I had a conversation with a literary friend this week, and that conversation turned in the direction of poetry. My friend raised a question that came out of something he had been reading, as to how poetry is defined. What is poetry?
I’ll come back to that question, but in addition my friend asked another question that I thought had an easy answer: “How does a poet ensure that the reader will get the point?” The obvious answer to me was that the poet doesn’t, because it’s impossible. No one can guarantee that the reader will get what the writer is after.
Nevertheless, there are things the writer can at least try, based on who the audience is intended to be. A capable writer, poet or otherwise, will try to address their audience. Perhaps that sounds obvious, but I’ve run into plenty of writers who I didn’t feel were trying. Any adolescent poet can pour out anguish or giddy delight in a poem, with great feeling. Spilling your emotions in a hot wash across the page and calling it done, however, is not trying. You could say such a poem is honest, and so it is. A dog biting a cat is also honest, but it didn’t require much effort on the dog’s part.
As to how poetry is defined, it seems to me that in English, we mostly gave up traditional poetic structures in the twentieth century, by which I mean rhyme, repeated rhythms, or predefined structures, such as rhyming every other line. You can still find those techniques in English, but people who write poetry and believe they are sophisticated will sometimes look down their noses at these traditional structures.
From the little I know, I think that Walt Whitman did much to help set us on the path to throwing out the old ways of writing poetry. As we launched on into the twentieth century, more and more poets were writing in blank verse, without the traditional elements of rhyme and meter.
Let’s note something about how we relate to language. Repeated sounds tickle our ear. This might be repetition at the beginning of words (alliteration), in the middle of words (so-called internal rhyme), or at the end of words (traditional rhyming). Why this is so, I have no idea, but it’s obviously true. We use alliteration to name businesses (Dunkin’ Donuts, Krispy Kreme), we have a type of joke based on similarity of sound (puns), and if someone says something that rhymes, we pay special notice to it.
For thousands of years, poetry made use of this love of sound, combined with repeated rhythms, to create a sort of musical feeling in language, plus you had meaning. It was amazing. Then in the twentieth century, at least in English, we said, “Never mind, we don’t want to do that.”
So what is poetry? If the lines do not go all the way across the page, is that poetry? In the old days, we could define poetry as short lines, more specifically as lines that rhymed in certain ways, that had certain rhyme schemes, that used various patterns of stressed syllables, and so on. It might have been horrible poetry, but we knew it was poetry, and everyone could agree that it was poetry. It’s more difficult these days to define what poetry is. Most of the rules, at least for now, are gone. I can say what I think poetry is, and another person can disagree with me. Let it be so.
I say that language is extremely important in poetry, with a concern for using just the right word, with finding a phrase with the right sound and connotations. Some prose does this as well, but not all. All poetry, by contrast, is concerned with language. (I’m ignoring the fact that there is vast plenitude of shit poetry that does not do this.)
A second concern of poetry is using language to capture something that is difficult to express. The topic of a poem may be a great social subject, but most often poetry only reaches just beyond the fingertips of the poet. Going back as far as the ancient Greek poet Sappho (in contrast to Homer), poetry has tried to capture the ephemeral moments of an individual human being: I fell in love, I saw a spiderweb, I felt a cold wind on my face and thought of death, I saw the light on a lake and thought of God.
I’m thus proposing two things, and two isn’t that hard to remember. Poetry is very concerned with language (it is not merely a vehicle of communication), and poetry tries to use that language to say things that are difficult to say. I like the traditional structures myself, when done well, but I also note that these things can be done even without traditional poetic elements.
And thus I will wish you a tongue of silver that strives to be gold.