Defining “Poetry”

This_is_Poetry_img_onlyI have written much on the problems of definitions:

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.

    1. Elitisms:  poets are better than prose writers, non-poets or others
    2. Anti-Reason: some form of anti-reason, anti-rationalism, anti-reductionism, anti-science
    3. Idealism/Romanticism: some form romanticism, mysticism or idealism. Idealize nature, the Absolute, Love, Beauty or some ideal as the true object of poetry
    4. Soul-Searching, Emotionalism: some form which emphasizes understanding the true self, reaching into the soul, self-discovery
    5. Style Prejudice: poetry should rhyme, be terse …
    6. Activism: Unique Voice/ ‘Seeing Truly’: some form of self-righteous activism or unique voice in society to help all us poor blind people
    7. Uniquely Broad:  These definition are far less confining or biased.  They are often playful.

1. Elitism

  • However, if a poem can be reduced to a prose sentence, there can’t be much to it.
    [James Schulersource]
  • He who writes prose builds his temple to Fame in rubble; he who writes verses builds it in granite.
    [Edward Bulwer-Lytton]
  • 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]

2. Anti-Reason

  • 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]

3. Idealism/Romanticism

  • Poetry should… should strike the reader as a wording of his own highest thoughts, and appear almost a remembrance.
    [John Keatssource]
  • 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. Eliotsource]
  • Poetry is the art of uniting pleasure with truth.
    [Samuel Johnsonsource]

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 Dickensonsource]
  • Poetry is plucking at the heartstrings, and making music with them.
    [Dennis Gaborsource]
  • A poem might be defined as thinking about feelings – about human feelings and frailties.
    [Anne Stevensonsource]
  • Poetry is a mirror which makes beautiful that which is distorted.
    [Percy Bysshe Shelleysource]

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 Gustafsonsource]
  • Poets are soldiers that liberate words from the steadfast possession of definition.
    [Eli Khamarovsource] **not epic poems or plain language poetry
  • Poetry is the rhythmical creation of beauty in words.
    [Edgar Allan Poesource]
  • 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.”
    [Rita Dove]
  • I would as soon write free verse as play tennis with the net down.”
    [Robert Frost]
  • Poetry, like the moon, does not advertise anything.
    [William Blisset]
  • A poet must never make a statement simply because it is sounds poetically exciting; he must also believe it to be true.
    [W.H. Auden]

6. Activism

  • … 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 Rushdiesource]
  • 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 Gibransource]
  • Poetry is an echo, asking a shadow to dance.
    [Carl Sandburgsource]
  • Poetry is when an emotion has found its thought and the thought has found words.
    [Robert Frostsource]
  • Like a piece of ice on a hot stove the poem must ride on its own melting.
    [Robert Frost]
  • 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 Thomassource]
  • Poetry is the impish attempt to paint the color of the wind.
    [Maxwell Bodenheim]


Filed under Philosophy & Religion

20 responses to “Defining “Poetry”

  1. One may like to read the following:
    “Science v. Poetry”

  2. @paarsurrey: interesting article. Thanks.

  3. @ paarsurrey & Takis:
    What do you think about the point of this post? Can we define “Poetry”?

  4. @Sabio: Many of the quotes above are not definitions of poetry but characteristics of it. Please don’t ask me to define poetry because it’s a hard task, because I haven’t thought about it and because, no matter what I say, I feel it will be insufficient.
    Nevertheless, when I see poetry, most of the time I can recognize it.
    As for who is an avid reader of poetry, I used to be, but of quote selective nature: William Butler Yeats (Irish), Constantine Cavafy (Greek), and Gary Snyder (American).

  5. @ Takis:

    No need to define poetry. I was asking to see if this post helped you to doubt the solidity of anyone attempt to define it.

    My point is that definitions are impossible, they are fluid, they have undefined edges, they are conventions, they are agreements — they reflect the ever changing nature of language, a human tool of temporary relationships. That was the point of the post. I did it to pre-empt coming posts on the definition of religion and the definition of Buddhism. I am hoping the parallels help break through prejudices (as my post states).

    I have no definition of poetry — I am OK with its fuzziness. Like you, I know it when I read it, or hear it. But if someone were to claim, “that ain’t poetry”, I wouldn’t argue unless the author said it was poetry, then I’d side with the author.

