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What is poetry?

On one of the threads someone (I think it was Apple) asked:  What is prose?  Equally, the question can be asked:  What is poetry?

I remember attending an interesting talk to a literary group I once belonged to when an English teacher from a local school tried to answer this question.  He spouted traditional definitions  of poetry (it rhymes, it had a distinct metre, it deals with elevated emotions and subject matter) and then produced examples which were contrary to each of the  definitions above.  He ended by defining poetry as expressing intense emotion which could not be sustained at greater length.  (I thought afterwards that "Paradise Lost" and "In Memoriam" are pretty lengthy and are generally regarded as poetry so I'm not sure that that definition holds).

I thought of this when I read an article yesterday in the "Daily Telegraph" by Roger Lewis, one of the candidates for the Oxford University Chair of Poetry.

Anyone any thoughts?

Sorry.  That link does seem to work.

Possible this one will:

Ah yes, we’ve been here before. The obvious definition is “anything that isn’t prose is poetry”. But then again, what is “prose”? Anything that isn’t poetry? We seem to be going round in circles here.

I think it is true that all writing is either poetry or prose: the trick is to determine what the dividing line is, and that is not easy, as this dividing line is blurred. One simple criterion is that prose is written primarily in units of sentences, whereas poetry is written primarily in units of lines, which may cut across sentences. (Let us leave aside those curious hybrids “prose poems”.)

There are a few other differences as well, but these are differences in degree rather than in kind. I’d say they are as follows:

1. In poetry, the sonorities and the rhythms of the words are particularly important. They are important in prose as well, of course, but their importance is even greater in poetry. Quite frequently, the sound of poetry can convey more than the literal meaning of the words. (Lewis Carroll used this to comic effect in the poem “Jabberwocky”, where the sound of the poem suggest an adventure story, even though most of the words don’t mean anything.)

2. In prose, the principal meaning of any word or phrase is mostly denotative – i.e. its dictionary meaning. So, in prose, a “tree” denotes the physical entity we recognise as a tree. In poetry, the connotative is at least as important as the denotative – so, if the poet mentions a “tree”, the reader should take in not merely the physical entity of a tree, but also its various associations. The poet may have established some of these associations already.

In brief, poetry should seek – through use of imagery, through use of rhythms and sonorities, through use of connotations of various words and images – to convey more than is conveyed by the strict, literal meaning of the words. In this way, the poet attempts to convey that which cannot be conveyed directly with strict, literal meanings.

It will be argued that all of these elements can exist in prose as well. This is true. This is why I think the difference is a matter of degree rather than that of kind. But one very clear difference does remain in that the basic unit of poetry is a line, whereas the basic unit of prose is a sentence.

Yes it was me, and my definition of poetry is short sentences one underneath the other, which generally tend to rhyme or at least have a rhythm to them. Probably very simplistic and not entirely accurate but that was I always think poetry is.

I'm sorry if I'm reviving an old chestnut but I thought Roger Lewis's list of what he sees as "poetry" in the world around us was entertaining.  (If you click on the link in my second article and then click on the link within that article you can find it.)

Oh, please don’t apologise! - This subject is always worth revisiting.

I just had a look at the link, and found Roger Lewis’ personal list of the various things that he found – in the widest sense of the term – “poetic”.  (Although I do note that the list of his favourite things doesn’t include sex and Stravinsky!) I did enjoy reading it, and yes, it would certainly be fun to create a similar list. I’ll give it a go later.

Hello …

Robert Frost once remarked that writing free verse poetry was like playing tennis without a net.

Does anyone agree?



American literary critic Harold Bloom writes:  'Poetry essentially is figurative language, concentrated so that its form is both expressive and evocative.'

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