As we pass the midway point of 2020’s National Poetry Month, it seems fitting that we pause and examine this apparently most-elusive or ambiguous of the written arts. It confounds, frustrates, and maddens people.
It also elevates, enlightens, and touches them.
A good starting point for examination is seen in 1989’s Dead Poets Society when instructor John Keating, played by Robin Williams, takes his class through an “exercise” in demolishing academic orthodoxy by having his students rip out pages of their textbook titled “Understanding Poetry,” an academic screed by one J. Evans Pritchard, Ph.D.
It becomes a liberating act in the lives of these prep-schoolers and reveals Keating’s boundary-breaking love for the written word.
It also convinces the audience to join in the anarchy that leads to true appreciation for the poetic art, as it can be when freed from any “establishment” rule.
Still, I believe that those who delve into poetry as a serious artistic form of expression do need some guidelines—a starting point if you will—as to its nature, especially given how poetry can adhere to “traditional” formats of structure (haiku, sestina, sonnet) or form (verse, meter, rhyme scheme) yet also shatter them completely. Add the fact that poetry employs the other available literary techniques, and it seems evident that some guideposts are needed to separate the poet (Phillip Levine and Robert Creeley first come to my mind) from the commercial salesman (sorry, Rod McKuen, but I am talking about you).
Moreover, such an examination of this literary form can assist the reader, whether approaching poems from a scholarly perspective or an informal one.
As with all other arts, the meaning of the medium is a central question, and this is what I like to start with in anything: what does it—the word “poetry”—mean? However, I’m not talking here about its philosophical or spiritual meaning. I mean its denotative rather than connotative meaning. In other words, how should we define poetry?
As opposed to our fictional Dr. Pritchard, I plan on opening the conversation a bit wider by considering some of the answers to that question that I’ve run across over the years before arriving at my preferred definition.
Let me start with some personal background: I came to poetry in an unexpected way as a college journalist who, some 30-plus years ago, attended a media conference. One workshop listed was billed as a discussion on “How to Improve Your Writing.”
It turned out to be a very short lecture. The woman conducting the seminar told us, quite directly, “If you want to get better at writing anything—news reporting, commentary, professional writing, whatever—start writing poems.”
She stressed that poets learn to use language by compressing imagery onto the page. This squares with Adrienne Rich’s assessment that poetry is “a concentration of the power of language” or Rita Dove’s view that “poetry is language at its most distilled and most powerful.”
Our speaker challenged us to try it when we returned to our own lives. Taking up her challenge, I discovered my first poem the next day while during breakfast in a diner.
I say “discovered” because I have come to believe few of us actually “create” a poem; rather we find it somewhere along the way and then present our discoveries as creatively as we can. As Jean Cocteau observed, “The poet doesn’t invent. He listens.”
Once I became involved with poetry, journalism never again held the same interest for me. Later, as an instructor myself, I loved the challenge of “teaching” poetry by (with any luck) opening students’ eyes to the wondrous beauty—or horror—that awaits them in the poem.
However, as an instructor, the mundane has to sneak in at the onset, and that is defining what poetry is, especially since I operate on the principal that definition offers the best way to understand our world or whatever part of it we are diving into.
So, how does one define poetry?
That is where both the fun and the madness begin because, it seems, if you were to gather ten poets and ask the question, it would probably produce at least 18 different answers.
One of the first definitions I ran into as an instructor was, like the opening scenario, from a textbook declaring poetry as “an arrangement of words into patterns predetermined by the poet.” Okay, but so is graffiti or text messages or advertisements, yet I don’t consider them poems (although they can utilize poetic devices as well as having been incorporated into poetry).
Still, that really doesn’t answer the question. Besides, how often are our poetic patterns “pre-determined?” Not very.
What have others said?
Robert Frost, one of the country’s most unfairly maligned poets, said, in his poetic and mystical fashion, “Poetry is the kind of thing that poets write.” Equally ambiguous but still fascinating is Carl Sandburg’s view of the poem being “an echo, asking a shadow to dance.” Khalil Gibran saw it as “joy and pain and wonder, with a dash of the dictionary.”
Those are interesting views on how poetry operates but do not really serve as an actual definition of the term.
Donald Justice once instructed that a “good poem should appear cinematic,” a great lesson in structure and imagery but not really a definition.
Eventually, my personal quest became trying to locate and isolate the ideal answer to the question of how does one define poetry?
Allen DeLoach, known more as a publisher and editor during the Beat movement in upstate New York but also a more-than-decent writer himself, answered my question on defining poetry this way: “Poetry is writing that resides halfway between music and conversation.” While this is an interesting view of the form, it sort of stalls there.
Edith Sitwell defined poetry as “the deification of reality” while William Wordsworth saw it as “the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings [taken] from emotion recollected in tranquility.” If memory serves, Levine said that “poetry is both oral and aural,” a great way of defining by description. As interesting as all these viewpoints are, none ranks as the best definition of what poetry is.
It turns out that—for me, at least—the superlative definition of poetry I encountered came at the most unlikely of moments from the most unlikely of sources, specifically a fellow student with whom I shared a train ride three decades ago. I was returning to Florida after visiting a friend in Vermont. Sitting in my seat, I began looking over some rough notes of pieces in progress when a younger man sharing the seat inquired if the work was mine. Answering in the affirmative, we began sharing our own writing with one another when, from behind us, we heard, “Are you guys talking about poems?”
That’s when we met a young Canadian passenger, also involved in poetry.
It wasn’t long before the three of us decided to go to the bar-car and continue our roundtable over some beers. Naturally, at one point, I brought up the question of “what is poetry” to see how my fellow travelers would respond, and that was when the Canadian said, simply and surely, “Poetry is the history of the human soul.”
And there it was, the “Eureka” moment in my search for an answer.
I repeat: “Poetry is the history of the human soul.”
This summary works both literally and literally. Bear in mind that the Greeks used the poetic form to record historical events since rhyme and meter allowed for more reliable retellings with no requirement for literacy. Besides, what is history other than the written record of present events for the sake of posterity?
As a subscriber to literary historicism myself, the statement also satisfied my belief that writing is more than a reflection of the writer; it also stands as a reflection of the time of the writer’s existence. Thus did Dylan Thomas instruct writers to make it “forever all your own.”
Yet, poetry is “historical” as well by virtue of its ability to relate more than events or circumstances. It also captures image, emotion, tableau, vignette, or any of the other many possibilities of recording for posterity, Note that Aristotle saw it as being “finer [. . .] than history [since] poetry expresses the universal and history only the particular.”
Thus, “poetry is the history of the human soul.”
When our traveling companion—whose name I confess having forgotten—said what he did, it not only defined the term in only eight words, it expanded my own view and perception of the genre, allowing me to take a giant step in my own approach to both reading poems and crafting my own work. I have never encountered a better statement since, nor do I bother asking any longer—unless it is simply for the joy of recounting this event and revelation.
“Poetry is the history of the human soul.”
Amen to that.