“What is poetry?” revisited

I can’t really remember who it was who said “If I think today what I thought yesterday, I haven’t been thinking in the meantime”. Maybe no-one said it. Maybe it’s one of those made-up quotes attributed to some famous name, like Einstein say, who, if the internet is to be believed, spent so much time making up smartarse lines that it’s a wonder he had any time left over to think about relativity and the like. But whether it’s a real quote or not, there’s more than an element of truth in it: I’m sure I’m not the only blogger who looks over past posts and thinks “No – that really won’t do will it?”

It was this post in particular that caught my eye lately, and stirred my disapproval of what I used once to think. To save you clicking on it, I had tried to answer the question “What is poetry?” and arrived at the conclusion that whereas prose is writing in units of sentences, poetry is writing in units of lines that may cut across sentences. And there I left it. I suppose that is right as far as it goes, but it goes nowhere near far enough. For it does not address the question of why we may think of certain passages of prose – in units of sentences, as specified –as nonetheless poetic.

And neither does it address
Why this writing, written
In units of lines
Will nonetheless fail, quite
Rightly, to convince most readers
That it is indeed

No, there’s something more to it than this. I’m not entirely sure what, but let us try, in the spirit of enquiry, to see if we can at least come close to an answer.

The first question that occurs to me is: Why write in units of lines anyway when writing in units if sentences makes so much more sense? The answer to that is, I suppose, that by writing in units of lines, the rhythm of each individual line becomes more prominent, and the words placed at the start and at the end of each line are given greater weight. And if we further ask why the rhythm of individual lines should matter, or why we should wish to give greater weight to certain words, the answer surely is not merely expressivity, but, more fully, an expressivity that prose, written in units of sentences, cannot usually give us.

Based on this, I’ll try, very tentatively, a definition of poetry that has nothing to do with such mundane matters as the units in which it is written:

Poetry is writing in which language is manipulated in such a way as it make it express things that, were it not for this manipulation, it would not be able to express.

By this definition, the third chapter of Joyce’s Ulysses is pure poetry; and my broken-up piece of prose above (which I nonetheless insist is far more poetic than much that passes for poetry on the net these days) isn’t.

But what kind of “manipulation”? A few come to mind:

– A focus on rhythms and sonorities, on the patterns made by the sounds of the words as well as the on what the words mean
– Connotative as well as denotative meanings of words
– The manipulation of syntax to give greater emphasis to certain words or phrases
– Imagery – i.e. attaching to certain things certain ideas, or certain concepts

o allowing a single thing to become attached to various different ideas or concepts, so that their common attachment to this single thing brings them together

o juxtaposing different things with different ideas or concepts attached to them, so that these ideas and concepts may then flow into each other

And so on. There are many, many more modes of manipulation – as many as there are poets to imagine them. And the purpose of all this manipulation is to force language to yield meanings that it would not have been able to yield were it restricted merely to dictionary definitions of words. Indeed, in poetry, the dictionary definitions are sometimes the least important elements. It is not to decry analysis to say that a poem can bypass analysis, or even thought about the literal meanings, to make its effect on the reader.

It may be objected that my new definition of poetry could be applied to prose as well as to poetry. To which I’d reply: “Yes, precisely.”


46 responses to this post.

  1. Not long ago I was discussing the question of the arbitrary line break with Kiwi-born Canadian poet Ian Burgham…

    [And you,
    A windrose, a compass
    My direction, my description of the world.]

    … and he had recently been part of a poetry conference at which one whole day had been devoted to why break lines, when rhythm nor length are the driving reasons. Like us he has a fascination with the question and a lack of patience when rank amateurs (I include me and he probably would too, had I subjected him to any of my stuff) write chopped-up prose and pass it off as poetry.

    Sadly, we didn’t have time to go into it bigtime, but he is to be a guest at the Scottish Arts Club’s forthcoming poetry and whisky evening. Maybe we can blether about it more then.


