Living with the Truth Stranger than Fiction This Is Not About What You Think Milligan and Murphy Making Sense

Monday, 4 February 2008

It's a poem because I say it is

“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.


Dave King said...

Hi Jim,
Very thought-provoking, but personally I long ago came to the conclusion that poets defining poetry are describing the poetry they write. To me it's like love: you can't say exactly what it is, but by thunder when it hits you, you know you've been hit!

Jim Murdoch said...

Thanks for that Dave. I think this kind of endless squabbling does nothing but put people off poetry. The bottom line is that it's all writing, end of story.

I am bothered by any work of art where you need to read notes beforehand to know how to read, look at, listen to or think about it. These notes may enhance appreciation but anyone should be able to listen to and get something out of Berg's Violin Concerto without knowing that he cleverly combined serial and tonal methods of composing, that he incorporated music from a Carinthian folk song and from the Bach's chorale Es ist genug into the work, that the work was inspired by the death of the young Manon Gropius (hence the dedication "To the memory of an angel") or that it was the last work he completed before his untimely death. It either works on its own merits or it does not.

I believe the same rules should apply to books, poems, paintings, sculptures, films etc etc. Additionally details may well enhance your appreciation, understanding and enjoyment but if they are a requirement then I think the artist's work is flawed. I talk about this in a forthcoming blog where I discuss an old poem of mine where I can't remember what it's about any more – is it still a good poem? Was it ever a good poem or did I only think it was because I knew what I was trying to say?

Anonymous said...

I have always found it ironic and disturbing (disturbing in a good way) that words just seem insufficient to describe poetry.

Jim Murdoch said...

Thanks for the feedback, Shelly and for distilling my article into a single sentence too.

Conda Douglas said...

This post reminds me of when I was in college and had this great teacher and poet as a professor. One of his assignments was to "step as far out of the box" with a poem as possible. The student who got an A had as a "concrete poem" a block of concrete with an apple drawn on it, labeled "pomme". Great fun.

Jim Murdoch said...

Love the anecdote, Conda, very Magrittian.

Art Durkee said...

I'm currently reading an anthology of Zen poetry translated and edited by Sam Hamill and J.P. Seaton. A recurring refrain in the poems and commentaries alike is the attention given to silence.

Chinese Zen poet Yueh-lin once observed: "Ninety percent accuracy is not as good as silence."

Sam Hamill writes in his introduction to the anthology:

"Poetry often says what cannot be said in prose. It was used for argument, description, ceremony, memorialization, and some were even koans—"cases" for meditation. Poetry is most capable of capturing the essence of a moment's experience. Ninety-nine percent accuracy in poetry is not as good as silence. A good poem says more than the sum of its words, leading the reader into the practice of understanding the great unsaid that is contained, framed in a poem's rhythms, words, and silences. In these ways, poetry opens the mind." —Preface to "The Poetry of Zen" (Shambhala, 2007).

Jim Murdoch said...

Thanks for that, Art. You might just appreciate this poem then:

Your Statutory Rights Are Not Affected

For this poem
to operate
properly it
requires a moment
of meaningful silence
at its centre.

A moment of
meaningful silence
is not included
with this poem.

To begin
your poem
to the full please
insert your moment
of silence:

[     h e r e     ]

I am sorry
but your moment
of meaningful
silence has not been
inserted properly.
Please try again.

If the poem
does not begin to
move you please remove
the moment of

silence and return
the poem
to the author
for immediate

Friday, 18 January 2008

Rachel Fox said...

I came to this via another blog today. I really enjoyed reading it and like your open-minded attitude. Some great quotes too.
No doubt read you again soon.

Jim Murdoch said...

Thanks for dropping by, Rachel. It was nice to hear from you. I had a look at your MySpace page. It was interesting. There's not much of mainland Scotland I've not been to but I can't actually remember being to Montrose any time. We do seem to have a lot in common. I enjoyed some of your poems especially 'Spacing' which was lovely. And I liked 'Diaries' on your website. You have a slightly skewed way of looking at things that appeals to me.

Rachel Fox said...

Thanks for reading some of my poems, Jim, and even better - you liked some of them! This blogging thing is something I've been trying in the past couple of months...I don't have much to do with writers in my day-to-day life (partly choice...well, mainly choice...) but I thought I should try and see what others were up to, thinking etc. I have found some of it very interesting (and some of it hugely depressing!) but that's life, I suppose.
Your blog looks fantastic (is that the famous back-slapping? Oh well, consider yourself slapped) and I'm glad I came across it. I think I will learn a lot from it and that can only be good. I like it when writers are thoughtful and challenging without being condescending and small-minded.
The diaries, by the way, are still festering in the tub. I hope I am discovered one day - they will make a great biography!

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