Poetry Is?

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.

A multitude of other short examples exist in the forms of haiku and tanka at their best. Basho. Ono no Komachi. Izumi Shikibu.

(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.

Poetry is apparently misspelled from the look of the thread title on the forum page. Could a moderator insert the ‘r’ for me?

Isn’t the best thing about Poetry the fact that it is not easily defined, thus giving the author AND audience the freedom to define it for themselves?

My opinion is usually that poetry is lyrical. That is, prose may express an action or feeling, describe something, or lead us through a plot. But when the words making up any written communication reverberate within someone – fit together like a jigsaw puzzle, sound like dischord inside our heads, become liquid and slip through our fingers – then they can be described as poetic. I tend to think of it as music without the background noise. Or paintings without the paint and canvas.


Poetry is never having to say you’re Shirley.

OK, fixed the “r”, Fatwater, but for future ref, you’ll probably get faster attention if you email the forum Moderators…

Coleridge’s definition is best, IMHO. Poetry ceases to matter when it’s definable, as does music, art etc. The beauty of it is that it can constantly surprise. Eminem and Seamus Heaney are the two best, at the moment.

I agree; Coleride’s comes closest to what I think of as poetry. I think of poetry as distilled language; an attempt to communicate with every aspect of a word, or series of words; nothing superfluous: everything a word carries is essential to its context in a good poem.

I dunno about this one.

What’s the point of writing a poem if you don’t want it to mean something? I know what he means–he wants a poem that gives you an image you just immediately grasp by “looking” at it: he doesn’t want you to have to stop and think. But if the “image” doesn’t evoke anything you care about, what good is it?

Take the 3-line (counting the title–it’s almost a haiku itself) Pound poem linked. It gives an immediate picture, but it works as a picture because it’s “about” the alienation we feel in a crowd, and it’s about how we can escape every day bustle with abstractions, such as the way we idealize nature, just like the Japanese did.

I know some people honestly hate to “analyze” poems. Is image by itself sufficient, though?

I think I like the Shelley “definition” best–poetry recognizes similitudes–the images evoke ideas or emotions. I don’t know that I get the legislators part, though.

Any attempt to define poetry, I think, has to take at least two things into account: 1. poetry is beautiful/just right/lyrical–all the things the definitions in the OP are trying to get at; and 2. poetry is not prose, it has a form of some sort–prose can be beautiful/just right/lyrical too, but if we’re gonna call it poetry, then we shouldn’t be bothering with a definition at all–call it good writing instead.


I wouldn’t say it is the best thing about poetry, although it might sometimes be one of the good things. But if poets are to produce their best work shouldn’t they have some inner criteria for best? If we think of a poet and a poem as analogous to an archer and an arrow, don’t the bow and technique with which it is drawn and aimed have much to do with the arrow’s chances of flight along the desired path? I think that for a poet and a reader to have any relevance (why bother if there’s none?) to each other there must be some common ground in the way they think about poetry. In what they think poetry is.

I agree that poetry is lyrical. And I like how you describe it. But prose can be poetic without being poetry: we often describe someone’s prose as being lyrical or poetic. Yet we don’t think of that piece of prose as a whole as being a poem. Also, some poems are exquisitely plotted. Many of Robert Frost’s, for instance. Yet they are clearly poems, not prose.

Frost, besides saying, “Writing free verse is like playing tennis without a net” (which I don’t believe was meant or completely meant in the pejorative sense usally attached to it), also talked about poems originating in the “sound of sense” which he described as being like hearing voices through a closed door into another room: you can’t hear the words, but the patterns of the voices imply they carry meaning, or “sense”.

Thanks for the fix. I did email a mod, as well, but you got to it first.

Lola and lissener
I also like Coleridge’s definition quite a bit. It implies to me those things you mention. But it’s problematic in that all it really does is move the question back one step. Okay, we have the best words in the best order but what is our criteria for best? Is it the best words and order for that poem’s content in that poem’s form? What is it that is created this way? What volcanoes out of that particular configuration instead of another that we immediately say, “Yes! that’s poetry”? I think BWBO only describes how poetry is made; it does not define what it is.

Humble Servant
Of course, you’ve struck at the seeming paradox of MacLeish’s ‘Ars Poetica’. In claiming in a poem that “A poem should not mean / But be” he has made the poem seem to ‘mean’ a particular thing. But if that poem means that thing, then by its own standards it ceases to be a poem and becomes static. In this case, I think the paradox is the poetry.

“A poem should be wordless / As the fight of birds.” The recursiveness here says to me that a poem’s meaning should exist only in its parts; that when a poem is taken wholly into the reader, the words and phrases of which it is composed cease to matter, cease to have meaning, that we are taken beyond meaning into an experience that is a complete existence in itself. However momentary that might be.

Another approach to this (to my mind) is Czeslaw Milosz’s own Ars Poetica.

I agree with your two points which must be taken into account in defining poetry.

I agree, and yet I feel that just because no one has yet declared “this is poetry” that doesn’t mean someone won’t come along and do so at any minute. Because isn’t a huge part of how we define any kind of art those people who have the AUDACITY (why is audacity always used as a negative word?) to declare, “This is ART!”

The problem with the “archer and arrow” analogy is that each poets “bow” is wildly different from the next. It’s made up of an entire life’s experience, perspectives, visions, insanity, emotion…there’s no way to ever define a uniform tool with which to create this particular art, and therefore, no way to define how the art should take shape. Each writers’ “inner criteria” varies wildly.

