What is Poetry?
An essay on the boundary between prose and poetry
I once knew a girl named Poetry. Everyone called her Poe. Everyone except me. I called her Poetry.
I asked Poetry one day if she knew the meaning of her name, and she said yes: “To make,” Poetry said, and Poetry was right.
The word “poetry,” from the Greek poiein, means exactly that: “to create, to craft, to make.”
Poems like all other artistic works are created things, and poets are for this reason creators, pure and simple. (Prose literally defined means “straightforward” — from the Latin prosa, proversus: “turned to face forward.”)
To create means to bring something new into the world. It means to bring something into the world which didn’t exist before you made it.
Literature is the art-form of language — written language and spoken language both — and poetry is a subdivision of literature. This is a fact well-known and universally accepted.
Less universally accepted is the fact that poetry belongs to another art-form as well: the art-form of music.
Poetry is rhythm and rhyme. It is cadence and count, metric and meter. It is prosody. It is scansion. It is versification. It is consonance and dynamic inflection. These are the elements of poetry which make it a subdivision of music.
Still, as musical as much poetry is, it belongs most fundamentally of all to the art-form of literature.
It’s important to note also that the word “poetry” is not synonymous with the word “poem.” The difference between them is that “poetry” is a general term, whereas the term “poem” is specific: all poems are in theory poetic, but not all poetry is a poem.
Novels, plays, essays, memoirs, chronicles, short stories, and every other form of literature can be poetic.
In fact one can even argue (and I have) that some of the most poetic literature ever written is found in novels and plays:
The multitudinous seas incarnadine, for example, from Macbeth, by William Shakespeare, or from Moby Dick, by Herman Melville: The circus-running sun has raced within his fiery ring.
These are both undeniably poetic passages but not in and of themselves poems.
This distinction is in many ways self-evident and even on some level, perhaps, obvious. I devote an entire section to it here only because the distinction is as often as not (and with a curious consistency) passed-over or entirely missed — and by an astonishing number of excellent poets, intelligent commentators, and otherwise insightful critics.
The poet-critic John Longenbach, for instance, in his famous and frequently quoted book The Art of the Poetic Line, which in recent years has become a touchstone for virtually every term related to poems and poetry, defines poetry — not, please note, the poem — in this way:
“Poetry is the sound of language organized in lines.”
Clearly in his book, all throughout the book, Mr. Longenbach conflates the word poetry and the word poem. Mr. Longenbach is not the first to do so, nor will he be the last.
I repeat: these words are not synonymous. The poetic is not the equivalent of the poem.
A poem, by definition, is a self-contained piece, of varying length, with a certain meter, rhythm, and style, all of which when done with philosophic-poetic integration combine to convey a theme. A poem is a self-contained unit.
When done with something less than philosophic-poetic integration, theme is often absent — in which case the piece most definitely does by definition still fully qualify as a poem: specifically, a poem of pure observation and descriptive depiction, sometimes known as “vignette” or “slice-of-life” literature, whose merit rests entirely upon the strength of the poet’s language, phrasing, meter, metric, euphony, density of description, and perhaps most of all its intelligibility.
Well-written yet themeless poems are in this reader’s opinion among the most artistically satisfying poems the world has ever seen — particularly when such poems contain close and careful observations, eloquent or striking depictions, clarity and a richness of description — all of which is to say: when they exhibit an excellence of style.
Here’s an example of one such:
The heron stands in water where the swamp
Has deepened to the blackness of a pool,
Or balances with one leg on a hump
Of marsh grass heaped above a muskrat hole.
He walks the shallow with an antic grace.
The great feet break the ridges of the sand.
The long eye notes the minnow’s hiding place.
His beak is quicker than a human hand.
He jerks a frog across his bony lip,
Then points his heavy bill above the wood.
The wide wings flap but once to lift him up.
A single ripple starts from where he stood.
— Theodore Roethke
Theodore Roethke’s masterful poem “The Heron” has no theme to speak of — theme here meaning a wider abstraction or philosophic principle fused with the subject-matter of the heron — yet Roethke’s poem is nearly perfect. Strike that: it is perfect.
