I have written much on the problems of definitions:
- The Myth of Definitions: people largely misunderstand language
- The Limitations of Abstractions: an index of similar problematic words
- The Reification Fallacy: how the problem begins
- Prescriptivism: Those who tell us what religion and poetry really are
This post supplements my series on “Defining Religion” by stepping away from “religion” and trying to define “poetry” in order to make clear the issues involved in such definitions. Religion is a touchy issue because most people have strong emotions about religion and they intuitively feel that they know exactly what religion really is. Poetry may help us to get around this intuitive blind-spot since most of my readers are probably not avid poetry readers, yet alone poets themselves.
Below I quote many poets who tell us what they feel “poetry is”. Reading these quotes, you will see that often they are strongly biased to define poetry so as to reflect their own personal preferences – their own favorite styles.
But looking at the picture I photoshopped above, you can see that the word “poetry” captures many contrary styles of writing and thus you can see the limitations of these definitions if they are taken prescriptively. I chose the zen empty circle (ensō) to imply the emptiness of any attempt to define all of poetry’s various forms, styles and tones into one single definition.
Anyone who tries to tell you that “Poetry is [something]”, is being more of a poetry missionary rather than a linguist or scientist.
“Poetry” is just a form of language and like many abstract words, its uses vary widely and thus it has fuzzy, flexible borders. Platonist misunderstand the nature of language and try to discover what something is — they forget that we humans make meaning and it is constantly being negotiated. Prescriptionists, on the other hand, hate “fuzzy” quality — they think they know how things should be.
When I looked at the various definitions poets prescribe, I saw that they fell into seven major categories. The first six categories has axes-to-grind or ideologies that people use to fuel their poetry prescriptions. The 7th category is broad and not prescriptive.
- Elitisms: poets are better than prose writers, non-poets or others
- Anti-Reason: some form of anti-reason, anti-rationalism, anti-reductionism, anti-science
- Idealism/Romanticism: some form romanticism, mysticism or idealism. Idealize nature, the Absolute, Love, Beauty or some ideal as the true object of poetry
- Soul-Searching, Emotionalism: some form which emphasizes understanding the true self, reaching into the soul, self-discovery
- Style Prejudice: poetry should rhyme, be terse …
- Activism: Unique Voice/ ‘Seeing Truly’: some form of self-righteous activism or unique voice in society to help all us poor blind people
- Uniquely Broad: These definition are far less confining or biased. They are often playful.
- However, if a poem can be reduced to a prose sentence, there can’t be much to it.
[James Schuler, source]
- He who writes prose builds his temple to Fame in rubble; he who writes verses builds it in granite.
- The crown of literature is poetry. It is its end and aim. It is the sublimest activity of the human mind. It is the achievement of beauty and delicacy. The writer of prose can only step aside when the poet passes.
[W. Somerset Maugham]
- Poetry heals the wounds inflicted by reason.
- Even when poetry has a meaning, as it usually has, it may be inadvisable to draw it out… Perfect understanding will sometimes almost extinguish pleasure.
[A.E. Housman, source]
- Science sees signs; Poetry the thing signified.
[Augustus and Julius Hare]
- Poetry should… should strike the reader as a wording of his own highest thoughts, and appear almost a remembrance.
[John Keats, source]
- Poetry is not a turning loose of emotion, but an escape from emotion; it is not the expression of personality, but an escape from personality. But, of course, only those who have personality and emotions know what it means to want to escape from these things.
[T.S. Eliot, source]
- Poetry is the art of uniting pleasure with truth.
[Samuel Johnson, source]
4. Soul-Searching Emotionalism
- All good poetry is the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings: it takes its origin from emotion recollected in tranquility.
- If I read a book and it makes my whole body so cold no fire can warm me I know that is poetry. If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know that is poetry. These are the only way I know it. Is there any other way?
[Emily Dickenson, source]
- Poetry is plucking at the heartstrings, and making music with them.
[Dennis Gabor, source]
- A poem might be defined as thinking about feelings – about human feelings and frailties.
[Anne Stevenson, source]
- Poetry is a mirror which makes beautiful that which is distorted.
[Percy Bysshe Shelley, source]
5. Style Prejudice
- One merit of poetry few persons will deny: it says more and in fewer words than prose.
- One distinction between poetry and prose is that poetry should be memorable.
[Karin Gustafson, source]
- Poets are soldiers that liberate words from the steadfast possession of definition.
[Eli Khamarov, source] **not epic poems or plain language poetry
- Poetry is the rhythmical creation of beauty in words.
[Edgar Allan Poe, source]
- Poetry is language at its most distilled and most powerful.
[Rita Dove source]
- No poem is easily grasped; so why should any reader expect fast results?
[John Barton, source]
- Poetry is language at its most distilled and most powerful.”
- I would as soon write free verse as play tennis with the net down.”
- Poetry, like the moon, does not advertise anything.
- A poet must never make a statement simply because it is sounds poetically exciting; he must also believe it to be true.
- … one of the definitions of poetry might be that a poem freshens the world.
- [Ted Kooser, The Poetry Home Repair Manuel. In excerpt here (p6-7), Kooser gives an example of Jared Carter‘s poem: “Fire Burning in a Fifty-Five Gallon Drum” (also at googlebooks .]
- The aim of the poet and poetry is finally to be of service, to ply the effort of the individual work into the larger work of the community as a whole.
[Seamus Heaney, quoted by Ted Kooser in The Poetry Home Repair Manuel.]
- A poet’s work is to name the unnameable, to point at frauds, to take sides, start arguments, shape the world, and stop it going to sleep.
[Salman Rushdie, source]
- Poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world.
[Percy Byshe Shelley]
7. Pleasantly Broad
- Painting is silent poetry, and poetry is painting that speaks.
- Poetry is a deal of joy and pain and wonder, with a dash of the dictionary.
[Khalil Gibran, source]
- Poetry is an echo, asking a shadow to dance.
[Carl Sandburg, source]
- Poetry is when an emotion has found its thought and the thought has found words.
[Robert Frost, source]
- Like a piece of ice on a hot stove the poem must ride on its own melting.
- The poem… is a little myth of man’s capacity of making life meaningful. And in the end, the poem is not a thing we see — it is, rather, a light by which we may see — and what we see is life.
(Robert Penn Warren, Saturday Review (22 March 1958), source)
- Poetry is what makes me laugh or cry or yawn, what makes my toenails twinkle, what makes me want to do this or that or nothing.
[Dylan Thomas, source]
- Poetry is the impish attempt to paint the color of the wind.