What is poetry? It's a difficult question — so difficult, in fact, that a truism has been invented by poets and others who, for one reason or another, wish to avoid the necessity of giving an answer: "Poetry is that literary art which is indefinable." But anything can be defined — the problem is not with the definition, it's with getting a group to accept a particular definition, to agree to a convention, a social contract as to the meaning of something.
Every word in any language is a convention. The people who speak the language have agreed that a particular word will mean this and not that. If the definition of poetry as something that is "indefinable" does not satisfy us, we must turn to our expert, the lexicographer who, unfortunately, in this case is equally unsatisfactory: "Poetry," says the Oxford Universal Dictionary, is "the art or work of a poet." The dictionary defines the word in terms of its practitioner, and when we look up the word poet, we discover the other end of the tautology: "one who composes poetry; a writer of verse."
We have gone in a circle, and we stand almost where we started. Almost, but not quite, for we have now "a writer of verse" besides our circular definition. But if we pursue the dictionary further, we discover a secondary definition of poet: "A writer in verse (or sometimes in elevated prose) distinguished by imaginative power, insight, and faculty of expression."
This is important for us to remember: much poetry is not written in verse at all, but in prose — Solomon's "The Song of Songs," for instance, "The Psalms" of David, or the most ancient "Epic of Gilgamesh." Even in English there are prose poems: the sixteenth century "novel" Euphues by John Lyly is really a poem, not a work of fiction; the mystic books of the eighteenth century poet William Blake were prose poems, as was Edgar Allan Poe's nineteenth century "Eureka!" Not to mention the work of Walt Whitman. It will not do, then, simply to define the poet as "a writer in verse."
What do we have now? We have this: That a poet is one who writes verse (which anyone might do) and sometimes prose, though an "elevated" prose. That word elevated is going to be important eventually, when we disentangle these snarled threads of definition. But right now it is vague and frustrating, as is this entire attempt to pin down a reasonable definition of poetry.
Perhaps we ought to begin clean. Maybe we can take a clue, though, from the definition of a poet as one who writes poetry. And it may help if we shift our attention to other kinds of writers for a moment: What is a novelist, for instance? A novelist is one who writes novels. What is a novel? A novel is a long fictional narrative. All right, then, what is a novelist? — a writer of long fictional narratives. No trouble at all there; I think most of us will subscribe to that convention.
What is the novelist's job (and the short story writer's for that matter)? To tell a fictive story — to tell a story. The fictionist, then, focuses on narration, and he or she uses language for that purpose, as a vehicle for storytelling. To tell a story the fiction writer needs four basic elements: character, plot, atmosphere, and theme, and a number of language techniques as well.
What does the dramatist do? He or she writes drama. What is drama? Drama, says the dictionary, is "a composition in prose or verse, adapted to be acted on the stage, in which a story is related by means of dialogue and action [emphases added]...." What is the difference between the dramatist and the fictionist? The answer is, there is none except that the dramatist is more severely limited in the range of language techniques at his or her disposal. There is not even a difference in mode — that is, prose or verse — because some novels have been written in verse; in fact, the first novels were called epics, and those written in Europe were written in verse. The dramatist must, like the fictionist, use the basic ingredients of the narrative: character, plot, atmosphere, and theme; however, he or she can ordinarily use only the narrative language technique of dialogue. Unlike the fictionist, the dramatist may supplement this narrative technique with theatrical techniques, such as representation (scenes, costumes, and physical actions). The dramatist still uses language as a vehicle for his or her story.
What does the essayist write? The question is rhetorical by now. All right, then, what is an essay? In its modern sense, (again according to the dictionary), an essay is "A book or writing which treats of some particular subject; now always one containing a methodical discussion or exposition of the principles of a subject." Why does one write an essay? — to conduct an argument or to prove a point regarding a subject. The essayist's focus, then, is upon the subject he or she is examining, and the techniques used are generally those of rhetoric rather than of narration. The basic elements of the essay are 1) the subject being examined; 2) the thesis, or statement of the point to be made concerning the subject; 3) the argument, or the logical proofs and data required to back the thesis statement; and, 4) the conclusion reached, which is usually identical with the thesis.
A summary of literary focuses may be in order at this point: The fiction writer uses language to carry a narrative; the dramatist does likewise; the essayist uses language to carry an argument or a discussion. We are left with the poet — what is the poet's focus? What's left?
There is nothing left but the language itself. The poet focuses his or her attention upon the language itself. He or she may use all of the techniques of the fictionist, the dramatist, the essayist; at the poet's disposal are exactly the same things that all other writers have, but the difference is in focus: The poet regards language as a material, just as the graphic artist regards pigments and ink, or as the sculptor regards stone, or as the dancer regards the body as movement and as the composer manipulates sound. To the poet, language is a substance to be molded and shaped. All else is secondary, because the poet realizes that how something is said often has more to do with what is said than anything else: Something said well is something well-said, but something said superbly is a poem.
