When people think of “definition,” they generally think of the dictionary: rush to the nearest one (now often online), look up the word, and there you have it. But if you have tried looking up a word in more than one source, you’ve seen that all definitions are not the same. They’re usually close enough, for each equivalent usage, I suppose; but the meaning of a word is a matter of opinion (however authoritative), or of opinion reached by consensus.
But “definition” in its deeper sense is a matter of argument; simply figuring out what to call something, and thereafter how to define it or say what it means, is often the very core of a subject, discipline, or pursuit.
So, we argue for meanings; and the argument is never fully resolved, if we’re lucky: the journey is the goal, as Basho said.
Definition can mean something like outline or resolution, as with an image or a space. So, to define is to find boundaries; but finding boundaries is also finding what lies past boundaries.
Let’s work with “poetry.” Consider each proposal below as a boundary, angled slightly differently than the other proposals for meaning. Order these in different ways; try to create a taxonomy, or a scale, or a hierarchy: which meaning is closer to a “true” meaning; which is more up to date, more expansive, more focused, more helpful in understanding specific poems?
On the other hand, there is much overlap; what are the shared concerns of these seekers of meaning?
But first, I want to point out that when philosophers and aestheticians talk about “poetry,” they often mean something far larger than verse. Frequently, they mean “art” or “imagination” altogether. “Poetry,” though, seems to be a good part-to-whole representation of those larger categories. Why might that be? I think it’s because a definition, as I mean it here, is itself a matter of words.
Poets, themselves, of course, love to define poetry. here’s Reginald Gibbons:
All poetry is language that is also in some way about language.
Notice that this one fits the form of classical definition: genus – species. “An automobile is a form of motorized transportation [genus; a family that includes trucks and motorcycles, usually with four wheels and intended for passengers [species: how autos are different from other members of the genus.]”
Of course, most of these provisional definitions will not bear a great deal of scrutiny if we expect them to be consistent and logical. “Linguistics” is also “language that is also in some way about language.” But by “provisional” I mean “good enough to get us going.” And so, in Gibbons’ definition, we get the notion that poems are often focus on the way language works, how it means, where it comes from. Perhaps we are also meant to sense that poetry pluralizes language: there is more than one level, as with harmony in music. Verse is to melody as poetry is to melody… how far can I go with that sort of analogy?
To put it a different way: poetry is one of the ways we use language to get outside of language; it is “meta” language.
Try another – this, one of many definitions that Percy Shelley offers in his “Defence of Poetry":
Poetry redeems from decay visitations of the divinity of man.
This one’s a bit more poetic – more metaphoric, anyway. Much is embedded here: first, the notion, quite old itself, that humanity fell from a higher state: a golden age, heroic era, or as the line says, godliness itself; which makes of poetry a backward-looking force, and elegy its primary modality. “Redeems” as well is a powerful word in Christendom, and post-Christendom as well (Shelley flirted with atheism). One common argument among poets is whether poetry “does” anything, or has much use in the world:
Poetry makes nothing happen
is the famous line from Auden. But in Shelley’s definition, it’s not Man himself but only “visitations” (glimpses?) of a lost divinity. That also makes of poetry something visual; and focused, I think, on parts and fragments, rather than wholes.
Another, from the German poet/philosopher who renamed himself Novalis:
Poetry heals the wounds inflicted by reason.
A bit stark; file under “hyperbole.” But actually, I like the underlying metaphor: that poetry heals (notice that it partakes of Shelley’s “saving” metaphor, if you allow for the equivocation – they’re both Romantics, after all), and that “reason” (think of William Blake’s Ulro and Urizen – another Romantic!) harms. For “reason,” replace with “real world,” “materialism,” “greed”… whatever strikes you as the thing we sometimes need refuge from; poetry heals it, Novalis says.
(to be continued…)