“In science one tries to tell people, in such a way as to be understood by everyone, something that no one ever knew before. But in poetry, it's the exact opposite.” – Paul Dirac
“A poem is energy transferred from where the poet got it, by way of the poem itself, all the way over to the reader.” – Charles Olson
“Poetry is ordinary language raised to the nth power.” – Paul Engle
“I could no more define poetry than a terrier can define a rat.” – A E Houseman
In November 2007, United States Judge John F. Keenan had the unenviable job of ruling on whether a letter written by famed writer and poet Dorothy Parker was, in fact, a poem. To do so he first had to define what a poem is:
A poem sometimes possesses rhyme or meter, though this is not necessary. A poem is typically free from the usual rules of grammar, punctuation and capitalization. Before World War Two, a poem almost always had rhyme or meter. Now, the popular definition of a poem has become much more lenient. (The Huffington Post)
That's not simply an opinion. That's now law.
Poetry is something that prose is not. That's not the same as saying if it's not prose then it's automatically poetry, a view held by Molière. It's like saying if you're not a fork then you're automatically a spoon. Chopped up prose is not a poem, not automatically, but it can be. Prose can contain poetry and poetry can contain prose. It's not that hard. You can put a box in a bag and a bag in a box; they are both containers and that's all blocks of text are, be they poems, short stories, novels or songs – they all are containers for meanings and feelings.
Strangely enough I've never tried to define poetry before and to be honest I've never paid too much attention to other people's definitions. They're usually too poetic. Wordsworth (in Preface to Lyrical Ballads) defined poetry as "the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings" which can be true, is often true, but it also falls well short of a comprehensive definition. In fact I sometimes think people are just plain difficult when they offer up definitions like "Poetry is the chiselled marble of language; it's a paint-spattered canvas – but the poet uses words instead of paint, and the canvas is you."
A more thoughtful definition was provided by Ted Hughes who defined poetry as
…nothing more than a facility for expressing that complicated process in which we locate, and attempt to heal, affliction – whether our own or that of others whose feeling we can share. The inmost spirit of poetry, in other words, is at bottom, in every recorded case, the voice of pain – and the physical body, so to speak, of poetry, is the treatment by which the poet tries to reconcile that pain with the world.
It's an interesting consideration and I'm sure a lot of poets will be able to relate to it. I certainly can. It smacks of Bryant H McGill's (from Preface to Existence) "a by-product of yearning". What Hughes is defining, to my mind anyway, is, however, a subset of poetry which could be applied to a lot of his own poetry, and certainly his wife's (he was married to Sylvia Plath), but not to all poetry.
I like better what Robert Frost had to say:
A poem begins with a lump in the throat, a home-sickness or a love-sickness. It is a reaching-out toward expression; an effort to find fulfilment. A complete poem is one where the emotion has found its thought and the thought has found the words.
That said he also held the opinion: “I’d soon as write free verse as play tennis with the net down.”
Part of the problem of defining poetry is a matter of attitude. In Poetry, Structure and Tradition, author J V Cunningham attempts to define poetry which he found difficult simply because "the object of definition is not constant."
The difficulty of definition, he writes, "springs from the need to defend and praise poetry… It is felt that one has not only to define poetry but also in so doing to put it in a place of honour." Yet, he contends, such claims for poetry "have in fact weakened it." On one hand poetry's puffers have "erected pretensions that no linguistic construction, no poem, could ever hope to satisfy."
It's like calling a novel a dirty great big story. In most cases that’s all they are but calling your dirty great big story a novel makes it seem more than it is. "Oh, you wrote a novel. Oh, I am impressed. Can I have your babies please?"
You might want to hold that thought because E E Cummings said:
A poet is somebody who feels, and who expresses his feelings through words. This may sound easy. It isn't. A lot of people think or believe or know they feel – but that's thinking or believing or knowing; not feeling and poetry is feeling – not knowing or believing or thinking. Almost anybody can learn to think or believe or know, but not a single human being can be taught to feel. Why? Because whenever you think or you believe or you know, you're a lot of other people; but the moment you feel, you're NOBODY-BUT-YOURSELF. (from Fire and Ice)
Which must mean that novelists and playwrights are unfeeling people? Yes? No?
What I've noticed about a great many definitions of poetry is that people love to elevate poetry by dissing prose:
Prose is to poetry as walking is to dancing. – Paul Valéry
Poetry be aviation, prose the infantry. – Joseph Brodsky
Poetry is nouns, prose is verbs. – Gertrude Stein
The thing that gets me is that I write poetry and prose and, occasionally, drama but I've always regarded myself as a poet who happens to write prose or dialogue every now and then. I never get the same kick out of writing prose even though it occupies much of my time. If I'm honest, my prose is probably better than my poetry. According to Brodsky, "The poet, in principle, is 'higher' than the prose writer … because a hard-up poet can sit down and compose an article, whereas in similar straits a prose writer would hardly give thought to a poem." It's an opinion but it probably says more about what poets get paid than anything.