    • Some day, I must turn up to one of the Scottish Arts Club evenings. I don’t get up north as frequently as I used to…

      Line break is an important weapon in the poet’s armoury – although there are others also, of course. The most obvious effect it achieves is to place an extra weight on the words at the start of and at the end of each line, and beyond that, it compels us to examine each line as a single unit, both in terms of meaning, and also in terms of sound. Take, for instance, these three very famous lines:

      Give me my robe, put on my crown; I have
      Immortal longings in me: now no more
      The juice of Egypt’s grape shall moist this lip

      If this is written as prose, it would divide itself into three units as follows:

      1. Give me my robe, put on my crown
      2. I have immortal longings in me
      3. now no more the juice of Egypt’s grape shall moist this lip

      The three units that emerges from Shakespeare’s verse are very different: amongst other things, it gives a weight to the words “have” and “immortal”. Also, the three words following the caesura in the second line (“now no more”) is allowed to make an impact before we get to hear the next line, which clarifies its meaning.

      The two enjambments are fascinating. One would have thought that “Give me my robe, put on my crown” would be a wonderful line of poetry in itself, with its two beautifully judged symmetrical phrases. It wouldn’t make up a pentameter, of course, but Shakespeare is often quite happy to have fewer than five beats in a line, allowing the missing beat to be absorbed by an (implied) pause. But there is no missing beat here, and the caesura implied by the semi-colon must be brief if that entire first line is to emerge as a unit. So, in this line, Shakespeare gives us two symmetrical phrases, each with 4 monosyllables, and with the same rhythm (a pyrrhic followed by an iamb); and then, to finish the line, Shakespeare offers us another pyrrhic (“I have”), leading the ear to expect it to be followed by another iamb. But instead of another iamb, Shakespeare gives us something infinitely richer in the next line – “Immortal longings”. So, beautiful as that first line is, it acts to lead to the second line, which is even more beautiful; and its beauty is enhanced by the ear being led to expect another pyrrhic, but getting instead something far more wondrous.

      Now, that’s how to do a line break!


  2. I firmly believe that in poetry, as in prose, not a single word, comma, semicolon, emdash or dieresis should be put or left in a piece without the writer knowing exactly why. And in poetry, the line break also.

    La Japonesa told me that people might be less dismissive of modern artists, had they been a fly-on-the-wall installation at a Goldsmiths’ crit. Every little thing has to be justified and ‘I just liked the idea’ simply won’t wash. While some might worry that this just encourages bullshit at the expense of instinct, I would say that every writer should attempt to critique themselves likewise.

    I’m off to see Cox and Paterson in Godot on Wednesday, and this reminds me of the tale of Sammy Beckett directing one of his plays and yelling at the actor, “No! You’re leaving only two dots there, and the script distinctly has three!”


    • Yes, poetry can take – indeed, demands –a close reading that prose generally does not (the likes of Joyce & Beckett being exceptions). But is that the criterion that distinguishes poetry from prose – that one requires close reading, and the other doesn’t?


    • I disagree, Dai – unless “knowing why” includes such vague things as “because it sounds right” or “because it creates the right mood”. To my mind, much of the best in art depends on instinct rather than calculation. This is why critics and theorists are so rarely good artists.


      • As an old student of the New Criticism, it is somewhat difficult for me to admit, but so much of what we call good writing, whether poetry or prose, tends to make its reputation by historical acceptance. I’m sure Colley Cibber wrote with all the fervor and skill he could muster in his day.

      • Agreed – Cibber wrote as best he could. But history as accepted Shelley and Byron rather than Cibber … and surely there must be a reason why! I am once again speculating here (everything I write here are but suggestions thrown out, awaiting refutation!) but isn’t it fair to say that historic acceptance is the effect rather than the cause of writing being considered “good”?

      • @Mike Alexander (to distinguish you from the other Mike!) – Yes, I tend to agree – artists will, I guess, work to a great extent from instinct, and leave it to the critic to do the analysis.not being myself a creative type, I wouldn’t know, but I don’t see how else one can account for Mozart composing in a mere six weeks his last three symphonies – works which generations of scholars have spent virtually entire lifetime analysing.

