Friday, January 25, 2008

Thoughts on Poetry

In the Guardian this morning was an article entitled Finding the Right Words to Define Poetry. Here's how it begins.
Poetry can quite easily be seen as the poor relation of the arts. Collections of poetry sell in remarkably small numbers and almost nobody earns a living from writing the stuff. And yet, if the internet is to be believed, hundreds of thousands of people seem to be writing poetry, and a lot of them are also discussing this most noble of arts in blogs and other online forums. One of the things most often discussed is the fundamental question, "what is poetry anyway?"
And here's how it ends.

Other definitions of poetry have tended to avoid questions of harmony and morality entirely. For instance, William Carlos Williams wrote that a "poem is a small (or large) machine made out of words". Williams points to a distinction between prose and poetry that, by analogy, lies somewhere in the self-sustaining economy of effort and complete lack of sentimentality that characterises machines. Williams's words also, I believe, sit very comfortably with Samuel Taylor Coleridge's famous dictum, "I wish our clever young poets would remember my homely definitions of prose and poetry; that is, prose - words in their best order; poetry - the best words in their best order."

This last is the definition that most pleases me. Now all we have to do is agree on what we mean by the "best words" and the "best order" and we're laughing.

In the spirit of poetry Friday, this is a worthy entry. Do click on over and read all the stuff in the middle.


  1. This is great. I have been wondering about the difference between prose and poetry myself lately. I like Coleridge's definition a lot.

  2. I could really get on my soapbox about this topic. What I wish is that the novice poet and reader alike would stop insisting poetry is whatever they say it is. Honestly do we say make this same argument about dance forms or specific forms of painting? Poetry is not prose broken into small lines and grouped into stanzas. Like all art forms poetry has forms, devices and naunces associated more with it than other literary forms. For example, sound devices are more important to poetry than prose though not entirely exclusively. I'm thinking about speech writing where sound and repetition are used to engage and keep the audience on point. I could go on.

    What I really want to say is I want to readers and writers to take time to learn more about what poetry is. No one wakes up, scribbles a few lines and calls himself a writer. He wouldn't argue he could easily write a novel. But with poetry, too many want to hang out the shingle without bothering to learn anything about the craft.

    Okay, I climb off my soapbox now. For the record, this angst is the result of ten years online reading bad poetry and listening to 'poets' complain how they are misunderstood and unappreciated.

    Now back to our regularly scheduled program.

  3. pardon my errors. I was writing purely off the cuff and too full of emotion. Hey, I'm a wannabe. Go figure. :-)

  4. Thanks for the link. Although I half-expected him to close with Eliot:

    This is the way the world ends
    This is the way the world ends
    This is the way the world ends
    Not with a bang, but a whimper.

    And Susan - rant on with your bad self. You are 100% correct that breaking prose into short lines does not a poem make. Too many people think that "free verse" means free-for-all, and they'd be wrong.

  5. Susan, I'll take emotion any day. I do wish more people would study poetry, though that alone won't make anyone a poet. I think poetry is about brains and emotion, knowing what you can do within the confines of a form, and then opening your heart to let you do it.

  6. Tricia,

    Here is what the late Eve Merriam wrote about the difference between poetry and prose in her poem "Prose and Poetry."

    You can be immersed in good prose, like swimming in a lake on a warm summer afternoon.

    In poetry
    the ice-cold moon
    drops down
    into a lake,
    to surround you,
    and then
    you fly back home
    to the sky.

    From THE SINGING GREEN (Morrow, 1992)

  7. Elaine,
    I'm so glad you shared this. It's the perfect definition.