What is poetry?
What is poetry? A short piece of imaginative writing, of a personal nature and laid out in lines is the usual answer. Will that do?
Poetry definitions are difficult, as is aesthetics generally. What is distinctive and important tends to evade the qualified language in which we attempt to cover all considerations. Perhaps we could say that poetry was a responsible attempt to understand the world in human terms through literary composition.
The terms beg many questions, of course, but poetry today is commonly an amalgam of three distinct viewpoints. Traditionalist argue that a poem is an expression of a vision that is rendered in a form intelligible and pleasurable to others and so likely to arouse kindred emotions. For Modernists, a poem is an autonomous object that may or may not represent the real world but is created in language made distinctive by its complex web of references. Postmodernists look on on poems as collages of current idioms that are intriguing but self-contained – i.e. they employ, challenge and/or mock preconceptions, but refer to nothing beyond themselves.
What distinguishes poetry from other literary compositions? Nothing, says a vociferous body of opinion: they are all texts, to be understood by the same techniques as a philosophic treatise or tabloid newspaper. But that makes sense only to readers of advanced magazines, for poetry does indeed seem different. Even if we accept that poetry can be verse or prose – verse simply having a strong metrical element – poetry is surely distinguished by moving us deeply. In fact, for all but Postmodernists, it is an art form, and must therefore do what all art does – represent something of the world, express or evoke emotion, please us by its form, and stand on its own as something autonomous and self-defining.
No doubt more could be said, but the starting poet may be feeling impatient. Theorists, like clever lawyers, can prove anything, and it is all too easy for an atrocious piece of writing to be defended by irrefutable standards. Are there not more practical ways of assessing poetry?
One point worth making is that aesthetics, together with theories of poetics and literary criticism, does not operate in a vacuum, but within a community of shared approaches and understandings. Typically, they are academia-based, and so written for fellow academics and their captive students. Their insights are important – indeed indispensable – for countering the half-truths that float around the poetry world, and for insisting that poetry maintain some depth and substance, but the young poet may wish initially to sidestep these abstruse matters and join another community, that of poetry itself. Poetry also has its beliefs and patterns of excellence. Its insights have to be acquired by participation – by writing and having that writing evaluated by fellow poets, by being able to appreciate a wide range of work, and by acquiring the crafts of literary composition.
None of that is easily accomplished, given the pressures of everyday life. Nor is there wide agreement on what sort of apprenticeship should be served. Schools of poetry are often hostile to, if not contemptuous of, other movements, and what is prized in one may be anathema to another. The beginning poet should read widely, join many groups, take any criticism seriously, but perhaps remember these points:
- Poetry may well be the art of the unsayable. A good poem lies somewhere beyond mere words: it is the intangible, an exultation in things vaguely apprehended, something which emerges out of its own form, and which cannot exist without that form. Any poem that can be completely understood or paraphrased is not a poem, therefore, but simply versified or emotive prose (though not the worse for that).
- Poems are an act of discovery, and require immense effort – to write and to be understood. The argument against popular amateur poetry is not that it uses out-of-date forms (there is no authority here, and art is always an mixture of elements coming in and going out of fashion) but that popular poetry finds its conceptions too readily. Contrary to contemporary dogma, poetry doesn’t have to be challenging, but it does have to explore the nature and geography of the human condition.
- A poem is something unique to its author, but is also created in the common currency of its period – style, preoccupations, shared beliefs. You may therefore grow out of the habit of writing Elizabethan sonnets – if indeed you ever write them – not by colleagues telling you that the style is passé but by understanding the limits of that Elizabethan world. You will probably write yourself through many enthusiasms and styles. And because your experience of the world will be shaped by your literary efforts, your conceptions of poetry will change as you develop a voice commensurate with your vision.
- Poems are not created by recipe, or by pouring content into a currently acceptable mould. Shape and content interact, in the final product and throughout the creation process, so that the poems will be continually asking what you are writing and why. The answers you give yourself will be illustrating your conceptions of poetry. Once again, those conception will develop – eventually to include experiences more viscerally part of you, since poems are not a painless juggling with words.
- Many poets have theorized on the nature of their craft. Their aphorisms are very quotable, and often provide entry into new realms of thought, but they should be used with caution. Artists are notoriously partisan, and rarely paint the whole picture. To understand their pronouncements, you need first to love their work, be steeped in its vision, and then to measure their pronouncements against the larger conception of art that other work provides.