        I think, though, that Dai’s point can be modified to: “A great poem is that in which even the slightest detail can be shown to have its purpose – although the artist may not have been explicitly conscious of that purpose.”

  3. Posted by Shonti Mukherjee on September 29, 2015 at 9:12 am

    We conversed about this last time we met. I respect that u have made a valiant effort to place a framework upon a very difficult place but i dont think you have captured it yet.

    Out of absolute cowardice I am not even going to make any attempt. I feel there are way too many permutations tangents and samples from innumerable sources for me to be able to create any valid and satisfying definition.

    However I do think it is quite an important division to make in the context of literature and I am surprised that someone like, say, a Samuel Johnson or an Orwell hasn’t attempted one that is familiar and readily dispersed.

    Anyway….best of luck…I hope u succeed


  4. Posted by Mark on September 29, 2015 at 9:25 am

    My guide on this question is Basil Bunting, author of (in my view) the greatest postwar English poem – “Briggflatts”. His argument about what constitutes poetry is refreshingly simple and he stated it several times in various forms:

    “Poetry, like music, is to be heard. It deals in sound – long sounds and short sounds, heavy beats and light beats, the tone relations of vowels, the relations of consonants to one another … Reading in silence is the source of half the misconceptions that have caused the public to distrust poetry.”


    “I believe the fundamental thing in poetry is the sound, so that, whatever the meaning may be, whatever your ultimate intention in that direct might be, if you haven’t got the sound right, it isn’t a poem. And if you have got it right, it’ll get across, even to people who don’t understand it.”


    “I’ve never said that poetry consists only of sound. I said again and again that the essential thing is the sound. Without the sound their isn’t any poetry.”

    No single definition of poetry will ever satisfy – and thank goodness for that, poetry retains its magic – but Bunting’s emphasis on sound seems right to me. There are relatively few pieces of prose that qualify as poetry under Bunting’s terms, especially if you expand his definition to include silence too. The silence would be the white space around the lines. Bunting was close to being a Quaker and, like all Quakers, his act of worship largely consisted of sitting in silence.

    There are, of course, passages of “prose” that might qualify as poetry. Some of them are to be found in Ulysses, which you mention, Himadri. But in truth there are relatively few long prose works written primarily for sound – and I suspect it would be exhausting to read such a work.

    Beyond Bunting, I find myself asking what makes a good poem. There are no simple answers and this is where time and what readers think comes into play. Many good poems were suspected of not being poems at all upon publication – later readers disagreed; many bad poems were acclaimed, initially, only to fall from favour.

    Hope you’re well, Himadri – I’m running late now due to writing this!


    • I have much admired what I have read by Bunting, but I haven’t yet read “Briggflats”. Thanks for the tip.

      I very much agree that the “sound” is the most important quality in a poem – the Sine qua non, although, of course, as Bunting himself implies, it is a necessary though not a sufficient condition. This is why, I guess, translations of poetry are so problematic: if the most important aspect of a poem is its sound, and given that it is impossible to translate the sounds of one language into the sounds of another, the most important aspect of a poem goes missing.

      But leaving that aside, we may, I think, ask: “To what end?” What purpose does the sound serve? One may answer, quite reasonably, “The sound is an end in itself, not the means”. In many cases this is true – although different types of sounds can and do communicate different things: even if we were to focus on the sound only rather than on the meaning, there is no way that “the stuttering rifle’s rapid rattle” can communicate the serene and irenic. But yes, quite frequently the sound is used not as a means to an end, but as an end in itself: as in music, certain sounds, in and of themselves, simply engage. But then, again as with music, it is a great mystery why they should do so: it is a mystery why Debussy’s arrangements of sounds should engage, whereas a few chords strummed more or less at random on a guitar usually don’t.

      Perhaps we just have to surrender to this mystery – and stop asking questions such as “What is the point of poetry?” and merely accept there is no answer. Makes it a bit difficult if you’re applying for Arts Council funding, mind you!


