Thursday, March 7, 2013

On Poetry (part 1)

What is poetry?

You'd think that question would have an easy answer. Really, you would. I bet you even think you know what that answer is. Probably, you'd be wrong. Believe it or not, what, exactly, poetry is is a hotly (in some circles) debated subject (most people really don't care). And the definitions extend from the end of "anything created is poetry" to "creative acts employing language" to the other, more restrictive, end of "language using rhythm and rhyme." This disagreement is not new. It's so old, in fact, that Aristotle tackled this whole debate in his book Poetics around 2500 years ago. Yeah, we haven't made much progress.

What we do know is that poetry began in song. Well, we almost know that. We're fairly confident of it, at any rate. I find that somewhat fitting considering that poetry has ended in song (but more on that in a moment). It's likely that poetry went beyond song and into oral story telling as the rhythm of it assisted in remembering the tales.

Some of the oldest poetry we have, and the oldest epic poetry, is the Epic of Gilgamesh. Our oldest (partial) copies are nearly 4000 years old.

None of which gets us any closer to the answer to "what is poetry?"

And that's not a question I'm even going to attempt to give a definitive answer to, because what poetry is has been and meant different things to different cultures all throughout history. So much so that I doubt there is even a definitive answer anymore (or ever (see Aristotle)), which is why people are still arguing over it. For our purposes, though, I think there are two significant points, maybe three:

1. Rhythm. The root of poetry has always been rhythm. It came from songs, remember? And it's the rhythm, the cadence, that made it useful for early man and lead to its evolution.

2. Prose split off from poetry. Literary prose has only existed for a few hundred years, almost no time at all in comparison to the length of time poetry has existed. There are specific reasons for the evolution of prose from poetry, but one of the biggest was its lack of structure. The lack of structure made it easier to translate. [There's a lot more to this, but that's all that's important for this discussion.]

3. Which brings us to structure, which is really the issue in all of this.

I'm just gonna say it and get it out of the way: on the whole, I dislike "modern poetry." I dislike it as not being poetry at all, because so much of "modern poetry" has no structure. It's prose written in verse form. Taking a piece of prose and writing it as if it's poetry does not make it poetry. I don't care how good the prose is. Most of our actual poetry that's being written today is found in pop music. Poetry has ended in song. See? That's where it finds its structure. Beyond that, poetry is mostly dead. As has been said, "Only poets read poetry."

And that's almost exactly true, too. The statistic for Americans that read poetry (and Americans are far more likely to read poetry than anyone else in the world) has fallen below 5% as of a couple of years ago. Even online! Seriously, when stumbling across a poem online, basically, having it shoved in your face, less than 5% of people will bother to read it even with it right there in front of them.
Unless it's lyrics to a song they like, then they might... but, then, we don't consider that reading poetry.

And why is it that people no longer read poetry? I'm going to say that it's because people no longer know how to write poetry. And I'm gonna blame that on free verse. Here's where we talk about Picasso again. Free verse did to poetry what Picasso did to painting. It made anyone think they could do it. Free verse arose from the desire for something new, just like cubism and surrealism for Picasso. Other people looked at those paintings and thought "I can do that," only they couldn't. Not really. Picasso could do it because he was trained. And free verse suffers from the same fate; all people think they can be poets just be writing in verse form.

And it's just not true.

John Livingston Lowes said in 1916, "Free verse may be written as very beautiful prose; prose may be written as very beautiful free verse. Which is which?"
That's kind of where I come down on it, and where you can see that I don't reach all the way to the end of that spectrum I mentioned where anything is poetry or, even, anything using language is poetry.

Robert Frost said that free verse is like "playing tennis without a net."

And T. S. Eliot said, "No verse is free for the man who wants to do a good job."

So here's the thing:
Prose split off from poetry so that we can have writing without structure. Isn't, then, free verse the same thing? Poetry without structure? Yeah, it is, and we call that prose.

That's as close to a definition of what poetry is that I'm going to get: It's structured writing. It has a rhythm of some sort. It has some form it has to follow. Some of it rhymes. Free verse, like prose, has none of these things. The beauty of poetry, though, is found in its structure. Like a great architectural achievement.


  1. Hrm, I wouldn't even attempt to define poetry, I don't think. As far as I'm concerned, it's the rhythm that makes it. I'm neither a connoisseur nor a poet, though, so it's okay. Though I've written a few, mostly as a teenager.

    Shannon at The Warrior Muse

  2. I saw... Something...where the prof contended the best modern poetry was being done in rap music. I don't know about all that, but it did make me think .

    Other than that, I'm out of my element here. Thoughtful post though.

