To reiterate: “I hate this question”—me in class last week.
Because I’ve taken a class or two each semester that consists of studying and synthesizing poetry from a literary point of view this question has reared its ugly head in my direction a few times too many. It’s also a question delivered to early high school students first introduced to the realm of poetry with Robert Frost’s “The Road Not Taken” or William Carlos Williams’ “The Red Wheelbarrow”. We are taught poetry has a set of specific aspects that dichotomize poetry and prose such as rhyme scheme and formal line breaks. This may or may not be too accurate.
We touched upon this question just briefly in class and I think it’s definitely a topic that deserves more air time in a poetry workshop. However, I believe that instead of “what is poetry”, the better question is “what is good poetry?”
I’m not even sure the latter sits completely well with me but it’s most certainly more worthwhile. Say we address the former: we discuss common shared aspects of poems and compare to something that doesn’t and we debate…but then what? It’s a poem. So what? It’s prose. So what? We still read it as a piece of literature and form some sort of analysis.
The more important aspect to spend time on is the quality. What is the poem trying to do, what is the poem achieving, what is working for the poem and what isn’t? Does the poem seem to hold value to the speaker or writer? Does it hold value to the reader? Does it intrigue the reader? These are all questions that I think we, as readers and writers of poetry, should be spending our time and precious brain energy on.