    • My only objection to this argument is that, to me at least, sound is almost equally important in prose fiction. I have read many an attempt at fiction that conveys the events and characters it intends to, that is grammatical, verbally economical and readily understood in terms of simple semantics – but that nonetheless doesn’t work , because of clumsy rhythm, or word choices that evoke impressions or moods contrary to those intended. These jarring effects “break the spell” for most readers, throwing them out of the imagined world. Storytelling is a kind of hypnotism, and a good hypnotist must command the music and nuance of language to keep their subject under.

      It’s most instructive to hear how people who write like this *read*. They tend to be uncomfortable with reading out loud, and read flatly and too quickly, almost as if they were skim-reading some tedious legal document or other. When reading by themselves, they tend to be very fast readers of fiction, who absorb the story without actually hearing the words in their head. The music of prose appears to bypass them completely.


      • Posted by Mark on October 3, 2015 at 6:11 pm

        Actually, Mike, I agree with you up to a point. I wholeheartedly endorse your comments about the “music of prose” and the jarring quality of prose that lacks it.

        Sound is, or should be, very important in all literary writing.

        However, I think I would go along with the argument that while it is very important in prose, it is absolutely paramount in poetry, and the poetry I like best tends to be extremely musical. I like Bunting’s arguments because I am looking for that particular emphasis on sound and rhythm in poetry. I still think this intensity would be rather draining over the course of 300 pages of “prose”.

        But, certainly, I take on board what you have said. I was at a public reading recently of new short stories. I was struck by just how little attention the writers had paid to the qualities you mention, and they read in exactly the way you describe, flatly and too quickly. I’m glad I’m not the only one who thinks this.

      • The sounds and rhythms of prose are, agreed, important in prose also, but they carry greater weight in poetry: yes, I think I’d go along with that – and the line breaks allow the poet an extra weapon in their armoury. And as you say, to read a novel as closely as one would read a poem would be exhausting. But i can’t help wondering where this leaves works such as Paradise Lost or The Prelude … i.e. poems that are as long as novels!

  5. Miles Kington was good on this: http://webcache.googleusercontent.com/search?q=cache:CvMxVHMh5ogJ:www.independent.co.uk/voices/columnists/miles-kington/there-was-a-fine-doctor-called-wordsmith-95540.html+&cd=2&hl=en&ct=clnk&gl=uk

    Dear Dr Wordsmith, Yes, that’s certainly much better.
    Dr Wordsmith writes: And more poetic?
    Dear Dr Wordsmith, Yes.
    Dr Wordsmith writes: And yet they are exactly the same words! It’s all in the presentation you see.


    • Hello, and thanks for that link: I hadn’t seen that before.

      I know that Miles Kington piece wasn’t intended to be entirely serious, but it does raise a point I have often wondered: is the distinction between prose and poetry no more than a matter of presentation? Is prose chopped up at random (in the manner of Private Eye’s E. J. Thribb) poetry? One may say it’s bad poetry, but we’re merely discussing taxonomy here rather than merit: good or bad, is it poetry? It’s akin to the argument that a bicycle wheel seen on the street isn’t art, but exhibited in a gallery it is, because the very fact that we are seeing in a gallery makes us view it in a different way.

      Similarly, the very fact that the prose is broken up makes us read it in a different way. And there is the difference between poetry and prose.

      It’s certainly a coherent argument, but, for reasons I can’t quite specify, I find myself very uncomfortable with the idea that “it’s poetry if the writer says it is”. And I am not entirely sure why this argument makes me so uncomfortable: it seems, somehow, to trivialise matters. Surely there must be more to poetry than the say-so of the writer?


  6. Reblogged this on A Celebration of Reading and commented:
    “Great literature is simply language charged with meaning to the utmost possible degree.”

    Who can disagree with Ezra Pound? But notice that this does not differentiate at all between poetry and prose. To solidify this difference, we must turn to my favorite critic, 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.”


    • “Great literature is simply language charged with meaning to the utmost possible degree.”

      I wonder if Pound’s use of the word “simply” is but an example of his irony!

