What is “poetry”?

As we all know, all writing is either prose or poetry, so it seems reasonable to say “If it ain’t poetry, it’s prose, and if it ain’t prose, it’s poetry”. So the question of defining poetry is really a matter of distinguishing between the two, and the best distinction I have heard came from my daughter when she was about seven or so: prose, she said – or, rather, “normal writing”, there being nothing quite so abnormal as poetry – goes all the way to the right hand side of the page (except at end of paragraphs); and poems don’t. While this admittedly leaves out of consideration those curious hybrids “prose poems”, neither before nor since have I heard the distinction between prose and poetry laid out quite so clearly. 

For prose is written in units of sentences which may cut across lines, whereas poetry is written in units of lines which may cut across sentences. Of course, this leaves open the question of why one should wish to write in units of lines rather than that of sentences, but that consideration, important though it may be, is outside the scope of defining poetry: as far as mere definition goes, poetry has, I think, been well and truly defined. 

And it provides an apt answer to those who insist that mere prose broken up more or less at random into lines falling short of the right hand margin “isn’t poetry”; or those who tell us that mere banal doggerel cannot be poetry either. As far as I’m concerned, if the author says it’s a poem, then, goddammit, it’s a poem. Of course, whether or not it’s a good poem is another matter entirely.

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18 responses to this post.

  1. So how can you tell if it ain’t written down?

    Reply

  2. If the person reading the poem does not make clear in the phrasing that it is written in units of lines, there is no way of telling.

    Suppose someone recites the following:

    “Time present and time past are both perhaps present in time future, and time future contained in time past. If all time is eternally present, all time is unredeemable. What might have been is an abstraction, remaining a perpetual possibility only in a world of speculation.”

    If the phasing of the recitation does not indicate line breaks cutting across the sentences, this will sound like prose. It will only sound like poetry once it is read as poetry – i.e. when the line breaks are respected, and are indicated by the phrasing:

    Time present and time past
    Are both perhaps present in time future,
    And time future contained in time past.
    If all time is eternally present
    All time is unredeemable.
    What might have been is an abstraction
    Remaining a perpetual possibility
    Only in a world of speculation.

    There are, notoriously, a great many printing errors in Shakespeare’s First Folio (and in the Quartos), and there is still disagreement even amongst experts on whether certain passages that had been printed as prose should remain printed as prose; or whether they were intended to be verse, and only ended up as prose due to printing errors. As a consequence, some editors print these passages as prose, and some re-align them into blank verse. Unless we see it written out as verse on the page, it can be very difficult – perhaps even impossible – to tell. Good Shakespearean actors can, of course, indicate by their delivery whether what they are reciting is prose or verse.

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  3. The best definition I know is from Terry Eagleton:

    “The difference between poetry and prose is that in poetry, the author decides where to end the line whereas in prose, the printer decides.

    Reply

    • Ah – Professor Eagleton must have been consulting with my daughter! 🙂

      But yes, I agree that the criterion distinguishing prose from poetry is that poetry is in units of lines, and the poet decides on the lineation.

      Reply

  4. Nabokov, in Bend Sinister, converts parts of Moby-Dick into verse. He does something similar with Karl Marx in The Gift (“I have put it into blank verse so it would be less boring”).

    And here I am, applying the method to Melville’s Pierre.

    Reply

    • Anthony Burgess does a similar exercise on a passage from hapter 3 of Ulysses in his book on Joyce, Here Comes Everybody. I suppose it reminds us how vague the dividing line is between the two. Prose with so strong a sense of rhythm, and with such exquisite sonorities, are crying out to be made into poems.

      Now, if you can make poetry out of Dan Brown’s prose…

      Reply

      • The Da Vinci Code does indeed provide fine poems:

        Just consider the sensorial vividness of this lyrical description:

        A thundering
        Iron gate fell
        nearby,
        barricading
        the entrance to the suite.

        And the existential angst of this poem:

        He was trapped,
        and the doors
        could not be reopened
        for at least
        twenty minutes.
        By the time anyone got
        to him,
        he would be
        dead.

        Isn’t this the human condition in a nutshell? We’re all trapped in time, in our onwn bodies, lives, and no one can aid us in the end. We’re all alone. This is almost Sartrean.

