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Poetry

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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.
    [Novalissource]
  • 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.
    [Wordsworthsource]
  • 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.
    [Voltairesource]
  • 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.
    [Plutarchsource]
  • 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]

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Else Lasker-Schüler (1869-1945)

This German movie is long, slow, indulgent unrhyming poetry about a crazed muse. I can’t recommend the film unless a disturbed freedom resonates with you.  Before the performance, I knew nothing of this poet or her world. But her temperament lives in a small part of me — very distant and withered.

The film’s art,  history and cinema surprisingly kept my impatient attention while I supplemented the catastrophic montage of  Else with these:

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Political Poetry

On Communists

What is a Communist? One who has yearnings
For equal division of unequal earnings;
Idler or bungler, or both, he is willing
To for out his penny and pocket your shilling.

–Ebenezer Elliott (1781-1849)

I enjoyed this poem last night.  This is an example of a poem that counters the romantic idealism that floats around in the meme pool where people confuse the Romanticism movement with the form of expression called “poetry”.

But I also enjoyed the “communism” discussion from such an early time and so decided to read a bit about Ebenezer.  Let me share a few chronological points from this Wiki article:

  • He was born the son of a extreme, fiery Calvinist preacher.
  • At 6 years-old he became “fearfully disfigured” from smallpox and as a child, he was generally regarded as a dunce.  Apparently he had a rather solitary and morbid childhood.
  • He became and artist and a poet (first poem at age 17) while helping with his father’s lucrative steel business.
  • He married at age 25 and with his wife eventually had 13 children
  • He went bankrupt and destitute at age 35.  He blamed his losses on the Corn Laws (anti-free trade laws) and fought to repeal them.  Because of this, and his political poems, he became know as “the Corn Law Rhymer”.  Historical notes:  Adam Smith wrote “The Wealth of Nations” in 1776 opposing mercantilism.  John Stuart Mill wrote “On Liberty” in 1859.
  • By age 48 he regained his wealth by successful re-entry as a merchant in the iron industry.  But his previous poverty left him inspired to fight for “the conditions of both the manufacturer and the worker”.  His famous poetry “Corn Law Rhymes were initially thought to be written by an uneducated Sheffield mechanic who had rejected conventional Romantic ideals for a new style of working class poetry aimed at changing the system.
  • He retired at age 60 with a small fortune and died 8 years later.  In the end of his life, Elliott suffered much pain and depression.
I remember seeing this Venn Diagram (by James Sinclair) that went viral a month ago.  It shows how both a concern for the poor and a concern for prosperity can overlap by focusing on government manipulations that can harm both:
Interestingly, the wiki article says: “… [Elliott’s]  poems on the subject [of free trade & the plight of the poor] are saved from the common fate of political poetry by their transparent sincerity and passionate earnestness.”  And he did that all without being romantic.  Likewise, I see that blogs which are not explicitly political blogs harm themselves when they take political positions — unless their writings contain a quality that stands out stronger than a simple political message.

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Socrates and the Puffy Poets

Of human foibles, “puffying-up-our-heroes” is pretty comical.   By “puffing up”, I mean that we assume our heros know more and can do more than they actually can; We let celebrities lecture us on economics, scientists tell us about the meaning of life, and religious specialists tell us about the deep principles of nature.  Using Buddhist teachers as an example, I tried to illustrate that point here:

Poets offer another good example of this false valorization phenomena.  Some folks puff up poets with far more insight than they deserve. I have two posts which explore puffy poets:

Thanx to James (a reader), I just learned of a passage from Plato’s Apology (copied below), where Socrates describes the poets of his time as claiming wisdom much beyond their reach. I am always pleased to find ancient Western philosophers who have said better what I tried to say:

Continue reading

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Delusional Myths about Poetry

I am tired of the many weird, false ideas about poetry.  Mind you, I am a poetry ignoramus, but my stupidity has never stop me from pontificating before — so here I go.

First, just like my posts on homeopathy, I hope my posts on poetry will illustrate habits of human emotion and reasoning that are also seen in religious thinking.  But that should not be surprising, because they all come from the same human mind.  My point is that though some people may feel superior because they are free of the normal human religious superstitions, the posts points out that confusion is pervasive and that religions have absolutely no monopoly on delusions — a theme of this blog.

Poetry is often attributed all sorts of magical, mystical properties.  I will use this post to list examples I find.  Poetry, like dance, sculpturing, painting, music, novel writing and much more, is just another form of human creative expression — it is not the voice of God, the Divine, the Cosmos, Nature, the Real Self or anything else.  Arghhhh!

