What Is Poetry?

by Dan Rifenburgh

I.

We may feel we know what a thing is, but have trouble defining it. That holds as true for poetry as it does for, say, love or electricity. The American poet Emily Dickinson, though shrinking from offering a definition of poetry, once confided in a letter, "If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know that is poetry." A well-known British poet, A.E. Housman, could identify poetry through a similar response. He said that he had to keep a close watch over his thoughts when he was shaving in the morning, for if a line of poetry strayed into his memory, a shiver raced down his spine and his skin would bristle so that his razor ceased to act. What is this thing that can so physically affect some persons?

One poet called a poem "a thought, caught in the act of dawning." Another said a poem is a means of bringing the wind in the grasses into the house. Yet another stated, even more enigmatically: "Poetry is a pheasant disappearing in the brush." It is just like poets, of course, to talk this way: poetically. It often seems they refrain from saying a thing straight if they can give it a little twist. Such tendencies make you want to lay hands on a good dictionary, where the facts are. The trouble with this approach is, most dictionary definitions of poetry are so dry, limiting, vague, or otherwise unsatisfactory, they eventually send you back to beating the bushes for that elusive, beautiful pheasant you once glimpsed. It's certainly not there in the dictionary. Even so, it is possible to describe the general elements of poetry and to at least indicate the power, range, and magic of this ancient, ever-renewing art form.

Like other forms of literature, poetry may seek to tell a story, enact a drama, convey ideas, offer vivid, unique description or express our inward spiritual, emotional, or psychological states. Yet, poetry pays particularly close attention to words themselves: their sounds, textures, patterns, and meanings. It takes special pleasure in focusing on the verbal music inherent in language.

When we hear a poem, we may recognize certain patterns, such as a regular beat, a rising rhythm, or a series of rhymes. When we see a poem printed on a page, we might notice another kind of pattern that cues us we are not looking at standard prose: those ragged right-hand margins, indicating the lines must stop there and nowhere else. Whether we hear a poem read aloud or read it on a page, it ought to be clear we are experiencing a special patterned arrangement of language, differing from ordinary speech or prose writing. 

This formal patterning, considered aside, for a moment, from poetry's higher aims or its subject matter, has long been one of the chief identifying hallmarks of poetry. Roughly speaking, the devices by which poets achieve these patterned arrangements of language are called the elements of verse. The word "verse" comes to us from the Latin versus, a "turning," and denotes the turning from the end of one line to the beginning of the next line. For the ancient Greeks and Romans, as for us today, the line was the basic unit of poetry, just as the sentence is the basic unit of prose. Greek and Roman lines were regular in their structure and could be classified and analyzed according to their component elements, the poetic feet in each line, which gives the line's meter. Over time, verse has come to mean poetic composition in regular meter, or metrical composition. Here is an example of English poetry written in a regular meter:

Like as the waves make toward the pebbled shore,
So do our minutes hasten to their end;
Each changing place with that which goes before,
In sequent toil all forwards do contend.

To a person acquainted with verse, the predominant meter here will be readily seen as iambic pentameter, the standard meter of English literary poetry. An iamb is a metrical foot consisting of two syllables. The first syllable is unstressed and the second syllable receives a stress, as in "ta-DA." There are five of these feet in each line, which is why it is called "pentameter."

Below are two of these lines divided by stroke marks into their component metrical feet (iambs) and the stressed syllable in each foot is capitalized:

Each CHANG/ing PLACE/ with THAT/ which GOES/ beFORE
In SE/quent TOIL/ all FOR/wards DO/ conTEND.

Not every line of the four lines first quoted above is a perfect iambic pentameter line. Good poets change their meters occasionally to provide variety or for other reasons, but since the predominant meter is iambic pentameter, we can say that is the meter of the poem. Having established the meter, we may also note the end words of each line rhyme in an alternating scheme we can denote as "A-B-A-B." Those end words are "shore," "end," "before" and "contend." So, we have an example here of rhymed iambic pentameter, a charming snippet of metrical verse from the pen of William Shakespeare. 

