46

Warning: long question. To start it off lightheartedly, here is the topic as doggerel.

There are plenty of questions with titles like these:
"What is this form?" — "Can I do this in poems?"
— "How can I be more poetic?" and so on.
What I'm after, however, is more elemental.
Which is the language that poetry uses,
which is the language of prose?
(Do they differ?)

Meter and rhyme we are all too familiar with,
inverted syntax we note and move on,
"elegant" words that abound in thesauri...
what will remain when the line breaks are gone?


Quite seriously, though, I've been looking at the poetry of the day and wondering what makes it poetry. I don't mean this in a curmudgeonly way (I'm repressing that instinct), but with an honest eye to seeing in them what the editors, publishers, and the public see in them.


Modern examples

Here's the beginning of a poem by Sara Peters that won the 2015 Poetry Prize of The Walrus, a prominent Canadian magazine (the original is without line breaks):

One summer in my youth the young girl with the solar system tattooed on her face ruled the Town, and I spent all my nights wishing she would hitchhike to my parents’ farmhouse, kick down the front door, and find me. Lying on top of my quilt I listened for the girl so hard I could hear the tomatoes from our garden drying out in the oven.

Here is some John Ashbery from last August in Harper's, line breaks removed:

First of all, you aren’t telling me the whole story.

Friday saw armpit futures rise across the country. It is an acknowledged truth that you and your little brother sidled across a city of two million souls. Well, and were we supposed to forget it?

That’s not the way the soul functions in today’s suburbia.

Here is a poem very typical of Rupi Kaur, one of Canada's best-selling poets right now (again with line breaks removed):

What terrifies me most is how we foam at the mouth with envy when others succeed but sigh in relief when they are failing. Our struggle to celebrate each other is what's proven most difficult in being human.

And to stress the sincerity of this question, here is one of my favourite poets, Annie Dillard, again with line breaks removed:

For many hours the train flies along the banks of the Hudson about two feet from the water. At the stops, passengers run out, buy up bunches of celery, and run back in, chewing the stalks as they go.

Indeed, my own poetic style would resemble this last one if subjected to the same cruel linebreakectomy.


Inklings of observations

Looking at the above examples (and needless to say, infinitely more can be found in the pages of any magazine publishing today), I might make a few observations:

  • Poetry uses sparse but striking details to quickly conjure up strong images

    • "the young girl with the solar system tattooed on her face"
  • Poetry exaggerates the literal to convey an emotion

    • "I could hear the tomatoes drying out"
    • "We foam at the mouth with envy"
  • Poetry gently bends the language in terms of what sorts of things may do what and in what way

    • "I listened so hard"
    • "The soul functions"
  • Poetry speaks obliquely of its subject, making central what are unusual collocations that require some untangling to figure out

    • "armpit futures"
  • Poetry makes much of the mundane, drawing the eye to the human nature in little things

    • "run out, buy up bunches of celery, chewing the stalks"
  • Poetry is not bashful about dialogue as narration, with its attendant second person, present tense, etc.

    • "First of all, you aren't telling me the whole story"

But for each of those points the nagging question is: Doesn't prose do so too?

Is poetry the seemingly prosaic works quoted above, or is it defined by fairly superficial formal qualities like meter, rhyme, rarity of diction, and line breaks? Can one rank the qualities of poetry in terms of those we can sacrifice, as this answer eloquently advises in matters of translation?


Poemification

Last spring I paused work on a little program that converts prose into poetry based on just such superficial vectors (rhythm, line breaks, rhyme, synonyms, etc.). The user can configure a host of settings to produce poems in various genres. I was happy with the progress I was making, so bear with me as I share some examples.

Consider this sentence from Tolkien's The Hobbit:

Not a nasty, dirty, wet hole, filled with the ends of worms and an oozy smell, nor yet a dry, bare, sandy hole with nothing in it to sit down on or to eat.

One configuration that privileges rhythm produces:

Not a nasty, dirty, wet hole,
Filled with the ends of worms
And an oozy smell, nor yet a dry, bare,
Sandy hole with nothing in it to sit
Down on or to eat.