It is time to return to that vague word "elevated" that we found in our original attempt to define "poet." How does Oxford define elevated? — "Raised up; at a high level. Also...exalted in character; lofty, sublime...elated...slightly intoxicated." That last definition, Oxford says, is intended to be used in a jocular sense, but it is perhaps most to the point, for a good definition of a poet might be, "A writer who is intoxicated with language."
Some people will think that too jocular a definition, perhaps, though many poets would be quite happy to leave it at that. On the other hand, very few poets would be satisfied with the definition, "A writer of verse." Why? Because verse is merely one language technique, not all of them, and the poet refuses to be limited in any way. He or she refuses to be satisfied with knowing only a few things about language; the poet insists upon knowing everything that can be known about the medium in which he or she works. These things may be learned in one of two ways: consciously and programmatically, or experientially. If one learns by doing rather than by studying, one may never know a single definition of any of the techniques one uses, but merely because one doesn't know what one is doing doesn't mean that one isn't doing it. Learning definitions and understanding techniques consciously won't hurt anyone; on the contrary, making conscious a knowledge of the techniques at one's disposal will open up new reaches and vistas of possibility to the developing writer, for if the poet takes as his or her province the entire realm of language, one ought not to allow oneself to be cut off from any aspect of language unless it has been tried and found unsuitable for one’s purposes.
To write only in verse is limiting and, to reiterate an earlier point, anybody can write in verse — advertising copywriters writing jingles, the lady next door who does sonnets for the garden club, the rap rocker or hip-hopper at the microphone, the cowboy "poet" entertaining chaps under the big sky. The word "poet," Robert Frost said, is a "praise-word." The poet elevates the language. He or she does everything any other writer does, but concentrates upon using those things more completely, wringing everything out of every word: denotation, connotation, sound, association, stress, imagery, and so on and on.
The poet handles and forms the language as a potter handles and shapes clay, molding language into an art object. That is to say, poetry ought not to be defined narrowly, in terms of a particular mode such as prose or verse; or in terms of a function, such as singing or prophesying, but rather in terms of intensity of concentration on mode, on language of whatever species, prose or verse.
Any writer in either mode whose main focus is upon the resources of the language itself is a poet. He or she may write rhymed quatrains or prose poems; narrate a story; in fact, be called a novelist by some people — one thinks of James Joyce who wrote a modern "novel" in prose but followed the epic form and even titled it after a character in an epic: Ulysses. James Joyce was much more the poet in his novels than in his Pomes Penyeach, which are very rigid, old-fashioned lyrics in metered forms. Not that there is anything wrong with meters and forms — merely that Joyce didn't use them with anything like the genius he displayed in his prose.
The poet may write plays in verse, as Shakespeare did, winning the honorific title "The Bard of Avon" — we don't call him "The Playwright of Avon." Or the poet may write in "elevated" prose, like the playwright John Millington Synge. But as long as the narrative is secondary to language, to how one does what one does — and, one might add, provided that one's work is qualitatively successful — he or she is a poet, not something else. On the other hand, someone may write a narrative in verse — one thinks of a person like Robert Service who wrote humorous verse narratives such as "The Cremation of Sam McGee." Service's interest is in the narrative and in the humor, not particularly in the language — he was a fictionist, a story-teller in verse, not a poet, for his concern is not the molding and elevation of language (and, thereby, the molding and elevation of observation, of thought, of a thousand things that can be done only in language).
One can, of course, always get into a debate about whether or not a particular piece is a poem, about whether a particular writer is a poet or a novelist. Opinion will always play a large part in the evaluation of literature. The object here isn't to pigeonhole people or genres — merely to clear up some general vagueness and ambiguity in a definition of the genre of poetry.
My remarks to this point may help to explain why poetry, for many people, is so "difficult" to experience. In our reading we are used to focusing upon narrative or explanations of how to make or do things, or upon arguments, not upon the language itself, not upon language as substance. We, as readers, are adept at following techniques such as plot and exposition, but not so adept at responding to language as it operates simultaneously on several levels. Every true poem is a complex (but not necessarily complicated) organism comprised of several interdependent patterns.
The Book of Literary Terms: The Genres of Fiction, Drama, Nonfiction, Literary Criticism and Scholarship , www.UPNE.com, ISBN 0874519551, quality paperback, $24.95, 224 pages. A Choice “Outstanding academic title” for 2000. A companion volume to The Book of Dialogue and The Book of Forms.