    What do you think, mate? [thanx for thinking with me]

  6. @Sabio:
    OK, I see your point, and I agree. Poetry defies definition. And so does art, by the way. Except that we know it when we see it, even when we do not want to acknowledge it ain’t so. Likewise, I think we can recognize religion when we see it, although it is a vague concept. For example, most people would argue that kopimism is not a religion (even though it has been recognized by the Swedish government as a religion), and I would argue (as I have) that religion goes beyond its traditional definition and it is religious behavior and practices that are–to me–more characteristic than the concept itself. I recently read a book on the last of the Persian wars, and, in it, the author claimed that the word “religion” did not exist in classical Greece. I think Buddhism is the same. When Bodhidharma went to China to transmit the teachings of Sidharta, he wasn’t aware of the fact that he was propagating a religion. It, simply, probably, made sense to him to talk about the things important to him and the world around him.

    Back to poetry: I do agree with many of the quotes you collected. I’m OK with the fuzziness of its definition too. Besides, like in art, a poet, nowadays, is one who tries to defy the boundaries of poetry. I wouldn’t be surprised if there was a poem whose recitation would be 3 minutes of silence. The 3-minute empty poem. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if the author of that poem used a long title for it, and then spent time explaining its rhyming patterns. These kind of things are not unheard of. As a parallel (I’m sorry I’m always diverging, but I cannot make my point effectively by staying within the domain of poetry), I recently visited the Turner prize finalists’ exhibition in Derry, N. Ireland. There were 4 finalists. The exhibition of one of them was the following: Enter a large room with all white walls. People stare, “nothing” to see. A lady from the staff approaches you and asks if you are willing to share your views on “market economy” for £2. That is, you say your views for a couple of minutes, and you get paid. You accept, you talk a bit, maybe a couple of people engage in a conversation, and that’s it. You walk out and collect your £2. (In my case, I actually managed to converse for 10 minutes with a few people and the conversation got heated up because, I guess, of my opinions.) Another exhibitor had painted portraits from Africa. I must say, all that is so-called contemporary art. Poetry is similar. What IS poetry? But I would say the same thing about mathematics and about science. The reason that many of us, academics, keep to within specified domains is often because the establishment wants to classify us as belonging somewhere; and they have various means for doing that. Step away from your domain and you get punished (by being assigned more work). Or: step outside your area and you lose precious time from publishing more papers.

    And we end up with trying to define “freedom” and “freedom of expression” and so on. And I claim that we don’t have it. Some artists and poets do. I envy them for being independent, although I may not always agree with their art. (And yet, their reason of success is often because they manage to shock and this shock is considered “cool” and they draw lots of supporters who will pay the entrance fee to a hall to “see the art” or “listen to the poetry”.)

    I know, I digressed, and I probably didn’t make sense. Blame the `concept of blogging’ and my `lack of time’. Gotta run to my office.

  7. Great, I am glad you see my point.
    Definitions have to be agreed upon to work,
    Definitions are not discovered.
    If two people disagree if something is art or not, then it is BOTH art and not art. This apparent contradiction reveals that art does not exist (as a thing or a quality), short of subjective opinion.
    So when talking about religion, Christianity, Buddhism, poetry, or art,
    without understanding how language works, you will waste your time
    in conversations with those who disagree with you on the use of the words.

  8. Your purpose in this post seems to be to compare the fuzzy nature of definitions of poetry as a way of thinking about the trickiness of defining religion. Everyone thinks they can define religion, but many definitions exist and often religion is broader and covers more than standard definitions tend to convey.

    I mostly agree with this argument about the definition of religion. I have argued in past discussions with other atheists that I don’t see a sharp line between where my religion begins and where my culture begins. Judaism for me is both my culture and my religion. The holidays for me are both cultural and religious. The foods both cultural and religious. etc. If I became an atheist tomorrow I wouldn’t change anything about how I lived my life or “practiced” my religion. I would pretty much do the same things and just call them purely cultural. So at best, it would just be a matter of re-categorization, but in all practical behaviors I suspect there would be no real difference.

