Earl Gray

Earl Gray
"You can argue with me but, in the end, you'll have to face that fact that you're arguing with a squirrel." - Earl Gray

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Definition of Poetry

Earl the Squirrel's Rule #22
 (Reprinted with author's permission)
     (Click here for brief version)

"Who needs a definition of poetry?"

      Poets.  Readers can pick up a poem, enjoy it, toss it aside and never give poetry another thought until they encounter it again.  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!  Or, at least, they used to.

     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."

Earl the Squirrel's Rule #78
      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?

      Definitions and evaluations of poetry fail due to a number of reasons, chief among them:

  1. They confuse an application with a definition (e.g. "Poetry is a form of seduction");

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

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

  4. They confuse the cause (poetry) with the (emotional, intellectual, informative or humorous) effect; or,

  5. They confuse a mode (i.e. poetry versus prose) with a genre¹ (e.g. fiction, non-fiction, horror, romance, mystery, drama, humor, etc.), the vessel (poetry) with the cargo (content).

Earl the Squirrel's Rule #53
    Because modes are independent of content, 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]"? 

     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:

Boris Pasternak: 

"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:

e.e. cummings:

                         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

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


Collins English Dictionary (2003):

poetry [NOUN] from Medieval 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.  How can we speak of "poetic qualities" or "resembling poetry" before we define poetry itself?  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.  

Flaubert Gustave Flaubert (1821-1880):

"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."

      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:
  1. It must be independent of culture and language;

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

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

  4. It must be acceptable to different significant audiences, present and past; and,

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

Earl the Squirrel's Rule #56
       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, one that helps us identify what poetry was even before these techniques and devices were developed.

      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.

Earl the Squirrel's Rule #87
      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:  prose/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 presented word-for-word.  If someone liked a particular rendering of a story so much that they memorized and repeated it, that became a poem².  This, then, is poetry's definition, one that has not changed in the millennia since the dawn of language itself: 

      Poetry is verbatim.

      Of course, others have said much the same thing:

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

Oscar Wilde: "A poet can survive everything but a misprint."

Étienne "Stéphane" Mallarmé:  "My dear Degas, poems are not made out of ideas. They're made out of words."

      Yes, I know that it seems disappointingly slap-your-forehead obvious³ 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. 

Earl the Squirrel's Rule #20
      Let us not underestimate the profound impact this fact has even today, though.  It goes well beyond our remarkable ability to recall song 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 performers want to shoot themselves if they mess up even one word.

      With the development of writing and, later, the Gutenberg press, prose seemed to have 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, more importantly, audience members.

Earl the Squirrel's Rule #76
      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.

      This retention wasn't left to chance.  Memory aids 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:

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

Earl the Squirrel's Rule #67
      The tricks used in designing these "little machines" can be categorized in two words:  concision 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.

      Some argue that this compression itself defines poetry. 

Ezra Pound:  "Poetry is a language pared down to its essentials."

Earl the Squirrel's Rule #30
      The argument is that poetry is the most efficient use of language.  Aside from ignoring all of the repetitions we see in poetry, the flaw in this position is that it isn't true--or at least it isn't exclusively so.  Any imperative ("March!") 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 language distillation itself but its purpose.

Earl the Squirrel's Rule #62
      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.  Everything is repeated, 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.

       Stories are told.  Only poetry is recited.

Poetry                              Prose

Genre                               Genre
  - e.g. fiction, nonfiction,        
- e.g. fiction, nonfiction,
         romance, comedy, etc.          romance, comedy, etc.

    - e.g. trimeter, pentameter, etc.      
    - free verse
    - prose poetry
    - pre-prosodic

  - formal
      - e.g. sonnets, ghazals, etc.
  - non-formal verse
      - meter/stanzas but no

        recognized form (e.g. sonnet)
  - open
      - e.g. free verse, prose poetry


¹ - This is the basic error that Lewis Turco made in "The Book of Forms".  Unlike a mode, a genre is defined by its content.  For example, romantic fiction must be mushy and untrue;  poetry or prose can be about anything.

² - We shouldn't overlook the fact that it was the audience, not the authors, editors, publishers or critics, who determined what was poetry.  No audience?  No poetry.

³ - Because we're trying to distinguish poetry from prose we won't get into the hybrid, "prose poetry", right now.

Learning Poetry - 1. Definition (in three minutes)

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