      The distinction I’d proposed between prose and poetry is similar to Eagleton’s – that prose is written in units if sentences poetry in units of lines. I think that distinction is unexceptionable (unless any commenter here wishes to take exception to it and prove me wrong!) but what is interesting, I think, is the question it raises: why?
      Why should a poet whish to break lines at certain points? What is gained by this? And to answer this question, we find ourselves wondering what the purpose of poetry is. And if we decide that the question is meaningless poetry is an end in itself rather than a means to an end, we are left pondering that mystery of why an arrangement of verbal sounds, in and of itself, can affect us so.


      • Simply? I suspect that it is the intense rhetorical imbalance between the word “simply” and the idea of being “charged .. to the utmost” that makes this quotation so effective.

        When I was at University my poetry class was visited by the poet George MacBeth. MacBeth was writing a form of concrete poetry that followed the restrictions of the haiku but also created a seemingly Chinese graphic character out of the words and syllables of the poem.

        But let’s not confuse form with meaning unless we are studying concrete poetry. For an insight into “why?” consider OULIPO (although in poetry the traditional answer leads back to the ancient oral tradition .. you know, before email and emojis).

      • I think Pound’s “simply” is marvellous – for all the reasons you give!

      • Perhaps a historical perspective might shed some light? Poetry was a spoken form long before it was ever a written one; line breaks need not apply. In verbal culture presumably the difference between prose and poetry is that poetry applies more regular patterning in order to aid memory and thus better preserve the integrity of the story. The patterning could be rhyme or alliteration, it could be patterns of stressed and unstressed syllables, or of long and short vowels. I would imagine in more tonal languages it could even be to do with pitch. But the purpose is always the same – harnessing formal patterning as an aid to memory.

        With the move into the literate age – and in particular since the invention of printing – this became less of an imperative. Ironically there are now some forms that are very regularly patterned, but they are patterns you can see but not really hear, so would never have served the original purpose. An example is syllabic verse, where number of syllables per line is the key metric, ignoring the actual length and stress of the syllables. You can see the pattern, but you can’t hear it. Likewise caligrammes.

        So perhaps the real difference is that poetry evolved out of patterned verse and prose out of “unpatterned” storytelling, but that poetry has become more freeform in the age of print.

      • Mike, I replied to Alan before I read your comment above, and I think we are thinking here along similar lines. The invention of printing, the rise of mass literacy, etc., have all inevitably had an effect on poetry. And on top of this, there has been in all branches of the arts, I think, a loosening for form for greater and freer expressivity.

        What is interesting is that line breaks make us – or should read us – make the sam epiece of writing differently. Good Shakespearean actors can communicate exactly where the line breaks by the way they speak the verse. To take the example I have given elsewhere,

        Give me my robe, put on my crown; I have
        Immortal longings in me: now no more
        The juice of Egypt’s grape shall moist this lip

        is spoken differently from

        Give me my robe, put on my crown; I have immortal longings in me: now no more the juice of Egypt’s grape shall moist this lip

        Line breaks are heard as well as seen, and are, in effect, another weapon in the poet’s armoury.

  7. Outside our most modern culture, no one would have even understood the issue.

    Your definition of poetry sounds much closer to a definition of rhetoric.


  8. Hello everyone – thanks for your comments. I will most certainly reply, but please do give me a few days!

    Obooki, I agree with you that this would not have been an issue outside modern culture. But since we are living in modern times, when poetry is very little read, and when all kinds of chopped-up prose seems to pass for poetry, it seemed worthwhile posing the question of what poetry is, and, leading on from “What is poetry?” to “Why poetry?” – i.e. what is it poetry can achieve that prose cannot? My definition is just a tentative attemp, and no more – I’m certainly not insisting upon it.


    • What I’m meaning to say, is that I suppose this is all some kind of misunderstanding, or a fraud perpetrated by modern poets.

      Poetry is defined by being in metre. This seems common across all human societies, aside from our most modern one.

      Where the misunderstanding arises, is that people begin to mistake rhetoric for poetry – largely because poetry has (historically) more interest in rhetoric than prose. Rhetoric is here defined as: any use of language which is intended to achieve an effect beyond the mere meaning of words. Rhetoric may be a major factor in poetry, but is also a major factor in, for instance, forensic / political speeches and advertising.