But if we privilege line-end half-rhymes, the program produced:

Not a nasty, dirty, wet
Hole, filled with the ends
Of worms and an oozy smell, nor yet
A dry, bare, sandy hole with nothing in it to sit
Down on or to eat.

In another genre, here's a sentence of Faulkner ("The Bear"):

For six years now he had been a man's hunter. For six years now he had heard the best of all talking. It was of the wilderness, the big woods, bigger and older than any recorded document.

Aiming for brevity and modernism, the program might produce:

six years man's hunter six years
heard best talking wilderness large woods
bigger and older recorded document

In another test the program analyzed this questionable prose:

I had a cat, once, named Butterscotch. He died in April. It was a long time ago, I know, but all the same, I miss him. I repeat his name often. He was the finest cat I had ever seen.

And isolated these four words:

I had
I had

And coming back to more technical forms, I took Shakespeare's "Sonnet 18", excised the line breaks, and had the program reconstruct it based on rhymes and metrical feet. (It wasn't perfect; Shakespeare rhymes "intemperate" with "date" and the program can't do eye-rhymes yet.)

The program also assigned a score to each poem based on how amenable the prose had been to these "poemifying" procedures...

I paused work on this program not only to take a little distance from it, but also because I think I fundamentally philosophically disagree with the aim.

Poetry isn't just manipulated prose. It starts from an entirely different place. It uses different metaphors, a different structure, different sorts of brevity. It treats different subjects.

Or does it?

  • 25
    I always suspected that poetry was prose with weird line breaks. – Ken Mohnkern Jul 6 '17 at 17:08
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    Asking what makes poetry poetry is a lot like asking what makes music music, or art art. Poetry used to be about rhyme or metre, but artists can't help but break rules so they have pretty much thrown them all way. Poetry is what you call poetry. John Lennon recorded silence and called it a song. Jackson Pollock threw paint at a canvas and called it art. I suppose the essential ingredient is intent, and perhaps pretentiousness, if necessary. Put some words together, call it poetry. – J... Jul 7 '17 at 14:37
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    @LukeSawczak I suppose that's why I didn't write it as an answer. Your question is clearly and simply expressed as asking where the line is drawn between prose and poetry, though, and I think the answer is that the line is completely arbitrary and imaginary. A poem is a poem when you call it that. Like music or art it may be good or bad poetry, but to call it a poem is to make it a poem regardless. Paint a wall grey and the window trim white and you're a prosing painter doing a day's work. Paint a canvas grey with a white square and you're a poetic artist making art... – J... Jul 7 '17 at 17:12
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    I only joined to upvote your question. I've always wondered about this (though I didn't think about it this much). Brilliant question! :D – paracetamol Jul 8 '17 at 18:37
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    Just thought I'd point our re: Shakespeare, pronunciation has changed since his time, so words that used to rhyme no longer do. – Galastel Jan 22 at 17:10

10 Answers 10

29

Well, it's a very old question, and one that is not likely to get a definitive answer. It is perhaps worth making a distinction between poetry and verse. Verse is a literary form that is characterized by the use of rhythm to achieve literary effects, the most foundational of which is simply to make it easier to remember. Verse arises out of the oral tradition where stories were spoken, not written, and using verse made it easier to remember them. Verse can be defined, therefore, by certain technical properties, even if not everyone will agree on which technical properties qualify.

The word poetry, on the other hand, seems to have two principal uses: one is as a synonym for verse, the other as a term of artistic judgement, perhaps we might say a matter of affect (in the literary sense of the word).

There are a couple of infamous lines from Wordsworth:

I've measured it from side to side:
'Tis three feet long, and two feet wide.

Verse? Certainly. Poetry? Maybe not. It is closer to technical writing than anything else.

Life would be simple enough if we were willing to say that poetry was verse with affect. But if someone insists on separating poetry from verse, then how do you tell poetry from prose with affect (since any good novel is prose with affect)?

And I don't see how we can go any further down that road without this becoming entirely a matter of opinion, and thus entirely off topic.

