Monday, 24 May 2010

What Is Poetry?

“Poets are soldiers that liberate words from the steadfast possession of definition.” - Eli Khamarov

What is poetry?

What is the purpose of poetry? Is it to enlighten? To entertain? To sound pretty when spoken aloud? To maintain a cadence? To paint portraits with words? To capture the breadth of the heart and the soul and the mind contained within the boundaries of a single moment?

The answer may depend on how you define poetry. This is subjective. Take, for example, Aram Saroyan’s controversial minimalist poem, “lightght.” That’s not the title by the way, that’s the entire poem. It is one (misspelled) word on a blank sheet of paper. (I hope this doesn’t violate copyright infringement, but I know of no way to reference the poem without reproducing it.) Does this meet the definition of poetry?

Per Random House, the answer is most likely “No.” Random House Dictionary’s main definition for poetry is “the art of rhythmical composition, written or spoken, for exciting pleasure by beautiful, imaginative, or elevated thoughts.” Most formal definitions of poetry indicate it must be written with meter; in verses, typically involving various rhyme schemes. But these defining characteristics are not set in stone and they change depending on format (haiku, for example, should not rhyme), and in the end, poetry is in the eye of the beholder.

Editor George Plimpton liked Saroyan’s poem “lightght” enough to include it in The American Literary Anthology a year after it was first published in The Chicago Review. Saroyan’s minimalist poetry found an audience to embrace it, and his audience considered it poetry. It was relevant, and it spoke to the poets of his generation. Yet, to this day, many would disagree that these two syllables constitute poetry.

When working as a student teacher with a high school English department, I was assigned to teach seniors on the cusp of graduation a unit involving Shakespeare. Shakespeare is poetry, right? He’s the English go-to poet when most people think of the subject. It is nearly impossible to receive an American education without being exposed to The Bard and his many sonnets.

And yet, according to most of the students I worked with, he was mostly irrelevant. His words stirred up more dread than passion. No matter how much I or others love Shakespeare, his poetry does not speak to all audiences the same way.

This is not to say that words have lost their power since Shakespeare’s day. The kids I was working with would still recite and quote poetry; they just didn’t realize they were doing so. To those kids Tupac was their poet laureate. Kanye West was their Bard. Lyrics would be written out in the borders of their notebooks. These students would emulate rappers and come up with their own rhymes. I’d even play along sometimes. While other teachers and purists may roll their eyes, I found it encouraging as a poet: words still speak – only the poets have changed with the times (as well they should).

I could identify with the kids I taught (granted, there wasn’t all that big an age difference at the time). During my flannel soaked teenage years (or should I say “soaked flannel” – it was far too hot and humid to wear grunge style clothes in rural Alabama), Eddie Vedder and Kurt Cobain were my poet laureates. Yes, the music was important, but it was the words that really struck a chord with me. I learned more about evaluating and deciphering poetry through trying to make sense out of Pixies albums than I did in most of my college classes. Those words were relevant. They spoke to me. But were they poetry?

This brings me back to my original question: What is poetry?

My best answer: Whatever the heck the audience says it is.


  1. Nice one, TJ. You could also ask the question, what ISN'T poetry? Some might say music lyrics don't count, but they are wrong and we are right :)

  2. I think this is a really interesting debate to have; I think lyrics and poetry are fundamentally different art forms. As a teacher I am always encouraged to make Shakespeare, Chaucer or accessible for pupils (or adults, sometimes). Even a short-sighted stint on YouTube brings up a wide selection of (usually white, bearded, male) teachers rapping the classics in front of their surprised and occasionally giggling charges. This has always struck me as trying too hard: trying to ram ornate, beautiful square pegs into round holes.

    Poetry has an artistry all of its own; it has a music all of its own. The interplay of rhythm, and phonemes, consonants and vowels, word structures and pauses give it something truly unique. If you're reading this, I don't have to tell you! We have all heard great poetry set to music, and shuddered at the response. Even very talented musicians break the back of the poetry as they rope it to the rhythm. John Cale's treatment of Dylan Thomas poems is highly interesting, but actually my least favourite of his work. Forcing even rhythmically attuned poetry to even more formal musical rhythm wrenches the meaning and creates odd, clipped phrasing. No great iambic poem is completely iambic, whereas accessible popular music is usually stapled to 4/4.

    There is a crossover, though. The lyrics of Paul Simon have always held an unlyrical, poetic quality to them. I remember listening to Public Enemy and thinking that it was poetry. What rap has retained, that other songwriters of our age seem to have forgotten, is that words work together really well sometimes, using the natural beauty of language. Also, rap allows more readily for multiple narratives, personas and narrators. It is actually very open to narrative crafting. That said, rap is just as prone to twaddle as any other work.

    So here's the challenge: can we find the best and worst poem set to music?

  3. For me, Gil Scott-Heron's spoken word stuff is the best example I can find of poetry and music working together.

    Worst poem set to music? Probably something that was never meant to be set to music. Someone brought out a hip-hop version of Wordsworth's "Daffodils" a few years ago, which had some comedy value but was all rather embarrassing ...

  4. Ah yes! It can be found if you search for 'MC Nuts' on YouTube; no, really. It needs to be seen to be believed; I heartily recommend it. Go on: You know you want to...

    Heron's stuff is unique, but fits very well into an evolving tradition of blues and jazz. As you've commented elsewhere, PP, people who have attempted to follow that mould usually come a cropper.

    Have people heard Iron Maiden's Rime of the Ancient Mariner? Spaklehorse's London? Lady Gaga's version of Pride and Prejudice? (I made that last one up...)

  5. Just checked out the Sparklehorse track - brilliant.

    RIP Mark Linkous