  3. And it's not something I could ever write.

  4. Having written a lot of poetry in my time, it all had rhythm and cadence and it rhymed. To me that is how poetry should be composed, not the way it is today which, to me, is just thoughts written on paper. I tend to skip modern poetry as you said.


  5. Poetry is definitely one of those literary fields with a lot of opinions. I've been reading a few books lately that are written in a very poetic manner as's fascinating.

  6. I won't read any poem that doesn't start "There once was a man from Nantucket..."

  7. It should be noted that the Greeks didn't distinguish between verse and prose but between fiction and nonfiction. And this is the distinction that Aristotle is talking about in Poetics: "making" (which is the meaning behind poem/poet/poesis) vs. nonfiction writing.

  8. Hey hey hey there, mister. I bought a poetry book just the other day from an independent writer. And it's wonderful stuff. So people do still read modern poetry (I'm one of them). Just because it isn't popular, doesn't mean it can be thrown out with the bath water.

  9. Shannon: What teenager didn't try poetry?

    Rusty: I don't know if I'd say the best is in rap but that is certainly a good place to go looking for it.

    Alex: It's a different kind of mindset, I think, but I'll be talking about that later.

    Jo: Yeah, I hate those thought fragment poems and most poetry done as performance art.

    S.L.: There are a lot of those. beautiful prose, poetic prose, even, is a wonderful thing. But still prose.

    PT: Did he carry a bucket?

    Sarah: Yes, but he's still attempting a definition, because it was something that was in debate. Basically, he was saying that fiction (poetry) needed to stand above non-fiction (prose) and here's how to do it.

    Michael: I still read poetry, too, and I've enjoyed Briane's poems recently. But, then, he's not doing free verse.

  10. I'm rather stodgy about my poetry. I admit I mostly like those that follow strict structure, like sonnets. For me, that's half the challenge, making your words fit a form and still have them make sense and be full of beautiful imagery at the same time.

  11. L.G.: I'm glad you mentioned sonnets. There will be more about those.
    I bet your sonnet thing is only because of Bill, though. :P

  12. Good post. I read poetry and in fact listen to a podcast abiut it from time to time.

    Also, I have penned a poem about this. I will post it on lit, tomorrow, with a longer comment on what you've talked about here.

  13. LOL @ Robert Frost.

    I agree, poetry is structured writing. There are lots of different types of structure, but to me it's all about choosing a foot (or feet) and line length or (line lengths) and working up from there.

    Easier said than done, though. I decided to rewrite a piece I wrote a while back in verse. It is taking so long! It's fun, but holy heck. Talk about needing to take time choosing your words.

    I guess also, free verse maybe made more sense in the context of a poetic landscape built on more strict structures. If you know what you're breaking, it makes more sense to break it? Or something? The same defense could be made of modern art. However, after a while it's just so many paint splatters on the canvas.

  14. Briane: Cool! I inspired a poem! Awesome!

    Elizabeth: That's it exactly! When there's just, like, one guy spattering paint, it's kind of cool and different, but when everyone's doing it?

    Which takes me to the tennis comment, because I suck at tennis and would probably benefit from the lack of a net. Which, I think, says something about free verse.

  15. I think poetry does have to have some structure to qualify as actually being poetry.

  16. The poets who used to recite their poetry in coffeehouses back in the '50s and '60s didn't use much in the way of rhyme or cadence. Their work was mostly raw expressions of emotion. Pretty good, too. (Of course, I was young and hopped up on coffee.)

    I prefer to write with rhythm and rhyme, but I still enjoy some unstructured stuff as well, if it does a good job of expressing an idea or emotion in a unique way.

  17. TGE: Yep!

    Susan: Yeah, but anyone can do that. I mean, I can get up and just rawly express my emotions and it would look no less like what they were doing. Does that make it poetry? Even if it is good?

  18. I'm not much of a poetry reader, although I do find myself appreciating it now and then. Not a big fan of much modern free verse type poetry. When I write poetry I can't help but fall into at least some semblance of rhythm and rhyme. I tend to hear my poetry almost as songs if not as songs. I like to use interesting alliteration and phrasing that creates a sense of onomatopoeia without using actual onomatopoeia words.

    Part of my definition of poetry would be a use of surprise imagery and unique juxtaposition of words, phrases, and ideas. The good poet should be a word magician using misdirection and literary illusion in a way that makes sense in the end. I don't like to dig too much for meaning and debate interpretation.

    One of my favorite poems since junior high school is "Naming of Parts" by Henry Reed. I think it fits the criteria I just mentioned.

    Oral reading can make a big difference as well.

    Wrote By Rote
    An A to Z Co-host blog

  19. Lee: Well, reading anything out loud can be great if the person reading is good at that sort of thing.