    I mostly agree with the idea that poetry is a fuzzy concept that is difficult to pin down. With that said, I think it is perfectly reasonable for people to offer working definitions during a discussion (in which case their interlocutor can then offer specific reasons why the definition doesn’t work or has flaws or can accept the definition and proceed with the discussion).

  9. @ consolereader,
    Exactly! I totally agree. You restated my position, using your good example of Judaism.
    Interestingly, my neighbor and friend is Israeli — now in USA for 4 years — he was raised on a secular Kibbutz in Israel. He tells me that Christians often show disappointment with him when he says he is Jewish but does not believe in God or in being a chosen people. They think it is such a waste. But on the other hand, the Evangelicals among them, still think he is going to hell.

    Anyway, he, like several of my other secular Jewish friends, are still Jewish in many ways — their kids and certainly their grandkids probably won’t grow up with that identity though. That is why identity-cultures are so aggressive — they know this truth. They want their kids and grandkids to value and cherish what they valued and cherished — well, at leat for holidays and langauage.

  10. Sabio, definetly interesting points. But I think most of the quotes do a poor job supporting your claims. Just because someone is waxing poetic (so to speak) about the craft, does not mean they are doing so to the exclusion of reason or perspective.

    If taken very literally, the quotes sound unreasonable. But like the craft itself, the quote authors were clearly using dramatic language to express their love for something.

    Similarly, you’d have to for instance ask them their opinion on some type of science to see where their heads are at.

    I say this by the way as someone who absolutely hates poetry. It makes me queasy.

  11. @ Emmy,
    I don’t know if you are aware, but I hated poetry too. So, I decided it would be a great learning to practice the “craft” for a while. So for about 9 months I wrote, blogged and participated on poetry sites: see my site Fields of Yuan, if you are interested.

    There I heard people describing what they feel poetry should be. I also read several books on poetry with authors telling us what real poetry is. The quotes on this post — and especially the categories I have them in, reflect the positions of prescriptionists out there. But you don’t have to take my word for it, of course. You’d be surprised how vehement many poets can be!

  12. Haa, I believe it. I’ll take your word for it. I guess the sound bites here sound innocent enough to me, since in small doses I can take anything. Maybe in context I’d be rolling my eyes a lot more.

    Cool that you wrote poetry – I admire people who can do it, and several of my close friends are proud of what they write. My dilemma is how to tell them that even excellent poetry makes me want to gag – without sounding like a bad friend.

  13. @ Emmy and Sabio:
    I find it strange for someone to “hate poetry” because it seems like saying “hate music”. Yes, there are many kinds of music I like, many I don’t care about, and many I can’t stand. Same is with poetry. This has been my experience. There is very little poetry I really like, but certainly there is and has always been. I like reading (or, rather, discovering) poetry in English, Greek and Spanish. Poetry in translation is like passing music through a low-pass filter. Let me give you guys a test. Even though the following poem is translated from Greek, what do you think about it?

    Walls (by C.P. Cavafy, translated by E. Keeley and P.Sherrard)
    With no consideration, no pity, no shame,
    they have built walls around me, thick and high.
    And now I sit here feeling hopeless.
    I can’t think of anything else: this fate gnaws my mind—
    because I had so much to do outside.
    When they were building the walls, how could I not have noticed!
    But I never heard the builders, not a sound.
    Imperceptibly they have closed me off from the outside world.

  14. @Takis – hate it. If there were a polite way to say that, I probably would. Absolutely no offense meant – I’m sure there are scholars way more intelligent than I who would think it great. However, I’m not interpreting it as an expert. Since it’s art, I’m telling you how I enjoy it. I don’t. And I don’t mean to open a can of worms, but, LOL, I can’t stand music either.

    Without getting into my whole life story; my bachelor’s is in classical music theory; so I do enjoy playing classical music. But I mostly hate music and poetry. I think partly it’s both art’s needy push to evoke emotion.

    I also am convinced that growing up in rural New England and enjoying a great deal of silence (except the sound of birds, leaves rustling) has made me greatly intolerant of constant music, chatter, which to me sounds all the same. Noise. One classmate of mine in grade school said, “how can you NOT like the Beatles”? I thought, sorry, I was under the mistaken impression that art was subjective. That it was a choice whether or not to like it.

    And again, I say this as an artist myself. After college I went on to discover my childhood love of watercolor painting and even more intensely, film which I am devotedly working on right now – sustainability films, and some indie films based on a few fiction stories I wrote.