We certainly have expectations about what “a poem” looks like, where we find it, and the types of things it expresses. But those are just generalizations, they don’t really answer the question “what is poetry.” I mean the answer to your question (I think you agree) is not:

“A poem is a brief-ish, descriptive piece of writing of X shape and Y size, printed in Z format for ABC audience to enjoy in prescribed manner.”

And I do have to say, proclaiming that there is a “best thing” about poetry is pretty trite. Maybe I should stick to writing technical documentation. :wink:

And while I’m thinking about it, another thing which has been said about poetry is “poetry is what is lost in translation” (again, this is a Frostism). If this is to be taken as literally true, then there are two things I must believe. 1) The poets whom I have read in translation – such as Rilke, Neruda, Lorca, Homer, Basho etc – must be immeasureably better than any poet I’ve read who wrote in English. 2) The translators of those poets – Stephen Mitchell, Margaret Sayers Peden, W. S. Merwin etc – must be poets as great any who ever wrote in English.

However I don’t read the quote completely literally – I interpret or translate it as being at least partially about the translation from the ‘sound of sense’ to the page.

James Merrill wrote about this in a poem I haven’t gotten a good handle on yet. Lost in Translation. I’ve also tackled it in a poem called, oddly enough, “What is Lost (in Translation)” which begins

On preview:
I feel the same way about audacity as you.

SexyWriter, you’re right about the problem with the analogy – it’s partly why I chose it. It illustrates the the definition problem.

And yes we do have expectations about poetry. This is why we are so beautifully surprised when we come upon something that doesn’t fit those expectations and yet we know immediately that it is poetry. And there’s the basis of my questioning: how do we recognize something we’ve never seen before as being a thing we know? Is poetry in us, or external, or both?

There is a popular opinion that if you can understand a poem on the first reading, it’s not worth reading. I have encountered some teachers of English who believed they had found the official meaning of the poems they taught. They would tolerate no variation from that enlightenment. How can poetry be enjoyable in that framework? Can’t we just enjoy the way it sounds, the way it feels in the mouth?

Amen, AskNott.

I think once we’ve nailed a particular poem to a particular meaning it has about as much life and as much use as any game trophy nailed to a wall. What have you really got then? A piece of a dead thing stuffed full of scraps so it holds a shape you desire to remember. The poetry is gone, discarded, in order that a boast can be made.

As I implied in the OP, defining poetry is a futile exercise. But does that make the attempt worthless?

I think the attempt to define poetry is as wonderful as poetry itself. It opens us to the gates of wonder, beauty and awe through which others have passed.

I’m not sure I agree that “nailing” the meaning of a poem ruins it.

Good poems will use language in a way that evokes multiple interpretations. Readers will respond in different ways because they will recognize and respond to the images, allusions and emotions based on their backgrounds and day-to-day moods/what they had for breakfast. Who would defend a teacher who refuses to posit more than one meaning in a poem, or who disavows the music in order to have meaning? Not me. Nonetheless, let’s say that we agree (Ha! what are the chances of that?) that the Emily Dickinson poem is about how universal issues/the big unanswerable questions sometimes intrude into our daily tasks:

BTW, I like Michael Oakshott’s The Voice of Poetry in the Conversation of Mankind–the link goes to an excerpt from the book.

I’m not sure I agree that “nailing” the meaning of a poem ruins it.

Good poems will use language in a way that evokes multiple interpretations. Readers will respond in different ways because they will recognize and respond to the images, allusions and emotions based on their backgrounds and day-to-day moods/what they had for breakfast. Who would defend a teacher who refuses to posit more than one meaning in a poem, or who disavows the music in order to have meaning? Not me. Nonetheless, let’s say that we agree (Ha! what are the chances of that?) that the Emily Dickinson poem is about how universal issues/the big unanswerable questions sometimes intrude into our daily tasks:

BTW, I like Michael Oakshott’s The Voice of Poetry in the Conversation of Mankind–the link goes to an excerpt from the book.

Okay, here are two possible definitions of poetry which I’ve been batting around in my head for a while. I offer them for dissection, rebuttal, or pleasure. YMMV.

  1. Poetry is language talking to itself.

  2. Poetry is the immanent extrusion of the divine into the mundane.

Dagummit: that was an accidental post.

Low at my problem bending,
Another problem comes,
Larger than mine, serener,
Involving statelier sums:
I check my busy pencil,
My ciphers slip away,
Wherefore, my baffled fingers,
Time Eternity?

There are lots of things we can say about this short poem, but let’s agree that we have thought about a lot of them. Why does coming up with meanings make the poem sterile?

Also, part of the problem with teaching poetry is that you can’t say too much about “the language of that poem is beautiful.” OTOH, you can discuss it’s meanings in a much more concrete way, and you can dissect its form (abba, etc.).

I like the poem fragment you posted, FF.

That was basically three simulposts! as I started my last before you posted and didn’t preview.

As you can see from my simulpost the chances of me agreeing about the Dickinson are pretty high.:wink:

What I meant about meaning was that when we nail a poem to one meaning and one meaning only we kill off its other possibilities for ourselves. I agree wholeheartedly about multiple interpretations. (And I think we’re getting somewhere here).

Glad you like the piece.
As a sort of an illustration of what I mean by “extrusion of the divine” I offer Rilke’s Archaic Torso of Apollo.

That is a very Greek conception–that the poet is possessed by divine spirits (madness) when he is inspired.

*Poetry is …
Finding a pencil,
Pizza with sausage,
Telling the time.

Poetry is …
Learning to whistle,
Tying your shoe for
The very first tiiiiime!*

Poetry should be at least as well written as prose–E. Pound