      Any attempt to define poetry based on its rhetorical qualities therefore seems to me doomed to failure, because there is nothing stopping people from using rhetoric in prose – and a definition would then rely on a qualitative distinction between degrees of rhetoric.


      • I do actually take your point – especially your point about my definition applying to rhetoric rather than to poetry – but let me, as Devil’s Advocate if nothing else, push your point further.

        “Poetry is defined by being in metre”.

        We may agree that your sentence quoted above is definitely in prose. But given that all words in English have stressed and unstressed syllables, is it possible not to write in metre? Or, to phrase it differently, is it not possible to see metre in everything??

        POETry is / deFINED by / BEing in / MEtre.

        A dactyl, an amphibrach, another dactyl, a trochee. (There are other ways of parsing this as well, depending on whether we pronounce the “poet” in “poetry” as being two syllables or as a diphthong; and similarly with the word “being”.)

        In short, is there any reason why is your definition of poetry cannot itself be seen as a line of poetry?

  9. I was going to go on (since my mind made the connection) that metre in itself was a form of rhetoric – i.e. the specific form of rhetoric which expresses things in recurrent patterns.

    I think metre must at least have an idea of recurrence, hence my one line is not poetry, but if you added a second line:

    But plays are performed most often in the[a]tre (supposing the last word has only 2 syllables)

    then it would become poetry. Obviously you don’t need to rhyme, which is another modern abomination.


    • Posted by Mark on September 30, 2015 at 5:40 pm

      Nearly a hundred years after the publication of The Waste Land, Yeats’ “The Second Coming”; decades since the publication of the poems of Paul Celan, the poems of Frank O’Hara; longer still since the publication of Leaves of Grass (I could go on and on and on) – are there really people who still think that poetry that doesn’t rhyme is a “modern abomination”?

      This rules out much of the best verse of the twentieth century, which is perhaps your point – but I feel bound to point out that just because something doesn’t rhyme it doesn’t mean that it doesn’t have the music, the beat, of poetry. Assonance, alliteration, metre, patterning, cadence: all of these things are still present in much contemporary poetry. Sound and rhythm are fundamental, rhyme is not – or, at least, that generally seems to be the judgement of a very large group of literate readers who do not find “Song of Myself” or “Todesfuge” to be abominations.


      • Nearly three thousand years since the publication of Homer’s The Iliad…

        No, no, you misunderstand me. I meant that poetry that does rhyme is a modern abomination.

      • Ha ha! Obooki is the only person I can think of who can refer even to Chaucer’s rhyming verse as “modern”!

        Sorry about the delay in replying to you all … I have lots of half-formed thoughts whirling round my head, but i need some time to get them all into some kind of order. Do please bear with me…

      • Posted by Mark on October 1, 2015 at 8:53 am

        Oh, sorry obooki. Yes, I did misunderstand you – but, as Himadri suggests, perhaps not unreasonably so. I see you measure the development of poetry by the scale of geological time! 😉

    • To be frank, I am really not convinced by the contention that “metre must at least have an idea of recurrence” – simply because there are too many counter-examples. Where is the recurrence in “The Waste Land” or in “The Four Quartets”? One need not turn to modernism for examples: the first line of Paradise Lost, for instance:

      Of Man’s first disobedience, and the fruit
      Of that forbidden tree…

      That opening line has a most unusual metre: after an initial unstressed upbeat (“of”) there are no less than three consecutive strongly stressed syllables. There is no other line even remotely like that in the opening pages, and I doubt there is another line in the entire work with that metrical pattern.

      It seems to me that if, as you say, any attempt to define poetry based on its rhetorical qualities is doomed to failure, then any attempt to define it m=based on its metrical qualities is equally doomed. Unless, of course, one were to say that poetry is writing that is intended to be read in metrical form. So when I read in a passage of prose “Poetry is defined by being in metre”, I am not conscious of a rhythm: not that it doesn’t have a rhythm, but that I don’t give weight to the stressed syllables in the way I would if I were to read that same line in a poem:

      Poetry is defined by being in metre

      But if this is so, the distinction between poetry and prose becomes a matter of the author’s intention: it’s apoem if the author intends it to be a poem. As I said in my reply to adjehany above, I find myself very uncomfortable with that.

