what is poetry?

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.

2 Replies to “what is poetry?”

  1. Sara I totally understand your logic. I also agree that we spend too much time on what is and what isn’t a poem. Something that always trips me up is why does it have to be defined? What is the/ is there a reason the content would need to be defined as a poem or prose or both? Or can we just agree that the content is the most important part and that the form, no matter what we classify it as, should be married to the content, an extension of it.

    I also find that I am bothered by defining what is “good,” but only because I am wary of defining something as “bad.” Of course a poem needs to hold my attention, make me feel something, make me want to dissect it, use language in a compelling way. But good and bad always seems to me to be occurring in fads. So who knows? Maybe something we would consider bad is good in another twenty years. Additionally, seeing as writing is an extension of the writer I would hesitate to call anything “bad.” Contrarily I do think that a misunderstanding of how language can be used weakens a writer’s ideas. I guess what I’m trying to say is that though I completely understand your point, I want to reiterate that in some cases we forget to read through the lens of possibility, is there a way something can in fact work? Maybe we just aren’t seeing it.

  2. Sara,
    I definitely agree that the question “what is poetry?” always leaves a bad taste in my mouth–it’s too formulaic, and it makes me feel like no matter what my definition is, it’s wrong. However, I don’t think that judging poetry’s merit is worthwhile, either, because what is a good poem to one person isn’t necessarily good for someone else. We shouldn’t be dictating to others what they should be enjoying, how they should be reading poems, etc. because every person has a wealth of personal experience behind their readings, and while those readings may not coincide with our own, they still hold value.

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