      • Beautiful! Just beautiful!

        You’re aware, no doubt, of the poetry of Donald Rumsfeld!

  5. The type of verse patterning that seems oddest to me in English is syllabic verse. So much of the shape and rhythm of English speech comes from the stress pattern that grouping words by syllable count seems neither here nor there, at least to my ears. This is probably why it’s quite a rare choice, but there are certainly poets who have gone there.

    Reply

    • It would be better to group words by counts of stressed syllables, irrespective of how many unstressed syllables there are between them. You get this even in nursery rhymes:

      Ding Dong Bell
      Pussy’s in the well,
      Who put her in?
      little Johnny green.
      WHo pulled her out?
      Little Johnny Stout.
      What a naughty boy was that
      To try to drown poor pussy cat…

      etc.

      Reply

  6. I’ve already posted this line elsewhere, but I really like it. Welsh poet Gwyneth Lewis has suggested that it may be useful to define poems as “translations without an original text.” I’m also intrigued – since I’ve just finished Roberto Bolaño’s The Savage Detectives – by the minimalist line drawings that make up the sole existing poem of Bolaño’s fictional Cesária Tinajero. There are no words, but it’s unmistakably a poem. Right?

    Reply

    • “Translation without an original text” seems a very poetic way of describing what the greatest poets attempt to do: they attempt to use the full potential of words – their sonorities and rhythms, their connotative as well as their denotative meanings, the various layers of imagery that may be created with them etc etc – to communicate what merely the literal dictionary meanings of words usually cannot communicate. But maybe that’s the subject of another post! 🙂

      What makes a poem a ,em>good is virtually an impossible question to answer: there are so many ways inw hich a poem can be good – many of which, perhaps, not yet discovered – that one cannot lay down rules on teh matter. At best, one can examine poems we may agree are “good”, and try to extract what it is about them that akes them so good. (And even here, as with any major work of art, there is some mysterious quality about them that will elude even the most thorough examination.) But leaving aside the Donnes and the Shelleys, it must be conceded that bad poems are also poems! And it is interesting trying to determine what makes them poems – albeit bad ones – rather than prose.

      I haven’t read any Bolaño, and will try to have a looka t the book you mention, but i must admit that “a poem without words” strikes me as similar to “a painting without paint”: words, I thought, are a prerequisite to poetry! But I’ll have to look at Bolaño’s book before commenting further…

      Reply

  7. And then there are those who complain that it doesn’t rhyme and therefore can’t be a poem

    Reply

    • I never really understood that one. If there are people who really reckon that The Prelude, Paradise Lost, The Four Quartets, Hamlet’s monologues etc aren’t actually poetry – well, there isn’t really much one can say in reply! 🙂

      Reply

  8. Posted by alan on February 7, 2012 at 10:42 pm

    It has to do with rhythm.
    Here’s Steinbeck in the ‘prose’ of grapes of wrath:
    “Listen to the motor. Listen to the wheels. Listen with your ears and with your hands on the steering wheel; listen with the palm of your hand on the gear-shift lever; listen with your feet on the floor boards. Listen to the pounding old jalopy with all your senses, for a change of tone, a variation of rhythm may mean – a week here?”
    Reminds of the poetry of Auden’s “Night Train”:
    “Letters of thanks, letters from banks,
    Letters of joy from the girl and the boy,”

    Reply

    • Indeed, that could easily be written as poetry, as you suggest. But I don’t know that it’s rhythm alone that distinguishes prose from poetry, because, as you demonstrate with your example, prose has its rhythms also. Steinbeck could hav written that passage as poetry, but he didn’t: it is prose. And the reason it is prose is … Well ,because it goes all the way up to the right hand side of the page! If it had been broken up into lines that didn’t go all the way to the right hand margin of the page, those same words in the same order would have been poetry.

      Reply

  9. Posted by Shonti Mukherjee on March 1, 2012 at 11:20 am

    I wrote a poem once….

    It began:

    ‘I don’t care about biology,
    And I don’t care about the ‘Apu’ trilogy.’

    Is this any good?

    Reply

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