Verse is poetic composition in regular meter, whether rhymed or not. (If unrhymed, it is called blank verse, as in Milton's Paradise Lost or Shakespeare's dramatic verse.) The exception to this is free verse, which abandons metrical regularity altogether. Yet it, too, "turns" on the basic unit of the line and may rightfully be called verse. The long, rolling, repetitive lines of American poet Walt Whitman and the passionate Hebrew psalms found in the Holy Bible are well-known older examples of free verse. Free verse has grown in popularity since the early twentieth century and has now pretty well "swept the field," as poet Stanley Kunitz observed. The majority of poets today choose to work in free verse, though there are many fine poets still working in meter.

Having loosely established what verse is, it should now be emphasized that verse is not what we mean by the word "poetry." Devices such as rhythm, rhyme, alliteration, meter, and regular line length are elements of verse which aid poets in producing patterned arrangements of language called "poems," yet, supplemental to these, certain qualities of imagination, of emotion, and of language itself must be added before we can properly call a piece of writing by the name of "poetry." Poetry is considered a higher thing than mere verse, and for good reasons. This is an important point, to which we'll want shortly to return, but let's consider verse and its patternings a little farther.

It is surprising to some people to learn that more than ninety percent of the poems in any standard anthology of English poetry are written in formally structured, highly patterned metrical verse. Similarly high percentages would obtain for anthologies of the poetry of most other languages, including Greek, German, French, Latin, Russian and Spanish. Why?

Formal patterns seem to help preserve and hold the ideas, emotional power, and verbal energy of poetry as a bottle holds wine. Devices such as repetition, alliteration, rhythm, rhyme, and meter also greatly aid the human mind in memorizing poetry. This was vital to poetry's existence before the invention of writing. Homer's vast epics, the Iliad and the Odyssey, were oral compositions committed to and transmitted by human memory before they were eventually written down. Much of early Greek poetry was transmitted by rhapsodes, or human reciters. The same was true of the lengthy historical narratives composed and memorized by the bards of Ireland and Wales, who were the official repositories of their peoples' histories. This same phenomenon appears in cultures all around the globe. 

There is a very old saying, "Art is long; life is short." Poetic art has a better chance of becoming long-lasting art when it takes advantage of the devices of verse which serve to pattern language. One American poet once said that a poem is "a time machine" made out of words, by means of which people in the past may speak to us and we may speak to people in the past, present, and future. It is a famous conceit of poets that they have the ability to "immortalize" in verse their lovers, for instance. Consider this concluding couplet from one of Shakespeare's sonnets:

So long as men can breath or eyes can see,
So long lives this, and this gives life to thee.

The urge to defeat death and escape the ravages of time is a basic motive underlying the creation of all art. If one wishes to fashion immortal verse, to construct, as it were, "a time machine," one would want one's words to bememorable, and that is part of the job description of the several devices of verse: to aid in giving a poem memorability.

Sooner or later it dawns on most poets that, happily, they have entered a vast, ongoing, and varied conversation that spans the centuries. Through their acts of creative composition they can join the great poet John Donne in saying, "Death, be not proud." Every poet has at least the hope that his or her work will survive an individual life's span, and art is one of the few tools we have to kick a little sand in the eye of the Grim Reaper. Notice that in this particular bid for eternal fame, Shakespeare chose a rhymed iambic pentameter couplet to preserve his living words. Patterned arrangements of language gain in memorability and offer a leg up in the quest for that immortality poetic art seeks for itself.

II.