David Orr, a poet critique in the New York Times, has a fun book called:  “Beautiful & pointless: A Guide to Modern Poetry”.  On page two he laments that a common belief about poetry is: “[it] is the pure expression of our inner lives.  It is the prism through which the soul is glimpsed.”  On pg xiv he says “We seem trapped between a tediously mechanical view of poems and an unjustifiably shamanistic view of poetry itself”.   The people who read poetry in hopes of reading their own personal shaman abound .

For example, today I noticed that James McGrath has moved his Liberal Christian blog to Patheos.  One one of the many blogs there I read this nauseating piece:

Can Poetry Heal the Planet: “As texts for spoken word, Stephen Levine’s poems kindle higher consciousness. Aloud, they awaken awareness — words become stepping stones.”
— from a blog review of Levine’s book: “Breaking the Drought.”

Seriously!?  Could you imagine titles like “Can Novels Heal the Planet?”,  “Can Sculptures Heal the Planet?”  — not to mention the notion of kindling “higher consciousness”?.

I have intermittently read poetry over the years hoping it would click with me and I’d become a better person. 🙂  Yet for decades nothing clicked, I thought I must be soulless.  But in the last 5 years I have started to enjoy some poetry and even write occasionally.  I now I feel freer to say that part of my blind spot to poetry was all the false myths that clouded it as an art form.  Now without the myths, I can enjoy some poetry.  Funny, as I write this, I hear some emerging and liberal Christians saying the same thing about their Christianity.

Whether a poem, a dance, a sculpture, a song, a sight, a smell, a touch or a mathematical formula captures, inspires, lightens or frees your mind, it is not the form, not the vehicle but you and yuan.

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Romanticizing Poetry

I am very pleased to say, that as I have grown older I have learned to enjoy more and more things — poetry is one of those.   Poetry use to always bother me but, trying to be open-minded, over the years I have forced myself to read poetry again, and again.  And low and behold, almost like red wine, I began to acquire a taste for it.  And now, being somewhat sympathetic to the form, I feel safer exploring some persistent dislikes.  So, I am going to use a few posts to complain about poetry.  My complaints are thus not about poetry as a form, but about particular ways some people try to use poetry or the word “poetry” or their idea of “poetry”.   Today I’d like to describe my dislike for the false sanctity often ascribed poetry.

In McMahan’s book I found an ally. Here are some quotes from his 5th Chapter entitled “Buddhist Romanticism”:

Prior to the Romantics, the job of the artist was to act as a mirror reflecting and imitating the world.  This conception runs from Plato up through the Renaissance and into the Enlightenment.  The Romantics rejected the metaphor of artist as mire for the metaphor of the artist as a lamp that illuminates something new through the artist’s unique vision of imaginative powers.
–McMahan 2008: 119

Modern European and North American culture’s reverence for the artist, its allowing the artist to stand to some extent outside society’s conventions, its picture of the artist as feeling things more deeply than others, its romanticization of the artist (of course!) emerged in this period to be endowed with an almost priestly or shamanic ability to conjure hidden aesthetic and spiritual realities, to transform the mundane into the sublime through the freedom of the creative imagination, and to plumb the hidden depths of real and give them unique expression.
–McMahan 2008: 120

The Romantics bequeathed to our age a sense that “what [artists] reveal has great moral and spiritual significance; that in it lies the key to certain depth, or fullness, or seriousness, or intensity of life, or to a certain wholeness”
–McMahan 2008: 146; Taylor 1989:42

Many poetry lovers buy into this romanticized view of poetry. These romanticizers find some voice in poetry and then try to make the whole form into something far more special than it actually is. This is not just a fault of some poetry lovers, but it is tendency of mind that can be seen everywhere — this blog is full of posts trying to illustrate this tendency in religious realms. A person may find some self-pleasing form of Buddhism and next thing you know they are off on a mission to defend all of Buddhism–giving their idealized abstraction of Buddhism all the flavors of their favorite version.  Some Christians do the same, by defending Christianity in general. Negative versions of this mental habit exist to exist also: Anti-religion atheists find the favorite things they hate in a religion and try to color all things touched by religion with the same.  Hopefully by discussing the tendency in something as potentially secular as poetry, I have better illustrated another one of our insidiousness habits.

Questions to readers:

  • What do you love about poetry?
  • Do you agree with me on the above observations?

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