  • 1
    I did fear that this might get more off-topic than SE sites are prone to tolerate, but then it wouldn't be the first OT question to receive some insightful answers. Yours among them. Thanks! – Luke Sawczak Jul 6 '17 at 16:51
  • Would you be able to update your Wordsworth link? It's dead. – Luke Sawczak Jan 23 at 13:48
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    @LukeSawczak I've taken the liberty of tracking down a different link for the poem. – Blue Caboose Jan 23 at 23:09
17

There is a continuum between poetry and prose. Some prose is very poetic, and some poetry is deliberately prosaic. At one time, the distinction was easier to draw, because poetry was chiefly practiced in strict forms, with set rhythm and rhyme schemes, and thus easily identifiable.

Absent the formal markers, I think the core distinction between the two is that prose is primarily concerned with the literal meaning of words, whereas poetry is primarily concerned with the impact words can create outside of their literal meanings. You can, of course, bring the tools of poetry to bear on your prose, but the overall goal of prose is direct communication, generally of things that can be expressed in standard ways; and the overall goal of poetry is not.

The marker of a great poem is that it somehow expresses something unique, something that has never exactly been captured in words before. We do not generally demand that of prose.

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    "that prose is primarily concerned with the literal meaning of words" Nonsense. Prose, like all language, is fully idiomatic, and metaphors and all varieties of figurative language have just as much place in prose as anything else. – curiousdannii Jul 7 '17 at 2:41
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    @curiousdannii - That is why I emphasized the word "primarily," and didn't use a modifier like "exclusively." – Chris Sunami Jul 7 '17 at 13:55
  • I know you used said it is primarily concerned, which is why I said it was nonsense. Because it's completely false. All natural language is idiomatic and filled with figurative language. – curiousdannii Jul 7 '17 at 14:09
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    It might be fair to say that prose is primarily concerned with communicating propositionally. – curiousdannii Jul 7 '17 at 14:35
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    @curiousdannii We might get some insight along those lines from Pope's "Essay on Man". Hearing just the title, no one would assume it was a poem rather than a prose work. Indeed, that he got a fairly coherent argument and good verse into one work was quite the achievement. It's the exception that proves the rule: poetry is normally not suited to essays. – Luke Sawczak Jul 7 '17 at 16:01
8

First of all, you're not going to get a definition that covers all of modern poetry. There just aren't a set of unifying features behind, e.g., Kenneth Goldsmith's Day, Derek Beaulieu's Flatland, Ashbery's Three Poems, Siliman's Tjanting, Dickinson, Whitman, etc., etc. (to only include the western tradition). There are blurred lines between poetry and prose (with someone like Gertrude Stein being a genuinely difficult case) and even between poetry and visual arts.

Characteristics like the ones you proposed can work okay as rules of thumb. Not all poems do all six things listed and, as you noted, some non-poetry does those things. I think it's rather best to think of poetry as a family-resemblance term and a living practice. Poetry is the product of people self-consciously writing poetry who are aiming to in some way make their work resemble what has already been accepted as poetry.

  • As a magazine editor, would your stance be "Whatever writing someone submits to my poetry contest is poetry," or would you hold it up against some criteria? (To play devil's advocate.) – Luke Sawczak Jul 7 '17 at 16:03
  • @LukeSawczak I'd be inclined to say yes with a couple of caveats: 1. It's possible people misunderstand the generally accepted extension of poetry (e.g. one could falsely believe the Bell Jar is a poem because Plath is a poet) and 2. Just because something is a poem doesn't mean I have to like/respect it and 3. In this hypothetical example I don't know enough about the author/text to make an informed judgment. – walpen Jul 7 '17 at 16:20
4

Let me propose that poetry is action in more dimensions than prose is (or at least, in different dimensions).

That is to say, if you're writing prose, and a rhythmic pattern in your emphasis happens to arise, you probably ignore it. Just like if you're throwing rubber balls across a room, and one happens to fall through that metal hoop at the other end of the room, it doesn't really matter. Now, if you're playing basket ball, the whole point is whether the ball goes through the hoop. If you were playing dodge ball, on the other hand, it might matter if the ball that fell through the hoop hits someone, and what part of them it hits, but probably not that it went through the hoop.