Aside from the charm, musicality, and memorability verse lends to poetry, we expect great poetry to display qualities of invention and imagination. The word "poet" means, in Greek, "maker." To the early Greeks the poet was a creator with singular gifts of inspiration, invention, and composition. The poet invented fables, fictions, myths, and stories that conveyed deep truths about the world and human life. This ability of the poet to create something new and interesting was remarked upon by Shakespeare in A Midsummer Night's Dream:

The poet's eye in a fine frenzy rolling
Doth glance from heaven to earth, from earth to heaven,
And as imagination bodies forth
The form of things unknown, the poet's pen
Turns them to shapes, and gives to airy nothing
A local habitation and a name.

Of course, the poet doesn't create out of "nothing" and make a world out of whole cloth. His compositions, to have any meaning, must have some relation to the world of human beings and to nature. Given that relation, however, the poet enjoys a great deal of creative freedom. As Sir Phillip Sydney wrote in "An Apology For Poetry,"

Only the poet . . . lifted up with the vigor of his own invention . . . goeth
hand in hand with nature, not enclosed within the narrow warrant of her
gifts, but freely ranging within the zodiac of his own wit.

The English Romantic poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge considered the faculty of imagination to be a repetition in our finite minds of the immeasurable creativity within the imagination of the infinite "I Am," or, God. If poets are human exemplars of this divine creative quality, it is little wonder the philosopher Plato stated, "A poet is a light and winged thing, and holy." One such poet was the American poet Emily Dickinson. A recluse in life, she found an immortal voice in short, powerful verses, such as her 1862 poem, "This Is My Letter to the World":

This is my letter to the World
That never wrote to Me--
The simple News that Nature told--
With tender Majesty

Her Message is committed
To Hands I cannot see--
For love of Her--Sweet--countrymen 
Judge tenderly--of Me

While many great poets such as Dickinson best express themselves in brief lyrical works, others give us more fully sustained displays of the power of invention: the Italian Dante Alligheri takes us on an incredible tour of Hell, Purgatory, and Paradise in his Divine Comedy; John Milton gives us the rebellious angel Lucifer fighting eternal war against God, with all humanity as both prize and witness, inParadise Lost; Homer tells of the long homeward journey of a veteran after the Trojan War in The Odyssey, with fascinating episodes of shipwreck, survival, and suspense, building to the final homecoming of Ulysses to his wife and child on the island kingdom of Ithaca, where one final battle awaits him.

We may note that these stories, legends, and fictions are never told in sweeping, hollow generalities, but the poet always hones in on specific, tactile details, pungent with sensuous imagery, all of which paint startlingly realistic portraits through the use of vivid, accurate language.

Along with making use of lively detail, the ability of the poet to notice correspondences, similarities, and analogies and to employ these in constructing fresh and original metaphors lies at the heart of great poetry, and is part of its imaginative sweep. The often sensuous, figurative language of simile and metaphor seems to appeal greatly to the human mind. Consider the opening stanza and fifth stanza of "First Snow in Alsace," by World War II veteran and Pulitzer Prize winner Richard Wilbur:

The snow came down last night like moths
Burned on the moon; it fell till dawn
Covered the town with simple cloths.
                  * * *
You think: beyond the town a mile
Or two, this snowfall fills the eyes
Of soldiers dead a little while.

Here the magical beauty of the first snow is described against the backdrop of war, a contrast made more powerful by the simile comparing of falling snowflakes to dead moths. (Wilbur reads this poem on the Operation Homecoming CD.)

Similarly, the seventeenth-century Welsh poet Henry Vaughan formulates a luminous simile and extends it at some length in "The World." Here is the art of poetry at the top of its form, as revelation through metaphor of profound spiritual vision.

I saw eternity the other night
Like a great ring of pure and endless light,
           All calm as it was bright
And round beneath it, time, in hours, days, years,
           Driven by the spheres,
Like a vast shadow moved, in which the world
And all her train were hurled.

We can be reasonably sure that we have risen above mere verse at this point and shifted into the higher plane of full-bodied poetry, where qualities of imagination, vision, and invention are seen coming clearly into play. And yet, we have still not touched on one final, vital ingredient of great poetry.

III.