    I still play piano and violin, and if I’m really bored in the car I listen to some world music. But mostly it’s talk on NPR. 🙂

  15. @Takis & Emmy,
    Takis — I use to ‘hate’ poetry until I started writing it. Now I have found some that I like — but only some. Indeed I have started building anthology of my own — up to 50 now — or poets I enjoy.

    Taste in poetry is really individual. It is now hard for me to imagine that a person could hate ALL poetry. Ted Kooser is one of my favorites — I offer links here on this page. See what you think. Ted Kooser, btw, fights other poets who try to tell us what real poetry should be.

    I indeed did like your Cavafy poem, btw, than you.

  16. @Emmy:
    No offense, of course. Why should I be offended? My life does not depend on it. But I find your reaction interesting. Because I can relate to your likes and dislikes a lot:

    my bachelor’s is in classical music theory; so I do enjoy playing classical music.

    My bachelor’s has nothing to do with music, but I’ve always liked classical music (when I was 8 or so I asked my aunt to buy me a recording of Beethoven’s fur Elise). I play (badly) classical guitar.

    enjoying a great deal of silence (except the sound of birds, leaves rustling)

    I enjoy that too, but I grew up in a busy town.

    made me greatly intolerant of constant music, chatter, which to me sounds all the same. Noise. One classmate of mine in grade school said, “how can you NOT like the Beatles”?

    I am intolerant of several types of music. I never liked rock, for instance. I live in Sweden and people wonder how come I don’t like Abba. (It’s some kind of stupid–in my opinion–pop music.) Nevertheless, I like some type of hip hop and rap. And I also like classical music. Even when it is atonal.

    I went on to discover my childhood love of watercolor painting

    I wish I had the time to paint. I like it. I’ve done it. I’m bad at it.

    if I’m really bored in the car I listen to some world music.

    Wish I had that option. I live in Sweden where all radio is shit.

    What I am trying to say is this: despite some common likes and common dislikes, this does not mean we are identical. No problem, of course.

    You say: “I’m sure there are scholars way more intelligent than I who would think it great.” I did not mean to offend you or pretend that I’m intellectual who knows how to enjoy poetry. I mean to say that some poetry, in particular that poem, says a lot to me, and I remember it by heart because it touches me. That’s all. I have no idea how to analyze poetry. Also, it has nothing to do with intelligence. Nada.

    Thanks for your response.

  17. @Sabio:
    The original poem (which is the version I know by heart) evokes some very strong feelings when I recall it. So I’m glad you like the English translation–the people who translated it are truly good–but it ain’t like the original. And I’m not saying this because I’m Greek (of course I’m biased because Greek is my mother tongue), but I do think that every poem loses when translated.

    By the way, do you know the verse

    Nuestras horas son minutos
    cuando esperamos saber,
    y siglos cuando sabemos
    lo que se puede aprender

    from Antonio Machado’s “Proverbios y Cantares”? I find it amazingly powerful.
    (Our hours are minutes when we wait (expect/hope) to know (understand/learn), and centuries when we know (realize) what there is to be learned.)

    Thanks for the links.

    P.S. My claim above, that Cavafy’s poem is best in Greek, reminded me of a debate I watched the other day on youtube between a Greek-English guy who became Muslim fundamentalist and Lawrence Krauss. The first one claimed that the Quran is divine because any attempt to reproduce its original Arabic version; i.e., that it is so perfect that it could not have been written by a human being. I had never heard that stupidity before. It amused me and angered me at the same time.
    I trust you understand that my claim is not of the same sort🙂

  18. @Takis – yes, just wanted to be clear so no feelings were hurt. I do like playing classical music, but generally I don’t want to hear music. At all. I prefer silence or if in the car, talk. Still not sure why.

    As a watercolor novice (although I think I’ve painted some pretty cool things) I wish people would stop asking themselves “how good is it” especially if they’re just doing it at home. No puppies will drown if your paintings suck. And you will improve if you keep painting – and having fun.

  19. Sabio – my boyfriend ran across this the other night, I thought you might find it intriguing, as far as “poetry slams” go. I found it not only tolerable but sort of awesome. Rare.

  20. (Scroll down to the video)

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