What Is Poetry?
What is poetry? We use the word objectively to mean a specific category and subjectively to mean a general aesthetic value. A book of poetry, for example, is a specific category. But how objective is it? Do we agree what it means? Why is a poem a poem?
The poetry of Tarkovsky’s films is an aesthetic value. But which is more meaningful, the specific category or the general value? And how does the value relate to the category?
I believe that most people know instinctively what poetry is, though they may not be able to explain what they know. I wonder if the common criticism of contemporary poetry, it isn’t poetry because it doesn’t rhyme, is a good example of this. If so, contemporary poets should stop before they sneer. Would they rather be told, I can’t put it in words, but I know instinctively that your poem really isn’t poetry? Milton’s Paradise Lost doesn’t rhyme either, but no one would say it isn’t poetry.
Contemporary poets, if anything, are the opposite. Many of them are articulate about what they think poetry is, but it isn’t an instinctive knowledge. It is an intellectual definition of poetry that leads to a black hole of meaning. A poem is a poem if the author says it is a poem. Or its amateur equivalent:
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So what is a poem? What defines its specific category? What differentiates it from a short story, for example, or a philosophical aphorism? A poem, indeed, may also be a short story or a philosophical aphorism, so why do we still call it a poem?
A poem is a text that is written in verse, not prose. So the next question is, what is the difference between verse and prose? In English poetry, from Chaucer until modernism, this was easy to answer. Verse had a metre. But free verse is verse too. The opening stanzas, for example, of Basil Bunting’s Briggflatts aren’t metric, but they are certainly verse. They are poetry and magical poetry too. So if the essential ingredient of verse isn’t rhyme or metre or line breaks in a sentence, what is it? It is rhythm. A rhythm that is specific to poetry, just as there is a rhythm specific to prose. A rhythm that anyone can read aloud.
One way to define this is to say that, in prose, every word counts. In poetry, every syllable counts. Though even that is being generous to spoken prose. Try saying this line, from Shakespeare’s Sonnets, in the prose of normal speech:
Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?
and as verse, floating thee against the beat:
Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?
Which is brisker? Which breathes? Which is seductive? In my opinion, as prose, it is a straightforward question and rather silly. It is clipped, its emotions constricted. As verse, it is anything but.
I will mention an exception here, which hopefully proves the rule. The rhythm of Yeats’ poem He Wishes For The Cloths Of Heaven is clearly a prose rhythm, not a verse rhythm. And it uses prosaic repetitions instead of rhymes. The effect this has is to ground a poem that might otherwise have been fey or effete. The prose makes it poetry.
Another way to define the different rhythms of prose and poetry is to say that prose speaks and poetry sings. Singing is a resonant physical experience, in a way that speaking isn’t. So is poetry. And in order to resonate, a poem must be a physical thing. It must breathe, it must have a body.
In my opinion, anyone who is embarrassed by this resonance, the song of poetry, who doesn’t want that excitement, who doesn’t want to accept the simple reality that poetry sings, should really not be writing poetry.
I should also say here, since most people are more familiar with song lyrics than they are with poems, that the two are completely different. A song lyric may be poetic, but it is an art form, a specific category, of its own. It isn’t a poem. A poem includes everything that a song lyric leaves to the music. The rhythm, the harmonies, the mood, the structure. A song lyric isn’t a song. A poem is.
What rhymes is different too. Singing a song, vowels predominate. Whereas in the spoken singing of a poem, consonants are equally important. For example, why and mine are vowel half-rhymes. If you sing them, there is an energy between them. They rhyme. If you say them, they run alliteratively, but they don’t have the energy of a rhyme. In contrast, mine and mean are consonant half-rhymes. If you sing them, nothing happens. If you say them, something does.
When we read a new poem, then, we can ask a few questions. Is it really poetry? Is it verse? Are its rhythms verse or prose (pace the Yeats poem)? Does it sing? Is it a physical thing?
In my opinion, many contemporary poems aren’t really poetry at all. They are fragments of prose. They may be literary and interesting, but they belong to another specific category and it confuses, and arguably discourages, potential readers of poetry to call them poems. I would encourage their authors to have the courage of their convictions and claim a new genre for them. Perhaps they could call them prosettes. Though would that mean their authors were proseurs?
I would argue that there is very little free verse in contemporary poetry. I also think it is much harder to write free verse, that is actually verse, that sings, than it is to write metric verse. The poets who are able to do so are usually those who know how to write metric verse, who bring its rhythmic habit into free verse. An obvious example would be the free verse in the metric ruins of Eliot’s The Waste Land.
So that is poetry objectively as a specific category. A poem is a song. What about subjectively as a general aesthetic value? We talk about the poetry of a film or a novel, the slow movement of a concerto, or Barcelona’s passing game. We may be describing the content or the style, for example, the melody of a concerto or the way a pianist plays it, but what we always mean is its effect on us. And while we may describe what poetry is in content or style as lyrical or beautiful, in its effect on us it is sublime.
So what is a sublime experience? What do we experience? What do we experience it with? A sublime experience is an experience of the soul. If you prefer, it is an experience of the transcendent being, of the subjective self. The soul experiences it and, in doing so, we experience the soul. That is what that instant of exhilaration is.
In my opinion, since this is what poetry means in films or football, it should apply to poems too. Poems should be lyrical and beautiful. Poems should be sublime. It applies to political poems and comic poems too. They should still surprise or shock or tickle the soul. In the snap of a rhythm or the smile of a rhyme. That is why they are poems. And they are all the more effective for it, politically or comically.
It isn’t the subject of a poem that is sublime, it is the structure. The structure articulates an experience of the soul. That is what the techniques of poetry are for, that is the spiritual knowledge behind them. That is the meaning of metre, rhyme, alliteration, of a sonnet or an ode. A poem is a physical expression of the soul in words.
In fact, the objective and subjective meanings of poetry include one another. By singing, poetry is sublime. By being sublime, poetry sings.
I will ask the question again. What is poetry? It is a song. It is an experience of the soul. In a single phrase, it is a song of the soul. Incidentally, my own poem, A Song Of The Soul (New Poems (2006), explores how ethereal or earthy this song might be.
In my opinion, to be able to write poetry, we need to have a clear experience of the soul. We need to experience the poetry of the soul or at least the soul of poetry. Then we know what poetry is and we can start to learn how to write it. That means learning how the soul expresses itself physically, in language, in the other arts, in the body, in the world.
Poetry, I would say, is England’s greatest contribution to the arts of the world. I believe it is important to keep that tradition alive, by continuing to write poetry that is true to the spirit of that tradition. Doing so, perhaps, will also help poetry to find its audience again and its importance in contemporary culture. If people do know instinctively what poetry is and enjoy it almost everywhere except in contemporary poetry, how will they respond to poems which share that instinct, to a poetry which is confidently, resonantly poetic?