      I do, i must, continue to feel that poetry, as with any art form, must be expressive. I suppose it is legitimate for poetry to manipulate language in order to do no more than to create patterns that are enjoyable as patterns, but the poetry I value most are those that create patterns that are expressive. Now, I am being vague on what precisely poetry expresses – feelings, moods, emotions, sensations, states of minds, ways of looking at things … I do not want to specify such things because to define is to limit.

      Mendelssohn famously said once that the problem with talking about music is not that music is too imprecise for words, but that, on the contrary, it’s too precise for words. Music, in other words, could express things that words can’t. Poetry, for me, is the art of proving Mendelssohn wrong – it is the art of forcing words to express what words, in their normal unmanipulated states, can’t. And if that means that poetry is a form of rhetoric, then I don’t really see a problem with that.


  10. I think this is a great question, Himadri; I think about it too; I believe modern poetry is ghastly, clumsy, and lazy. But my repugnance at norms stops me from forming a clear idea of what poetry should be. I just know I read that chopped-up prose pretending to be poetry and I feel contempt.

    My way of solving this matter, at least for me, was to do the opposite: I’m currently writing a short-story where each paragraph is a sestina pieced back into prose; the protagonist happens to be a mediocre modern poet who only knows how to write chopped-up prose poetry. I’ve been finding it very cathartic.

    For my part, I can say the pleasure of writing sestinas is the difficulty, the challenge, and the feelign of accomplishment when I come up with a clever solution for the dreaded 10-syllable verse; the truth is, preordained forms force the poet to come up with more unexpected combinations, which is the allure of poetry for me. Vers libre could only inevitably lead poets to just throw anything into a verse and call it poetry; when the next word doesn’t have to rhyme or complete a feet, the inclination to use prose becomes normal.


    • Hello Miguel,
      I know I am often (with justice) regarded as anti-modern and “Old is good, new is bad” school, but, while I too find myself shaking my head at much that does indeed seem to me like prose chopped up at random, there is also much I have read that seems to me remarkable. Definitions are always limiting, and hence, in matters of literature and art, undesirable, but I did think this question worth posing (even if we don’t all agree to an answer) because, as in so many other areas of the arts, formal constraints have been loosened to such an extent that we are left wondering whether there is a centre that still holds.

      I think I agree with you that the creative artist must have some form of constraint or structure – either one that is established, or one that is self-imposed. The alternative is merely anarchy. It is interesting to note, for instance, that Arnold Schoenberg, having broken free from the bounds of tonality, devised for himself a dodecaphonic style of composing that was far more severely structured than anything he had rejected!

      Your project sounds a fascinating exercise. Is this intended for publication, or is it a private exercise?


  11. Posted by alan on October 3, 2015 at 10:53 am

    The following doesn’t qualify as a theory and I wouldn’t dignify even it as a hypothesis, but hey, this is a blog, and anyway most of it is commonplace.
    I wonder if part of the structure of poetry has to do with the way our memories work in the context of a particular language.
    It seems to be widely believed that before the advent of writing that epic narratives were more easily remembered and disseminated as poetry.
    There is also a link between memory and emotion and between music and emotion. I suspect that many people have had the experience when re-reading or listening to something again that feelings return of the time they first read it.
    I know even less about music than I do about poetry, which isn’t saying much. However, compared to the length of human pre-history, I do wonder if written poetry is a very specialised and relatively recent aspect of a lengthy art of cultural memory and the emotions that bind people together using music and words.
    I doubt that we will ever be able to unpick the way we have adapted to our environment and the way our environment has adapted to us, but it seems to me some of the relationships between music, words, memory and emotion, as they exist now, can be scientifically testable.


  12. Posted by alan on October 3, 2015 at 10:58 am

    I guess I should have added – perhaps the state of modern poetry is partly an outcome of a belief that the art of memory is no longer important because our technology will do the remembering for us.