Up till now we've focused on poetry but Susan Sontag as an interesting point to make about poets:
In the twentieth century, writing poems tends to be a dalliance of a prose writer's youth (Joyce, Beckett, Nabokov…) or an activity practiced with the left hand (Borges, Updike…). Being a poet is assumed to be more than writing poetry, even great poetry: Lawrence and Brecht, who wrote great poems, are not generally considered great poets. Being a poet is to define oneself as, to persist (against odds) in being, only a poet. Thus, the one generally acknowledged instance in twentieth-century literature of a great prose writer who was also a great poet, Thomas Hardy, is someone who renounced writing novels in order to write poetry. (Hardy ceased to be a prose writer. He became a poet.) In that sense the Romantic notion of the poet, as someone who has a maximal relation to poetry, has prevailed… (from Where the Stress Falls)
The most glaring difference between poetry and prose is of course visual. A poem looks like a poem; they're usually tall, thin things with ragged edges. Prose arrives in big clunky blocks of text fully justified. The question has to be asked: If a poem dispensed with line breaks altogether would it stop being a poem? A decent case for this is presented at The End of the Line for Modern Poetry which argues that, for the most part, we hang onto the line break out of tradition:
The majority of poets and editors do not seem ready to accept poetry formatted as prose – and with some justification. Donald Davie, in a different context, put his finger on the problem when he said that "in translating rhymed verse the rhyme is the first thing to go and metre the second; whereas the amateur... cannot be sure of having poetry at all unless he has the external features of it." The prose-formatted texts would have to survive without some of the licence that poetry readers usually grant. In the UK at least, magazines can't afford to lose any more readers by taking chances.
I've seen line-breaks used as punctuation (but what's wrong with standard punctuation?), to control emphasis (why not italics?) and to denote a pause (let's use [Gerard Manley] Hopkins' stress marks too!). I've also seen line-breaks used thoughtlessly. Poets often follow an "if in doubt, leave it out" policy for words, but not for line-breaks. I think that some types of poems would be no worse if reformatted as prose. Better, in fact, because there'd be fewer distractions. Although I think there's a strong case for more poems to be formatted as prose, I don't think changes will happen soon. It's the last line of defence before poetry looks like prose, one that many dare not abandon.
Remember that judge we started off with? Well here's his ruling: Noting that "where a line does not fit within the margins, it is indented below and kept apart from the next line in order to preserve the rhyme scheme," the judge ruled the letter was "objectively recognizable as a poem." Case dismissed!
It's easy to suggest that poetry is beyond definition. The problem nowadays, and the same applies to music and art, is that these mediums have expanded in so many directions that the old definitions won't do and any new ones read like chunks of legalese if they attempt to cover all the possible permutations.
Anyway, for better of worse, here's my go:
Poetry is highly focussed language constructed in such a manner as to elicit an emotional and/or intellectual response from its readers.
It often does this by employing a variety of literary techniques and figures of speech which, although available to writers of prose, are more commonly found in poems.
A greater emphasis is generally placed on how things are said rather than what is being said.
Whereas with prose meaning is generally the desired end result, with poetry there is a greater emphasis placed on getting the reader to think and involve themselves in the overall process or, as Archibald Macleish puts it in 'Ars Poetica', "A poem should not mean / But be."
Poetry need not rely on conventional syntax but it does have a propensity to organise itself according to a variety of forms, many predefined such as the haiku, others based on the design of the poet utilising rhythm. "In poetry, syntaxes have little meaning; the order of the words is the order of your heart." – Peter A Rosado
Whereas prose tends to organise itself into sentences and paragraphs, poetry traditionally uses the line as a formal unit and groups these into stanzas; neither lines nor stanzas are necessarily complete units of thought. Line breaks in particular can be units of breath (Olson), units of attention (Hartman) or work in place of, or in addition to, traditional punctuation. I personally use them to expose the underlying structure of the piece.
Narrative and epic poetry have become unfashionable. Modern poetry has a tendency to focus on minutia and grey areas perhaps because poetry is more suited to dealing with abstract and intimate issues and often attempts to express the inexpressible.
Poetry is not simply not prose.
And for those who like their definitions a little pithier:
Prose tells. Poetry asks.
I have no doubt every poet out there will have something they want to add, modify or remove and that's fine. I didn't exactly spend weeks working on it. Who they hell am I anyway to write the definitive definition of poetry? You can find a whole list of definitions at beautiful monsters.
Finally I'd like to leave you all with a link to the Gallaudet University web page What is Poetry? It's far from complete but it's a good place for newbies to start. Personally I'd rename this What Poetry Can Be. It has been many things. It is many things. It has the capacity to be much more. It will always be more than the sum of its parts.