Poetry is about imposing and then following rules of some kind - rules which are not important when the objective is to be merely persuasive, or explanatory.

You chose to exclude line breaks, and then pointed out that things often do not sound like poetry without them. That seems silly to me. "If I take the roofs off of houses, they don't seem much like buildings anymore. And when I put up a roof somewhere that there wasn't an official building, it now kind of seems like a building." So is a building a roof?

Line breaks make it more obvious that you are, in fact, observing a repeating rhythm (metre), or a regularity of repeating sounds (rhyme, assonance, etc).

So is poetry just a set of (self-imposed) rules? Kind of. There's more to it, of course, and we call things that are not poems "poetic" because they remind us of the feeling we get from poetry. Because the point of being aware of and manipulating similarities of sound and rhythm is alter the sensation-level awareness of what is being said. When there are patterns in a phrase, the phrase may become more memorable. If the patterns also lay the emphasis squarely on words or phrases you want to have greater emphasis, you are building on top of the basic dimensions (like rhythm and rhyme) to create yet another dimension - enhanced emphasis.

Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr., in 'The Autocrat of the Breakfast Table' remarked, half-jokingly:

One gets tired to death of the old, old rhymes, such as you see in that [not included here] copy of verses,—which I don’t mean to abuse, or to praise either. I always feel as if I were a cobbler, putting new top-leathers to an old pair of boot-soles and bodies, when I am fitting sentiments to these venerable jingles
. . . . . youth
. . . . . morning
. . . . . truth
. . . . . warning
Nine tenths of the “Juvenile Poems” written spring out of the above musical and suggestive coincidences.

The great controversy in recent times, over what makes something a poem, or not a poem, comes down to how loose the self-imposed rules can be while still achieving a sufficiently poetic effect to alter how the text is perceived (as something in more stylistic dimensions than a flat statement).

3

Poetry has no specific definition. In the modern commercial era it has no value. On the one hand it can be described as 'short literary fiction'. The other view is that poetry is simply song lyrics without the enforced restriction of a musical tempo.

The harsh realisation may be that, when it come to poetry, the feared 'gansta rappers' may be better than the mainstream. They have the experience and therefore the emotion.

"And since we all came from a woman Got our name from a woman and our game from a woman I wonder why we take from our women Why we rape our women — do we hate our women? I think it's time to kill for our women Time to heal our women, be real to our women And if we don't we'll have a race of babies That will hate the ladies that make the babies And since a man can't make one He has no right to tell a woman when and where to create one So will the real men get up? I know you're fed up, ladies, but keep ya head up."

  • 2
    The technical skill of some rappers in terms of rhyme and meter certainly is impressive. One poetry professor at U of Toronto spent a lecture examining Eminem's work and found some really interesting metrical forms being employed flawlessly (to say nothing of the agile internal rhyming). If anything, I think the immense popularity of rap and spoken word as compared to modern poetry shows how wide the appeal of verse is to the average person. We like the musical qualities of language we can instantly recognize as not prose. – Luke Sawczak Jul 7 '17 at 16:05
  • What do you mean by your second and third sentences? – Dronz Jul 7 '17 at 23:46
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Apologies for what is a bit of a non-answer-answer. Because a great many conceptual-art-objects blatantly flaunt traditional definitions concerned with objects, properties, authorship, intent, and meaning, I think conceptual art hints at a better "art" definition.

The conceptual artist doesn't (necessarily) create an object or performance with the qualities of art objects or art performances--instead they design objects or performances to create some experience (often an experience of considering, like "how inadequate my definition of art is"). But this doesn't just describe what conceptual artists do--it describes what all artists do.

Art isn't an object or performance; art is (a kind of) experience. Poetry isn't an arrangement of words following any set of rules--it's a kind of language experience (which differs from our everyday language experience).

