What is Poetry?

November 16, 2010

Poetry is what poets do.

I do not mean that poetry can be anything.  Rather, poetry has been alive since remote ancient times and cannot be all one thing.  Poets may follow the rules, styles or forms of the time, but poets and devotees of language always push at the envelope of what constitutes poetry.  Repeatedly, poetry becomes something additional to what it was before.

The New Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics (1993), billed as the most comprehensive guide to world poetry, contains 1381 pages of text on this subject.  Those pages cover about 1,000 articles running from brief notices to 20,000 words.  One hundred six entries appear on national poetries but none on individual poets.

An article, you can see, seeking to define poetry amidst its great diversity must stick to the highlights.

We recognize poetry by its characteristics, none of which hold true in all cases.  Poetry is an artifice of language by which the poet aims to say more than the words themselves literally convey.  Poetry, an art that works best aloud, having originated in oral traditions and often sung, makes the happiest of alignments.  The poet renders vision in the most apt wods with resonance of sound, rhythm, surface and connotative meanings, subtext and sensation that together realize an enlightening combination of aesthetic, emotional and intellectual response.  Of course, few poets achieve this in all or most cases.

Poetry predominates among literary forms for most of human history.  Though the bulk of ancient literature is lost, we find poetry at the beginning.  The Sumerian epic, Gilgamesh, from the dawn of lierature, has returned to us, its first fragments not discovered until 1850 in the ruins of Nineveh.  Dozens of poets have made translations to resurrect its power; more will come.  Sappho’s lyric poety, existing almost entirely in scraps, still exhilarates and places her reputation, not only in the highest ranks, but also as the creator of romantic love.  The oldest, extant play based on historical events, Aeschylus’ The Persians, contains these lines in the opening chorus (Benadette translation, 1956).

For the king’s return
With his troops of gold
Doom is the omen
In my heart convulsed,
As it whines for its master;
For all Asia is gone:
To the city of Persians
Neither a herald nor horseman returns.

Does not this tragedy of war resound for us today?

Poetry eixists in an abundance of forms from the exquisitely minute and structured to prolix narratives.  The poet, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, wrote her novel Aurora Leigh (1856) as a poem.  At almost 11,000 lines, Aurora Leigh outruns the lengths of both the Odyssey and Milton’s Paradise Lost.  Her story of the making of a woman poet, both literate and lievely, earned contemporary praise for its spontaneity and critics today still consider it one of Mrs. Browning’s major achievements.  Perhaps, we need to read it more than is the fashion.

At issue is where poetry comes from.  Ancients saw poetry as a gift of the gods, particularly the Muses in classical times.  The Renaissance revived that tradition and nods to the spirit of the mythic origins continue to this day.  In parallel fashion, God appears as the one who inspires.  The oldest Biblical text, determined by antiquity of language, is the Song of the Sea (Exodus 15.21), a poem of Miriam, Moses’ sister.  With the advent of psychology, we see the locus of inspiration shifted from exterior genius to interior anima or spirit, that is, the subconscious.

Doubtless, conscious choice has much to do with shaping poems, but poetry depends upon well-tuned appreciation so that poets discover their poems as well as make them.  Poets will say, as I do here, ‘This poem happened to me.’

Old Norn sisters, were you ever young,
Hearts and fingers full of flirtation,
Fair flowers in your flaxen hair,
Stumming and piping, cooing sweet songs,
Borrowed from bird and breeze?

Were your eyes wide for the world,
Looking on sunnyside hopes,
Strong armed men at ease with life,
Friends close as sisters, exciting as strangers,
Chosen work knitting home and future into one?

Did you ever love another – hunter or hero,
Shepherd or sailor, farmer or forest sprite,
Alert and strong from kisses and brushes of skin or
Well-chosen roses, hearts grown large,
Thoughts carefree, sure of the good?

Or, were you always old, gnarled in life,
As so many of us, full of romance
In the inward eye, wishing and musing,
But alone, learning pessimism and the power of heavy
Undefeatable fate?

With so much to choose from and so much encouragement to innovate, would-be poets will still do well to regard poetry as a craft, if not an art, and immerse themselves in the poetry of others.  The Robert Graves and Laura Riding argument in A Pamphlet Against Anthologies can convince us to read the work of of poets singly, book by book.  Yet specialty anthologies of selectively chosen poems by several poets do serve a number of  other purposes, one of which is to start aspiring poets on the road to reading oustanding versification.  The excellence works to illustate what is possible and move us to set out own sandards for ourselves.

Sometimes even good old Homer nods, Horace opines in Ars Poetica, line 359.  Let us take this to mean we can all do better.
First published on Helium, Copyright © 2008, and here revised.  The poem “Old Norn Sisters” appeared in Poetic Strokes, v.2, Copyright © 2000.

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