I suppose it’s a discussion that every art form has, but poetry seems to have it most. Though we may grumble about others’ music preferences, John Cage never really succeeded in convincing the mainstream culture that four minutes and thirty-three seconds of not playing the piano actually counted as music. But the modernists managed to kick poetry’s door so far open that it let in everything and anything, so that by the time Slate magazine ironically took Donald Rumsfeld’s press briefings and arranged them on the page with irregular line breaks and called them poetry, the response wasn’t, “Oh, that’s clever in its silliness,” but rather, “Wow—that’s so deep,” as evinced by the fact that a college textbook included one such arrangement utterly unironically in its section on poetry. Poetry used to mean something different from everyday speech. Typically this had to do with sound. Depending on the culture, poetry used syllables, rhythm, sound and pattern to distinguish itself from everyday language.
James Fenton writes in An Introduction to English Poetry about the swing (in English language poetry) towards free verse around the turn of the 20th century. He quotes Ford Maddox Ford’s account of a dreadful poetry reading:
“The most horrible changes overcame these nice people… They held their heads at unnatural angles and appeared to be suffering the tortures of agonizing souls… And it went on and on – and on! A long rolling stream of words no one would use, to endless monotonous polysyllabic unchanging rhythms, in which rhymes went unmeaningly by like the telegraph posts, every fifty yards, of a railway journey.”Ford’s solution was to propose that verse be written ‘in exactly the same vocabulary as that which one used for one’s prose.’”
If poetry should be prose, why should we talk about poetry any more? Ford (if this is truly what he had in mind) might as well have criticized a dog for not being a cat. What should distinguish poetry?
I’m unsure whether to proceed in a descriptive or a prescriptive vein. If I had to define poetry empirically, based on what the rest of the world calls poetry, here are the criteria:
1) it calls itself poetryThat’s it. That’s all I can find to define the word poetry as currently used.
2) it uses words
3) it is not written in normal paragraph format (optional—see Carolyn Forché and the previous review on Jonathan Ball).
4) it is fairly short, usually not over two pages (again, optional)
po • em (pō′ em) n. Anything that is called a poem.
The prescriptivist in me wishes to recategorize some works recognized as poetry only so that the definitions aren’t so fuzzy. For instance, Elizabeth Bishop’s poem “The Fish” is actually a personal essay. It is well written and moving, but if it were written in paragraphs instead of stanzas no one would think to call it a poem. I’m not criticizing its quality—just its classification. Next, this example from Taylor Mali at a poetry slam is not poetry, but oratory. It’s a speech, and not a bad speech. But if it was recited anywhere other than a poetry slam, no one would call it a poem. I’ve even found a dialogue in script form included in a book of poetry. The dialogue was unrhymed, unmetered, unstructured. It was just a script, but it was a poem because it got called a poem.
I’d like to define poetry as “using words to do more than simply mean what they mean”. Under this definition, poetry would be recognizable as such without having to be told that it’s poetry. That means a poem must use something to move past being ordinary speech somehow, and that will likely mean using some different kind of vocabulary than is used for prose.
(James Fenton points out in his book that Ford would be interested to find that poets still deliver readings just as agonizing, though entirely in free verse.)
Please note that I’m not saying that free verse isn’t poetry. Free verse that uses words to do more than simply mean what they mean would certainly be poetry, such as William Butler Yeats’ “The Second Coming”.
I think part of the reason that people wish to include so many things under the umbrella of “poetry” is that we have lost the habit of reading things for pleasure that aren’t fictional narrative, journalism, or poetry. If people intentionally read lyric prose descriptions and brief personal reflections, or went to see oratory performed, authors would feel comfortable identifying with those genres. “Flash fiction” and “micro-fiction” are neat new genres that fill a creative niche that might otherwise be lumped into poetry. Carolyn Forché’s “The Colonel” would be better defined as flash fiction. You see, I don’t want to move Elizabeth Bishop or Taylor Mali out of the spotlight at all. I just would like to be more accurate in our definitions. I would love to read or attend an event that was a mix of many different literary styles, without having to use “poetry” as a default category for anything that isn’t a short story (and some things that are).