    • I think you’re right – nothing stays same over time, and poetry has certainly changed; and I think the invention of the printing press, and, later, the spread of literacy, have all been contributory factors: if the purpose of poetry – or, at least, one of the purposes of poetry – was to make something easy to remember, then, when easy availability in books meant that one needed no longer to memorise, such features as regular metrical patterns tended to matter less.

      But another factor is the general loosening of form and structure for the sake of freer expressivity – and this has been going on since at least the Romantic era. In music, the sonata structure had barely been created when composers stretched it and bent it to their wills, and, eventually, discarded it altogether; similarly with tonality. the visual arts progressed from the representational to increasing levels of abstraction; and we may see this in poetry also, as traditional forms were increasingly rejected; as Gerard Manley Hopkins stretched and twisted syntax to such an extent that sound started communicating more than sense; and so on. I can see that progression, but, perhaps because I am too close to my own times to see it in proper context, I can’t help feeling at times that everything has flown so far from the centre that the centre itself does not exist any more. And I’m not sure where that leaves us.


      • As regards the sound of the piece (poetry or prose), allow a somewhat trite and pedestrian suggestion: consider the lyrics of a rock and roll song. Or do you enjoy the song without having any idea what the lyrics are or what they mean? Of course the added music makes for a more complex example but it is still, functionally, the container rising above the contents.

      • Here’s an interesting comment from out of left-field:

        “Some of the biblical and nonbiblical texts quoted in this book are printed in poetic lines and scholars agree that about a third of the Old Testament is poetry. But to conserve writing materials such as papyrus and parchment, in ancient manuscripts poetry and prose were written the same way, in continuous lines. This is one reason why poetry is sometimes difficult to identify.” — The Old Testament, A Very Short Introduction—Michael Coogan

        So poetry isn’t the container, but the contents: the container just makes it easier to identify poetry?

      • There’s a lot to be said for that. This applies to Shakespeare also: there are many misprints in both the Good Quartos, and in the First Folio, and there are some passages that are printed as verse (i.e. with line breaks) in one version, but in prose in the other. There are yet other passages that are printed as prose in both, but which many editors think were intended as verse. That there remains controversy on this point indicates how close the two are, or can be, to each other.

        For me, the line breaks are an extra weapon in the poet’s armoury – it’s a means of giving weight to and emphasising certain words, and to create individual units of rhythm independently of sentence breaks. I think, for instance, that the entire third chapter of Ulysses could be written as a poem with appropriate line breaks.

  13. Stanley Fish: “How To Recognize a Poem.”


    • Thanks for the recommendation – I should try to get hold of this.

      On London Underground trains, they have a series of posters called “Poems on the Underground”. The featured poems are taken from a wide range of sources, but some I find myself reading and wondering why the writer has taken an unremarkable piece of prose and broken it up seemingly at random. now that we have broken free of virtually all formal constraints, it does seem a good time to ask ourselves questions such as “what is poetry? Why do we read poetry? What makes good poetry?” and so on. I am not looking or prescriptive answers – prescription is the death of any art after all – but neither can I reconcile myself to “It’s a poem if I say it’s a poem”.I’ll certainly have a look at Stanley Fish’s book.


  14. John Banville has said that he is “trying to blend poetry and fiction into some new form”. Interesting that he says “fiction” and not “prose.”


  15. I’ve seen a few references to sound and music in the comments. Recently, I have been struggling through Adonis’ ‘An Introduction to Arab Poetics’, most of which, I must confess, has merrily flown over my head. He does make the point, though, that the origins of Arab poetry lie in song, and that the early Arab grammarians would judge the worth of poetry by how closely it could approximate to song.


    • Hello Gautam, I think there’s much to be said for seeing poetry as closer to music than to prose. A friend once told me that the first time she read a poem, she focussed on the sounds alone, and only later would she think about what the words meant. I have tried to do that, but I don’t think I’ve ever succeeded: I can’t think of words as essentially abstract sounds, divorced from meaning. But I imagine that teh ability to do so would give me a quite different perspective.


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