In addition to qualities of memorability, musicality, imagination, and invention, we expect poetry to touch us at an emotional level. Take the passion out of poetry, and we are left with something dry and rather ridiculous. "A poem begins with a lump in the throat, a homesickness or love-sickness," said Robert Frost. "It is a reaching out toward expression; an effort to find fulfillment." The great English poet William Wordsworth said, "Poetry is the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings: it takes its origin from emotion recollected in tranquility." According to Wordsworth, the urge to write begins with a person's strong feelings. This is what impels human beings to break from silence into utterance.

A poem may be admirable because it grants us an insight into some truth about ourselves or the universe we inhabit. It may engage in abstruse aesthetic projects or metaphysical speculations that are intellectually quite sophisticated. Conversely, it may be simple and direct, and those are often the most powerful kinds of poems. Think, for instance, of how we might savor a sad blues song. One doesn't need advanced degrees to appreciate a line like, "I woke up this morning, blues all around my bed," or "Oh, I hate to see that evenin' sun go down." Lines like these come from the heart and are meant to touch other hearts. Consider this anonymously written fragment of English poetry from the early sixteenth century:

Western wind, when wilt thou blow
That the small rain down can rain?
Christ, that my love were in my arms,
And I in my bed again!

We don't know the full situation of the speaker here, but there is no mistaking the heartfelt longing for home in the voice. It is that unmistakable human passion that has caused this scrap of poetry to live for more than five hundred years.

There is a fine line between the poem which makes an authentic claim upon the core of our emotional being and the poem which seems to wish to manipulate us, to play insincerely, or ineptly, upon our heartstrings. When dealing with emotionally charged matter, the poet faces the danger of lapsing into sentimentality or bathos, of buttonholing the reader and trading upon what has been called "unearned emotion." One could fill up Yankee Stadium several times over with all of the mawkishly sentimental drivel passing itself off as genuine poetry that has fallen on the wrong side of this line. It is perhaps the commonest of faults among inexperienced writers, and even great poets are not immune to this kind of error. Consider this line by Shelley:

I fall upon the thorns of life—I bleed!

The question arises, has Shelley gone too far into self-pity and sentimentality here? Many readers and critics tend to think he shows a momentary lapse of taste.

Though quite real, self-pity is often considered an unlovely human emotion. Yet, because it is human and because nothing human is outside the scope of the poet's pen, a great poet like Shakespeare can examine it, even confess it, honestly. Fortunately, in the following sonnet, he also points the way out of the emotional swamp of self-pity.

Notice how, toward the end of the poem, there is a change in the direction of the thought, a swerving or veering, as if from a thesis to an antithesis, or from a problem stated to a resolution discovered. This shift is quite typical of the sonnet's structure, and is one of its traditional hallmarks. At the beginning the author is wallowing in self-pity, down on himself, and depressed. He discovers that the way out of his thoughts of self is to think on another, his lover, and the entire mood of the poem is lightened, ending on a note of celebration. 
When in disgrace with fortune and men's eyes,

I all alone beweep my outcast state,
And trouble deaf heaven with my bootless cries,
And look upon myself, and curse my fate,
Wishing me like to one more rich in hope,
Featured like him, like him with friends possessed,
Desiring this man's art and that man's scope,
With what I most enjoy contented least;
Yet in these thoughts myself almost despising,
Haply I think on thee; and then my state
Like to the lark at break of day arising
From sullen earth, sings hymns at heaven's gate;
For thy sweet love remembered such wealth brings
That then I scorn to change my state with kings.

If there are hidden laws of the operation and economy of our human emotions, no class of investigators or interpreters have studied and observed them more closely or with greater results than the poets. The founder of psychotherapy Dr. Sigmund Freud resorted time and again to the poets and playwrights to discover the terms with which to describe fundamental motives and workings of the human mind. Shakespeare's plays and poems alone constitute a veritable textbook on the inner workings of human behavior.

