Tuesday, February 19, 2008

What is poetry?

What is poetry?

What is poetry? What is the difference between poetry and prose? What is prose, for that matter.

The first question to answer is the easiest: what is prose? Prose is “ordinary” and “straightforward” writing. The Oxford English Dictionary defines prose as “language in the form in which it is typically written (or spoken), usually characterized as having no deliberate metrical structure (in contrast with verse or poetry)” The word "prose" originates from the Latin “provertere” which means to turn forwards. In otherwords, prose is straightforward and clear. Examples of prose are novels, short stories, essays, plays, articles, speeches, dialogues, etc.. Unless you are reading a James Joyce novel, the language of the novel is clear and straightforward. One of the primary goals of a writer of prose is to clearly communicate ideas and events to the reader. If an essay is not clear, straightforward and direct, then it will receive a failing grade.

So what is poetry then? Poetry is “extraordinary” and “complex” writing. W. Somerset Maugham calls poetry “the crown of literature… It is the end and aim. It is the sublimest activity of the human mind. It is the achievement of beauty and delicacy. The writer of prose can only step aside when the poet passes.”

There is poetry in prose and prose in poetry. However, poetry stands distinct from all other forms of writing. Poetry is distinct historically. Poetry is the oldest form of human writing. For thousands of years, poetry was the means of human expression. Ancient epics like the Odyssey and the Iliad, both written in dactylic hexameter. Most of the pre-Socratic philosophers wrote in poetic form. Poetry remained paramount in the world of literature well into the 20th century.

However, the historical importance of poetry doesn't answer the question "What is poetry?" What is it about poetry that makes it so important and so distinct? Why is it “the sublimest activity of the human mind”? What is poetry?

The challenge in defining poetry is that poetry by its very nature defies “defining”—to define something means that you determine the boundary or limits of something. The OED uses the words “limit, restrict, confine.” If your defintion of poetry is too specific, too limiting, then it fails to capture the expansive nature of poetry. In order to “work” as a poem, poetry needs to defy the boundaries of ordinary language. I tell my students that poetry conveys more than words can tell. Where prose is limited to the literal and abstract meaning of words, poetry is able to pack incredible meaning and depth into the words, going beyond lexical meaning to higher levels of connotation and implication. In essence, poetry is compressed language. So much is packed into so little words. Delving into a good poem is like splitting an atom; the reader unleashes the power bundled up inside the words, commas and metaphors.

To try to define poetry is like trying to capture the wind. Once you “bag” the wind, it ceases to be “wind”. The answer to “What is Poetry?” must be broad enough to permit the creative and boundary-breaking aspects of great poetry. In his book, How to Read a Poem, Buron Raffel answers the question by defining poetry in the following way: “Poetry is a disciplined, compact verbal utterance, in some more or less musical mode, dealing with aspects of internal or external reality in some meaningful way.”

What is poetry? Raffel’s definition is the best I have ever come across. Many definitions are either too narrow (e.g., poems must rhyme) or the definitions use poetry to define poetry: take Emily Dickinson’s definition of poetry: “If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know that is poetry.” Perhaps more obscure is e.e. cummings’ definition of poetry; poetry is “the algebra of the heart”.

Even though Raffel’s definition is far more useful because it is written in prose, the poetic definitions seem to capture the essence more powerfully. Thomas Gray’s defines poetry as “thoughts that breathe, and words that burn.”

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