To the question “What is poetry?” there is, let’s face it, no definitive answer. A bad novel is still a novel, a poor story still a story. But an unworthy poem is doggerel or, at best, verse, but not to be dignified as a poem. I suppose that makes poetry a higher form of art, although a great novel or story can equally qualify as art with unflinching pride.
Certainly the Romantics proclaimed poetry the supreme literary genre, which was not always so. One major 18th-century Frenchman (was it Buffon?) declared of a poem that it was almost as well written as prose. According to Rilke’s poet protagonist Malte Laurids Brigge, it takes a whole lifetime of living and polishing to create a few lines of poetry. In any case, poetry has often been termed as a prime example of something defying definition.
Dennis O’Driscoll’s excellent “Quote Poet Unquote,” to which I’ll make frequent reference, begins with an ominous motto: “BOSWELL: Sir, what is poetry? JOHNSON: Why, Sir, it is much easier to say what it is not.” And in his introduction, O’Driscoll goes on to quote the Doctor: “To circumscribe poetry by a definition will only shew the narrowness of the definer.“ He also refers to the most famous would-be definitions in English, Coleridge’s “the best words in the best order” and Wordsworth’s “emotion recollected in tranquility” as inadequate.
Surely emotion can be recollected in tranquility in prose as well as in verse, as the great fiction writers have amply demonstrated. Coleridge’s definition sounds a bit more useful, but what are the best words and on whose say-so? The words “Swiss cheese” are as good as anything in writing about food, but how good are they really, and how does one determine the best order? From left to right, presumably, but not so in Hebrew.
O’Driscoll begins his introduction with what I began above, “A defining mark of poetry is that it defies definition. On this, if nothing else, poets and critics of all stripes, camps, and persuasions tend to agree.” But he also points out that this never could, and never should, stop us from trying, which, at a minimum, should result in such epigrams as Michael Longley’s, “If I knew where poems came from, I’d go there.”
Of course, it has long been argued that the finest poetry, at least in the allegedly very poetic pastoral style, came from Arcadia. But that region in the center of the Peloponnesus has not produced a single major poet, unless you press Theocritus into that role.
Well, O’Driscoll’s book comprises 303 pages, and not one that doesn’t yield at least something interesting on the subject. On the first page, we get this from David Gascoyne (in “Strand,” Spring 1992): “Poetry is like a substance, the words stick together as though they were magnetized to each other.” Save that here “one another” would be preferable to “each other” (surely it takes more than two words to make a poem), this is thought provoking. But there is also the clumsy quote from Rita Dove: “Poetry is the purest of the language arts. It is the tightest cage, and if you can get it to sing in that cage it’s really, really wonderful.” (“Poetry Flash”, January 1993.) According to Dove, poetry is both the cage and that which may be made to sing inside it. I guess she means strict form (cage) and melodious sound (really, really wonderful), but exactly what is that? And does meaning count for nothing?
Probably too much has been made of sound at the expense of meaning. So John Crowe Ransom pointed out that Tennyson’s “The murmur of innumerable bees,” thought to be wonderfully onomatopoetic, could be just as well “the murder of innumerable beeves,” which no one would find euphonious. Yet when sound or melodiousness is intense throughout a poem, credit should be given. But for this purpose, meter and rhyme are best suited, though both have been largely jettisoned by modern poetry.
When you look at the work of most modern poets, indeed those most respected and even venerated, what you tend to get is largely a thing that differs from prose only in line breaks, which, together with enjambment, make for something shorter but similar to the paragraphs in prose.
The first section of “Quote Poet Unquote,” subtitled “Contemporary Quotations on Poets and Poetry,” is--under the heading “What Is It Anyway?” –- five and a half pages of fascinating quotations, more or less aphoristic, but hardly definitive.
From my book, “Dreamers of Dreams,” there is this: “Poetry is the meeting point of parallel lines—in infinity, but also in the here and now. It is where the patent and incontrovertible intersects with the ineffable and incommensurable.” What I was trying to say, using the mysterious mathematical formula about parallel lines (which I have never quite understood) in the sense of the arcane (ineffable and incommensurable) somehow fusing with personal conviction or faith in individual truth (patent and incontrovertible). A state where the private becomes universal, the mortal immortal, the “mine” somehow “everybody’s.” Or experience becomes history.
There is the famous comment of Mallarme to, I believe Degas, who had submitted to him some verse for evaluation. Noticing the poet’s disapproval, the painter defended the contained ideas. Mallarme answered, “It is not with ideas that a poem is made; it is with words,” meaning that form is content, that expression supersedes intention.
Take, for instance, Thomas Nashe’s famous lines: “Brightness falls from the air;/ Queens have died young and fair;/ Dust hath closed Helen’s eye./ I am sick, I must die.” Some have argued for a typo, and that the line should read “Brightness falls from the hair.” That may be the idea, but “air” is unforgettable, “hair” is not.
Get hold of “Quote Poet Unquote” and read at least those first five-and-a-half pages, and you’ll find most quotations memorable. Thus Peter Porter’s “Poetry is either language lit up by life or life lit up by language,’ very good, but prose.. Alexander Pope, however, gets poetry out of meter and rhyme, as in “Drink deep or not at all from the Pierian spring,/ A little knowledge is a dangerous thing.”
Now I know that French poetry—to say nothing of the Japanese haiku—is syllabic, as in the twelve-syllable Alexandrine, but it is the caesura and rhyme that make the verse poetry. Free verse can be beautiful, even perdurable, but I do not consider it poetry (forget about Whitman). “Give me liberty or give me death” is effective rhetoric, but not poetry. But make it read, “I’ll say with both my first and final breath/ Give me liberty or give me death,” and it becomes, even with that catalectic second line, poetry.
On what is poetry (the word comes from the Greek “poiema,” meaning something made or created), I find that invaluable work, J. A. Cuddon’s “Literary Terms and Literary Theory” both concise and always helpful. We read: “In the final analysis what makes a poem different from any other kind of composition is a species of magic, the secret to which lies in the way the words lean upon each other, are linked and interlocked in sense and rhythm, and thus elicit from each other’s syllables a kind of tune whose beat and melody varies subtly and which is different from that of prose—‘the other harmony.’” (Shades of Gascoyne’s “the words stick together”).
It is interesting to contemplate the German words “Dichter” and “Dichtung,” which are applied equally to authors and works of poetry and prose, to lyric, epic, novelistic or short-story works. German does not have a word such as the English novelist or the French “romancier.” “Schriftsteller,” which is the closest to it, means merely writer, and is never applied to a poet. There is, however, the German word “Poet,” albeit somewhat antiquated or “literary.”
Cuddon’s word, “magic,” though much abused, is not inappropriate , not here a hyperbole. There is something magical about a successful poem, even if written in simple and everyday diction, as for example by that great French poet, Jacques Prevert. This is why the quotations in O”Driscoll’s book, though illuminating and often witty, original and imaginative, do not constitute an ungainsayable definition.
Thus most of those quotations are metaphors and similes, not definitions. Take Billy Collins’s “Poetry is like standing on the edge of a lake on a moonlit night and the light of the moon is always pointing straight at you,” or R. S. Thomas’s “Poetry is that/ which arrives at the intellect/ by way of the heart.”
Very nice, but no definitions.. Such cleverness, however acute or even poignant, remains eminently debatable, whereas such things as “hatred” or “armchair” or “shadow” are indisputably defining.
Now, after all this, are we any closer to a definition of poetry? Not really. But what upon a sufficient number of years and by a sufficient number of people, preferably educated, is read, preferably aloud, and declared a poem, very likely is a poem. And what it is made of is poetry.