Lineation is an integral and even definitional part of the written poem — written, I repeat, as distinguished from the long oral tradition of poetry, to which lineation doesn’t apply.
A poem, as the best of your teachers should have taught, can rhyme, or not.
The definition of poetry, upon the other hand, and the question of how best to isolate its meaning, has confounded writers and philosophers for millennia. Leo Tolstoy captured the essence of this ancient conundrum when he wrote the following:
Where the boundary between prose and poetry lies I shall never be able to understand. The question is raised in manuals of style, yet the answer to it lies beyond me. Poetry is verse: prose is not verse. Or else poetry is everything with the exception of business documents and school books.
But my dear Mr. Tolstoy, even “business documents and school books” could — at least, in theory — be poetic, could they not?
Just as “love” is a word with enough powerful magic to make the true lover forget all its baser and falser usages, so “poetry” is a word for the true poet.
Thus wrote the poet-scholar Robert Graves, in his ferociously erudite book The White Goddess.
Essays on time get nowhere, except back where they all began.
So, too, with rime: because after you flense through all the rodomontade — with even the most speculative blade — after all the ink has spilled and dried and cracked, the question yet remains perfectly intact:
What is poetry, in the last analysis?
Poetry is technique.
Poetry is intensity of language.
It is crafted language.
It is concentrated speech.
It is density of expression, density of description, artfulness of articulation, felicitousness of phrasing.
Poetry is, as W.H. Auden said, “heightened language — language at its best.”
Poetry is not pretentious or flowery language — or, at any rate, good poetry is not.
Poetry is craftsmanship.
Poetry is syntactical skill.
Poetry is eloquence.
Poetry is euphony.
Poetry is that which is aurally pleasing.
The poetic is the lyrical.
Poetry is the beauty of language concentrated upon, focused upon, dwelt upon, even fawned over.
Poetry, in brief, is style.
“And style is technique, and technique is personality.”
So wrote Mr. Oscar Wilde.
Like poetry herself, style is at its roots human consciousness.
Style is human consciousness writ large and unified. It is the individual human persona expressed and exemplified.
This is the way in which poetry and style reflect human consciousness.
It is this place to which style launches us.
It is from this place that poetry develops and emerges with an electric charge.
Style launches us as our grasp of language and grammar grow and as our vocabularies enlarge.
Style is the thing that elevates human consciousness into the higher eminences of thought.
It’s in this sense that style, which is technique, which is poetry, which is personality, uplifts human consciousness to the places where the greatest insights are found and caught.
Poetry, I repeat, is style.
Poetry is technique, and technique is personality.
Technique and personality exemplify thought refined.
Poetry and style in this way disclose an active, thinking mind.
Style is the refinement of thought because humans think by means of words, whether written, signed, spoken, or all combined.
Our grasp of language is the singular thing that separates us from the other animal packs.
Yes: the power of conceptualization, which is exemplified by the word. This and this alone is what distances humans from the herd.
“Thinking is linked-up with language and vice-versa. Concepts are embodied in words. Language is a tool of thinking,” wrote the great Ludwig von Mises, in his electrifying opus Human Action.
It’s for this reason that our brains grow stronger as our vocabularies enlarge. It’s for this reason that our thoughts gain deeper traction.
This act of refining, as the very word refining implies, presupposes practice — as it also entails practice.
It entails repeated tries and retries.
Refining means practice.Writing is rewriting.
Without practice all the boundless virtues you’re born with will wither on the vine and die — like an armadillo, now gone, called macroeuphractus.
Practice means repeated attempts — repeated hits, misses, successes, failures — and it’s a process which includes all the bullseyes, the just-shy’s, the near hits, the wild misses, the frustrated tries, the devastating lows and euphoric highs: in brief, the repeated tries and retries.
The process itself is a literary virtue — the process, I repeat. Forget for now the successes or failures with which you’ll meet. Forget how high or not you’ll eventually fly.
Poetry is style — I’ll say it this one final time — and style is practice, as thought is practice. You may agree with me or not:
Style is the refinement of thought.
Poetry is the articulation of your personality — your thinking , which is your personal style, your consciousness, your persona—especially when your brain is at its most vital and alive.
All of which means, when you have within you the passionate desire not just to live but to thrive.