(I'll stick my speculation on the effect of this reframing in comments)

  • It's hard to give a good, non-tautological definition of the "poetry experience", because I doubt our art-object taxonomy will be much use for talking about art-experiences. We'd probably come to see the art objects & performances traditionally called poetry as producing a variety of experiences that overlap other arts, daily life, and so on. We might find it more interesting to talk about the narrower "experience of our native language as unfamiliar" than about everything under the big umbrella of poetry. – abathur Jul 8 '17 at 16:46
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    I like that reframing art definitions around the experience/experiencer makes space for you to see "poetry" in a classified ad or the unintentional omissions of a torn poster. Seeing art as a combination of our experience of the world and the sense we make of it would probably make art more inclusive by tearing down walls between it and the workaday world. It's harder for people to conclude they don't/can't "get" art when it's easier to discuss overlap between the experiences of sunset in Yosemite valley, finding the likeness of animals in the clouds, and reading Sonnet 18. – abathur Jul 8 '17 at 17:10
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    I also think it might discourage alienating (often pretentious, ego-entangled) arguments about what is or isn't art, and nudge us (particularly artists/teachers/critics) to focus on the human side of art. – abathur Jul 8 '17 at 17:14
2

The fact that poetry cannot be defined is part of what it is about, or one could say what it has become after the "modern" era's abdication of what are usually refered to as formal constraints. Those would be such elements as rhyme, meter, syllabics, and other elements of the poet's toolbox such as alliteration and repetition. That the toolbox contains primarily ways of obtaining sonic effects and emphasis in more subtle ways (such as internal as distinguished from end rhyme). The advent of "free verse," whose name implies that formal constraints are limits, to some limits that must be eschewed.

As of now, "poetry" has been divided roughly into schools or categories: formal, experimental, standard free verse (my term, sorry, for non-rhyming poetry that has more clarity than experimental) which includes "imagism" or its influence, and concrete or language poetry, wherein poetry is reduced to its visual elements, and a book of poetry of this type can consist of photos of typeset excerpts, sometimes blurred for effect, that have no discernible meaning. Others may dispute this limitation of categories, but for the purpose of this question, I wish to point out that these schools are at odds with one another and magazine editors tend to clump into the categories in deciding what to publish (among other considerations.)

Most barely agree that poetry should be something transformational, that moves the reader in some way, and hopefully even brings about a momentary "epiphany." Oh, and that involves language, hopefully with a palpable degree of expertise in that language.

1

It is not an objective definition, but my stance has always been that poetry is a written work that the author considers to be poetry.

(I have a similar definition for art.)

1

My favourite definition or description of poetry is concentrated prose.

Speaking only of verse, it uses fewer words to communicate its ideas than prose would use.

The Moving Finger writes and having writ, moves on. Not all thy piety nor wit shall lure it back to cancel half a line, nor tears wash out a word of it - Khayyam

To speak of fate and man’s struggles against it in prose would take much more time, but the idea is clear, the image strong.

Poetry has a beauty and effect on the reader that verse does not. Verse is technique and often technical brilliance, but poetry is heart and soul expressed in few words, reaching across the generations.

Poetry has a profundity and power not found elsewhere.

What in me is dark, illumine, what is low, raise and support - Milton

It is the thought expressed and the resonance with the reader that raises verse to poetry.

0

English, never a language for poetry, has finally given up the ghost on the whole endeavor.

The reason we are even "debating" this is because even the most casual observer now realizes modern English poetry exists by fiat. It is poetry if the author says it is. And not one can disagree on technical grounds, because there aren't any.

As a result the whole profession has become a joke, a progressive praise circle, where the last few remaining members of the bad poet society pretend to like each other's works and give each other empty praises and prizes.

Are all hopes lost?

Not entirely.

Decades from now, history will recognize the rap stars as the poets of our age.

  • "Never a language of poetry" managed to produce Shakespeare, Milton, Keats, Spenser, Byron, Tennyson... Not to mention the Middle-English alliterative verse. – Galastel Jan 24 at 16:21
  • A few of the above mentioned did a good job with what they had (english). But if you are familiar with other languages, you would realize English is a poor language for poets. English is also a terrible language for idioms. – ashleylee Jan 24 at 16:22

protected by Chris Sunami Jul 10 '17 at 17:23

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