "This Hour has 22 Minutes

Yes We Can
Barack Obama &

Amazing Grace
By Wintley Phipps


The Gender Genie and The Gender Guesser

Annenberg's "Literary Visions" series

Bob Byway's "Glossary of Poetic Terms"

Poem Tips (a quick and dirty primer)

How to Scan a Poem

Simple Poetry Quiz

Rules of Poetry
Humor by Dennis Hammes

rulez 4 aspiring ~poets~
Humor by Peter John Ross


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