Poetry is difficult, perhaps impossible to define. It’s like wrestling a python or an alligator: you might appear to win, but that’s only because you’ve chosen your moment and your opponent. Give any of the three a fighting chance and it’s gonna eat you up, shit out the indigestible parts, and carry on as if you never existed other than as meat which provided a little more energy. And yet I continue to try. As others have tried for centuries.
Here are some attempted definitions which have been given to poetry:
“… Poetry is the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings: it takes its origins from emotion recollected in tranquillity …” – Wordsworth
"Poetry; the best words in the best order.” – Coleridge
“A poem should not mean but be” – Archibald MacLeish
“Reason is the enumeration of qualities already known; imagination is the perception of the value of those qualities, both separately and as a whole. Reason respects the differences, and imagination the similitudes of things. Reason is to imagination as the instrument to the agent, as the body to the spirit, as the shadow to the substance.
Poetry, in a general sense, may be defined to be “the expression of the imagination”: and poetry is connate with the origin of man.” – Shelley. (He goes on to say: “Poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world.”)
(Why do we do it? What is in poetry, what does it carry, what does it touch in us, what does it give us that we are drawn back to poems to read and reread and ponder and shiver? And why is it that I know poetry when I read it, or hear, yet I cannot describe what it is, the essence of poetry, in a way that will allow poetry to be immediately recognizable to anyone? Why are these questions unanswerable, so that in the end I must fall back on saying the things I think about poetry: the things which turn circles about its true nature as a dog turns circles about the place where he’s about to lay down to sleep?)
Poetry is comprised of sound, meaning, image and form. I think poetry is the tension between these things. More accurately, poetry is [or inheres in] the process of creation, maintenance and release of tension.
I think poetry is, in part, the compression of language: when the pressure of words against each other re-forms them, makes them twist and adhere to each other in ways they normally don’t or won’t. When a reader takes words which have been through this process into his brain, the elasticity of the words – their attempt to return to former shapes – causes strange things to happen to the words, to the reader, and to the thing of which all these are components. The poem. Poetry.
I think poetry is deceiving. When a poem’s tension is most finely tuned and adjusted the poem often appears simple, innocuous, its power so completely disguised by its form that it is ignored, or worse, seen as being of little worth or note. An example of this is the dismissal of Emily Dickinson’s poems by saying something to the effect of “Oh, all of her poems can be sung to the tune of ‘The Yellow Rose of Texas.’” Similarly, Ezra Pound can be deceptively simple – especially in his early Imagist poetry as he was closest to his declaration of “… the proper and perfect symbol is the natural object…” Here are links to very short poems by Dickinson and Pound. Poems which never lose their freshness to me. Poems from which poetry seems to fountain continually and perpetually.
(I’ll be linking to some longer poems later.)
But none of these seem to get me any closer to defining poetry.
What do you, the teeming millions, think poetry is? Please take a shot at your own definitions. Hell, take potshots at my views of it – those I’ve posted and those I will be posting. Link to poems you keep coming back to. Tell us why you think they draw you, what they do to you, where you see poetry in them. Question every poster, poem and definition that might appear in this thread. Ask why there is a need or a desire to define.