Feb 10

Poetry: A Definition

In considering where to start with this learning project, I thought a simple question – “What is Poetry?” – would make for a good first step. It is always good practice to start with definition. Two can say one thing yet mean two things, talking over under or around each other instead of to each other.

The dictionary says…
“Literary work in which special intensity is given to the expression of feelings and ideas by the use of distinctive style and rhythm;… A quality of beauty and intensity of emotion is regarded as characteristic of poems: ”

Obviously the concept of beauty will always be one of those “eyes of the beholder” things but it is reasonable to say that poetry often aims at displaying either beauty or intense emotional experience in a creative manner – and differently than the common methods of prose or fiction.

A key portion of definition is classification. For example, you might define poetry very simply – “A Grouping of Words”. While this is accurate, it could also describe a novel, a play, an owners manual, a street sign or the fine print on a contract.

How can we distinguish poetry from other groupings of words which are obviously not poetry? We can begin by looking at format. Poetry will tend towards structures and patterns and rhythms which are very different from other common formats. Largely, we understand that prose works within certain rules such as sentences paragraphs, nouns and verbs. Poetry shares the same words, and a few of the same rules but is also free to break any rule in order to accomplish it’s intent. There is a visual concept of paragraphs but there is freedom in poetry to extend a single thought or line across multiple “paragraphs”.

In prose, the line breaks at the margin or at the end of a paragraph.
In poetry the line break is a creative device used in many different ways to accomplish a feeling, a rhythm, or a visual affect.

In prose we have the sentence – must include a subject and a predicate and contains a full thought.
In poetry we have the line, like a sentence sometimes and other times not… other times it is just a word or a list or a fragment of an experience or a collection of similar or dissimilar sounds. The line can stand alone or be grouped with others.

In prose, words and thoughts are joined together to assist the reader in understanding something new or imagining something other – there is a level of comprehension required.
In poetry there are similar purposes of understanding and imagination, but there is also potential for a poem’s intent to simply be heard like a melody rather than understood like a proposition.

Ultimately, it seems easy to say what poetry might be, but hard to say what it is supposed to be. There is a certain subjectivity to poetry that makes it more like oil paintings or blues riffs than like novels. It seems unwise to label a poem “good” or “bad” because from my own experience a collection of words may speak worlds of emotion and perspective and wonder – to another the same words in the same order may be lost or boring or disturbing. Some poetry feels honest to me, while some feels dishonest or affected. This too is subjective when I read the poetry of someone else – but these categories of honest and dishonest seems most useful when I judge my own words.