Poets not only accurately describe and analyze powerful emotions, they also convey or evoke them. Sometimes, as in the following poem by William Blake, they seem to do both. Some inner laws of the operations of malice and vengeance are described, and the speaker finally embodies these emotions, which gives the analysis an added, high-voltage charge.

A POISON TREE
I was angry with my friend:
I told my wrath, my wrath did end.
I was angry with my foe:
I told it not, my wrath did grow.
And I watered it in fears,
Night and morning with my tears;
I sunned it with smiles
And with soft deceitful wiles.
And it grew both day and night,
Till it bore an apple bright;
And my foe beheld it shine,
And he knew that it was mine,
And into my garden stole
When the night had veiled the pole:
In the morning glad I see
My foe outstretched beneath the tree.

Emotion is also the motivating force of most poems of political protest and social criticism. The smarting wince we feel when we witness an injustice may turn quickly to anger, outrage, and indignation. The same cry against oppression and the abuse of power and wealth sounded by the Old Testament prophets (such as Isaiah or Jeremiah) can be heard throughout English and American poetry and down to the present day.

At the time of the great flowering of English Romanticism, the British government had retrenched into a reactionary stance, halting or reversing much-needed societal reforms in fear and horror of the excesses of the French Revolution, raging across the English Channel. It was a time of abject political reversal for the liberal poets, who envisioned mankind progressing toward a freer and more equable society. Witness part of Shelley's devastating summary of the situation from "England in 1819":

An old, mad, blind, despised, and dying king;
Princes, the dregs of their dull race, who flow
Through public scorn,---mud from a muddy spring:
Rulers, who neither see, nor feel, nor know,
But, leech-like, to their fainting country cling
Till they drop, blind in blood, without a blow;
A people starved and stabbed in the untilled field;
An army which liberticide and prey
Makes as a two-edged sword to all who wield;

This same despair of wretched social, moral and political conditions brought this damning indictment from Blake a few years earlier in "London."

I wander through each chartered street,
Near where the chartered Thames does flow,
And mark in every face I meet
Marks of weakness, marks of woe.

Reforms envisioned by the British poets eventually came to England, and it is not far fetched at all to state that England's poets spurred this progress. Perhaps Shelley did not overreach when he said, "Poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world." When poets harness their outrage and channel it into emotionally powerful poems of social or political persuasion, their art is often in service to humanity in its quest for liberty and justice.

IV.

With the music of verse, richness of description, the wonder of creative imagination, marvels of metaphor, and the force of emotion, poetry can educate, ennoble, motivate, and enlighten us. Poetry can also help us appreciate the plenitude, brevity, and beauty of human life. I hope I have given in this essay some idea of how these elements, coming together, constitute what we might mean by the word "poetry." Poetry need not be hemmed in by a formulaic definition, and would be sure to break out of it if it were.

Many of you reading this are presently wearing the uniform of one of the branches of the Armed Services, or are perhaps closely related to a service member. I want to tell you briefly about four men who served in the military during World War II. One of these studied the rhymes of Edgar Allen Poe while scrunched down in a foxhole in Italy, trying not to get his head blown off. Another was present at the liberation of the Nazi extermination camps, and grappled with this in his poetry. Another fought at the Battle of the Bulge. In later life, each of these four went on to publish their own work, and each of them in their turn received the coveted Pulitzer Prize in poetry. Two of them were appointed United States Poet Laureate. Today their poems have entered into the great canon of American literature, where they will remain for succeeding generations to enjoy. Their names are Richard Wilbur, Louis Simpson, Howard Nemerov, and Anthony Hecht, and they were soldiers as well as poets. Some sixty years after they faced battle as young men, Wilbur and Simpson recorded their war poems for the Operation Homecoming CD to help today's troops better process their own wartime experiences. The lives and works of these four men indicate that there is no inherent conflict between military service and a love of poetry.

© Dan Rifenburgh