What is Poetry?
In order to answer the question, ‘What is poetry,’ we must first ask the question, ‘What is art?’ This, of course, is one of the most ancient and enduring of all questions. It has plagued the conscious thoughts of as many people as have asked, ‘What is the meaning of life?’ We know that simple taste alone does not govern this question. There are many people who do not like the works of Picasso or Mondrian or Pollock or Kandinsky or Rodchenko, and yet it is undoubtedly ‘art’. In this case, the corollary question is really one of ‘Is it good art?’ Every time that someone starts to approach what might be seen as a definitive description, along comes someone else with a work which of necessity finds itself outside of that description.
The closest that we have been able to get to a definition is that art is “a constructed balance of form and function, offered as art and accepted by at least one other person as art”. The central portion of this definition, that of a “balance of form and function’, expands the concept not only into art, but also of artistry and craftsmanship. Something as basic as a chair can meet this requirement, and so it may be regarded as ‘artistic’… but is it yet art? The hind legs of a horse might be considered such a balance, but is it yet art? For this we need an external input: the item in question must be constructed. Art is not an accident of nature, though it may be an accident by design, as we see with Pollock. Thus a mountain is not art, beautiful though it may be, but a photo or a painting of a mountain may very well be art. Added to this is the element of a social contract, the offering and the receiving of the construction as art. Thus a photo of a mountain taken during one’s summer holidays may well be beautifully taken, but until such time as the photographer offers it into ‘the dialogue’, as critics call it, it is still just a photograph. This ‘offering’ does not always predate the receiver: sometimes a viewer might declare, ‘That looks very artistic,’ and in so doing encourage the constructor to offer it up as a work to be considered as art.
When it comes to poetry, there is a significant amount of defensiveness over the question of what makes something poetry or not. This is because, like all art, there is a clear potential for laziness, lack of application and pretentiousness to creep in. Anyone can string a dozen words together and call it ‘poetry”. But is it really? The usual response is, ‘Who are you to say that it is not?’ But that is a lame defence, based on the premiss that something is art merely because someone says so: to some people, art never has to withstand any scrutiny. But we start with the simple realisation that anyone can write a poem, but not everyone can write poetry. These are not the same thing.
The daffodil is bright and yellow; Standing tall, its scent is mellow. Looking like the sun on high, It ever pleases mine own eye.
This is undoubtedly a poem… but is it poetry? It truly is hard to say!
We return to the basics. Poetry first is also a balance of form and function. The function is twofold: one is to convey a message, the other is to encourage the reader or the audience to think, to imagine, to expand, even, if it is good, to debate. The form is the assortment of devices used to get that message across. The traditional ‘form’ includes rhythm, rhyme, alliteration, assonance and consonance, metaphor, allusion and structure itself. In classical poetry, strict stanzas were found with highly regulated rhythm and rhyme. By the mid-eighteenth century, these were breaking down. In some poetry, we found ‘remote rhyme’, where the rhymes were in fact four or five lines apart, echoing and hinting at each other’s existence, or in others we found it only in internal rhyme:
The light of night a token throe and woken from the bright, unspoken space...
In other poetry, rhyme was gotten rid of altogether. The rhythm itself became a thing of the past. Orthodox styles of iambic, trochaic, dactylic and anapaestic rhythm were replaced with staccato forms. In some cases, this new form was functional in itself, creating an onomatopoeia not of the words, but of the way that the words were set against each other. In other cases, it was simply because the poet could not be bothered (or was not able) to maintain the tradition. In much modern poetry, rhythm and rhyme are expelled thoroughly, cynically because the poet has insufficient love of their language that they simply can not employ them. Alliteration (‘the lone and lazy lizard’), consonance (‘cold when called and killed withal’) and assonance (‘into a blaze of day’s inflamed and fiery light’) were devices of the past which only occasionally rear their heads these days. The only enduring device seems to be metaphor or allusion. But with the increase in the amount of ‘representational’ poetry, in which the poet simply talks about what is as it is, even these seem to be losing their grip these days. Much modern poetry is scarcely discernible from prose writing. It is therefore not surprising that even structure itself is no longer a certainty. Words are graphically thrown about in all directions, but we are often not sure if this means anything. Does the fact that this particular word suddenly drops down to the middle of the next line, or that word is for some unknown reason chopped in half and continued on the next line, add anything to the poetry? Or is it just a game to show the reader how ‘clever’ and modern one is?
One of the major problems with modern poetry, and one of the reasons why many people are disillusioned by it, is that the extremity from tradition is now seen as an imperative. In other words, if one uses rhythm and rhyme and the like, they are considered to be ‘backward’ or unadventurous: ‘tradition’ is considered to be a dirty word. Yet, the formalised structure of the past requires no less a dedication or application to one’s art as any other style, one might argue even more so. Many poets have tried to use rhythm and rhyme with appalling results, because they have fallen into the trap of assuming that ‘traditional’ means ‘easy’.
In the end, it seems irrelevant whether one uses traditional form or the ‘free verse’ which has taken over in modern arenas. What is eternally relevant is the level of dedication to the art-form, in which no word is taken lightly. Each has its brilliancies, each has its disasters! What is poetry? Poetry is the love of language expressed when form and function, the harmony of devices and meaning, convey a message beyond the prosaic limitations of ordinary, daily language, entered into the social dialogue where it is offered and accepted as a constructed form of art. This is nowhere nearer to an authoritative description, but it may be of some use.