Beyond Trifles and Smooth Numbers: Defining Poetry Anew

By The Editors on 3.15.10

Guest Contribution by Dai George

Poetry has a grand tradition of self-analysis. From Aristotle to Sidney, Shelley to Stevens, the question of poetry’s power and proper limits has been a vexed and fruitful one.

Consider two aspiring literary theorists: Fred and Alexander. Fred thinks that poetry can be defined as any passage of creative writing that’s organized into lines and stanzas.  Alexander rebuts with a selection of his favorite prose poetry in which the run-on to a new line is completely insignificant. Muddying the waters even more, Alexander issues a counter strike by presenting Fred with a limerick and a perfectly formed but excruciatingly dull sonnet. Surely true poetry can’t be found in these trifles and smooth numbers? For Alexander, a piece of writing being poetry or not depends much more on spirit than a particular form.

A notable contribution to Alexander’s side of this debate has emerged recently: C.D. Wright‘s “Concerning Why Poetry Offers a Better Deal than the World’s Biggest Retailer” (published in the journal Lana Turner), a wild, flexuous, Wal-Mart baiting disquisition on the continuing necessity of poetry. Wright’s view is unabashed in its wide scope and good faith: poetry “digs through,” “abhors the lie” and generally teaches us forgotten skills of sensitivity—towards meaning, towards ourselves, towards the world around us.

At the heart of Wright’s article is the notion that if a piece of writing is to have any claim to the title of “poetry” then it should be of a certain sort. At first look, the opposite may appear to be the case. Wright quotes, approvingly, Ron Silliman saying, “The one function—the only one—that no other genre can take from poetry is its role as the art of language without limit.” Language without limit—it seems like a pretty open-ended definition, doesn’t it?

Except, in a strange way, it isn’t. Silliman restricts poetry by making his definition a value judgment rather than a description. It makes me ask, what about poetry that is limited, impeded, or even, by your standards, poor? Is this not poetry too, just as much as anything by Keats or Jorie Graham? One might say that poor poetry shouldn’t detain us at all, much less influence our definitions. As Wright herself contends, “When has the uncategorizable not justly been called poetry. (I say, when it begins to stink.) At the stinking point, all writing should retreat to its own smelly corner—as bad poetry, bad fiction, bad play, bad meat.”

From time immemorial, poets have made the mistake of conflating two questions: namely, “What is poetry?” and “What is good poetry?” The second question is absolutely crucial, and it’s the task of the critic to suggest an answer. But too often it is bundled in with the first. This confusion is dangerous because once poetry is defined by its ability to stimulate, the lazy critic is gifted an opportunity: to dismiss anything that doesn’t move them by denying that it is really poetry at all. Arthur Sze, another poet polled by Wright, risks doing this when he calls poetry “a crucial vehicle by which we apprehend the urgency and precarious splendor of existence.” Obviously he’s never read “Oh, I Wish I’d Looked After Me Teeth” by the British poet Pam Ayres.

Wright, Sze, et al., clearly favor a type of poetry that shoots for revelation, a poetry that acts, in Forrest Gander‘s words, as a “wormhole through silence into the interior rich with nuance.” This is an understandable stance to take, and most of the poetry I love affords me that journey into the interior.

However, there are other types of poetry to value. Traditions such as satire are typically ill served by Alexander-style commentators. As a genre, satire is informed by social norms. Often, it’s inherently conservative: it comes from a position of knowledge and superiority, not doubt. In short, satire doesn’t fit neatly with even the most fulsome of Wright’s meanings for poetry. And yet it would be nonsense to say that a tradition encompassing Horace, Swift, and Peter Porter wasn’t poetry, just because it provides a different experience to Wordsworth, Plath, and Joanna Klink.

I’m with Fred: let’s make the definition of poetry as broad and neutral as possible. That way we can avoid the temptation to dismiss forms, genres, and attitudes we don’t like as “un-poetic,” and we can get down to the far more important business of deciding what’s good.

Dai George studies at Columbia University in New York City. His poetry has been published in journals in Britain and the United States.

Editor’s note: Do you agree? Disagree? Do you believe that labeling something as “poetry” allows an author to get away with too much? Let us know in the comments section.

topics: News


Jessie Carty said on 3.15.10 at 12:39pm:

It is extremely difficult to write a definition of poetry. I think it should remain quite broad. If people want to then make sub categories of “good” poetry or “bad” poetry, or other words such as surreal, language, narrative then that can serve some purposes if you want to categorize as fiction writers do with literary, sci-fi etc.

What I focus on when reading poetry is the power of the individual words, not even so much the line but the way the words associate with each other.

Great topic!

Dylan Shakespeare said on 3.16.10 at 1:31pm:

Aristotle’s definition suits me: “Poetry is the art of using metaphor, the purpose of which is to please.” A piece of writing about anything from teeth to time can give pleasure in some way; but as long as it uses metaphor, it is poetry.
In defense of meter, why wouldn’t one want to arrange his syllables into the perfect phrase, lilt, and length in order to touch the reader with his thought as tenderly and as movingly as possible? T. S. Eliot is the best example here; he is the master of diction. He even said that there is no such thing as free verse: “…there is only good verse, bad verse, and chaos.”