Writing a Definition

When asked to write a definition for one of our words, I wrote one, erased it, and wrote another better one. Easy peesy. “Delve into the specific words you picked. Why?” (to paraphrase because my memory is not that good). Ha, I already did that too. I started to feel pretty confident and smug about this activity.

“Consider your line breaks” Line breaks? What line breaks? Was this supposed to be a poem? Suddenly, the five words I had written next to my word did not look so good. Maybe it was a nice definition (although not very scholarly), but it was not a poem. I did not write a poem …even though I was in a poetry class. It had not even occurred to me that it should have been a poem. When I hear “definition”, I think of dictionary.com, not poetry. This was a mini mind-opening experience. Why can’t a definition be poetry? In a way, a poem could be (but is not always) the definition to the title. What does the title mean? Read the poem to find out. Its almost the same as looking at the definition under a word in the dictionary.

Unfortunately, my creativity was not fast enough to transform the small definition I had written into a more intentional poem in the few minutes left of the activity, but even without the words written yet, I feel that my knowledge and experience with poetry has already grown. You could say my definition of poetry has expanded.

One Reply to “Writing a Definition”

  1. Witty and insightful first post. Line breaks are a thing, but maybe they’re an action too: they break things, like expectations or perceptions, assumptions, making us need to reexamine them. (You can’t really fix a line break, make it whole again; you have to deal with the breakage.) I’m not sure you need to say “unfortunately” at the end as the point of the exercise is not always gaining a poem but, as your last sentence quip indicates, gaining an understanding.

    For some, poetry is always an act of definition, of trying to help someone else have that mind-opening experience. If that helps generate and revise a poem, great; if not, that’s fine, as we’re allowed to create our own motivations and purposes for poetry (Archibald MacLeish: “a poem should not mean. But be.”) I’m mindful, therefore, reading your post of Gertrude Stein’s restless, resistant ideas in her essay “Poetry & Grammar” (1935):

    “Poetry is I say essentially a vocabulary just as prose is essentially not. And what is the vocabulary of which poetry absolutely is. It is a vocabulary based on the noun as prose is essentially and determinately and vigorously not based on the noun. Poetry is concerned with using with abusing, with losing with wanting with denying with avoiding with adoring with replacing the noun. It is doing that always doing that, doing that doing nothing but that. Poetry is doing nothing but using losing refusing and pleasing and betraying and caressing nouns. That is what poetry does, that is what poetry has to do no matter what kind of poetry it is. And there are a great many kinds of poetry. So that is poetry really loving the name of anything and that is not prose.”

    I don’t think there’s a clear answer (definition!) there. Some take her to be associating poetry with verbs and motions at the expense of nouns, but I don’t think that’s quite it. What I get is the idea that she sees poetry as a struggle between nouns and verbs: the former fixed, perhaps stuffy, but essential as the “name of anything”; the latter exciting and dynamic and fluid but also nothing without nouns. Back to your points, “definition” might also need to be at times “defining”: noun and verb.

    And if all that seems too heady for a Sunday night/Monday morning, put more simply it might mean that how we shape our poems begins with both what we state (noun) and what we set in motion (verb). Sometimes, the two work together; sometimes they resist each other!

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