Thursday, November 12, 2009

Definitions of "Poetry"

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…)


  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. It's a beautiful picture, for me this image defines a picture of the seasons changing, a season of falling leaves. A path covered in leaves, where it deep hidden in the mountain.

    I would like to share a poem with you all.

    Closed Path - Rabindranath Tagore

    I thought that my voyage had come to its end
    at the last limit of my power,---that the path before me was closed,
    that provisions were exhausted
    and the time come to take shelter in a silent obscurity.

    But I find that thy will knows no end in me.
    And when old words die out on the tongue,
    new melodies break forth from the heart;
    and where the old tracks are lost,
    new country is revealed with its wonders.

  3. I think that poetry is very diverse in a sense. I too believe that poetry can take on many different meanings, and it does have the power to heal, hurt, humor, and can make a reader feel the feeling the author is trying to express. I really liked reading this blog, because it offered a glimpse of the other side of poetry. It let me know how deep poetry can truly go. As for the Picture, I have to agree with is a very beautiful picture, and Kate thanks for sharing the poem with us. Its a very lovely piece.

  4. With this article, we can see how vary poetry can be defined. Simply, it can be understood as an imaginative awareness of experience expressed through meaning, sound, and rhythmic language. Poetry is unique, even it can have the same style or words.

  5. I feel poetry really can't be defined in a orderly way. To contain poetry to a definition is to go against poetry all together. Yet, if I must define it, I feel that poetry is often a melody to put the emotions and experiences into words so that the human person can relate to mankind.

  6. Poetry is an intersting. It is defined as a "thing" but the meat can be so different. How can one "thing" take on so many meanings? It can be two lines or pages long. How can something so different be the same?

  7. The beauty of poetry is that the words you use, even if you don't mean them to, can take on many different meanings. It's as if there are not boundaries, or at least they differ from person to person, whether it be the writer or the reader. The literal can no longer be defined, kind of ironic, but pleasant still.

  8. I don’t believe there is a right or wrong way in poetry. I agree with Felicia when she says poetry is very diverse. There are many different ways poetry is written and described. Some people may create poetry from past present and future instances and others can write poetry about what they see and feel at that very moment. I love poetry. I just don’t think I’m quite great at it.

  9. In terms of poetry (or writing in general)...I truly don't see a correct or incorrect way of doing things. I believe the option to create however should be available. I get there needs to be basic standards...and I think that has been accomplished with the different forms of writing-poetry, narrative stories, fiction and non-fiction,etc.

  10. I agree that poetry is diverse. I believe that poetry can break down barries between cultures.
    It is able to show how one culture thinks, reacts, talks, the uses of their language, etc. Poetry expands your thinking and your ability to analyze. I feel that poetry is like a sport. It takes skills to complete that great piece, but you must work at it first. These skills don't come over night. You have to be dedicated in the task,and practice. Once you have been at it for awhile it will come natural.

  11. I think that poetry can save someone in a mental or emotional sense. This has been a rough semester personally for me and writing poetry was almost a catharsis. For that I am grateful.

  12. the definition of poetry could mean anything. Poetry to me is an expression of one's self, paths in life one has taking, or just reflections in life and life's experiences. Poetry is past, present and future. Poetry is life.

  13. The definition of poetry is as vague as poetry itself, it seems that just as as poem can be interpreted, written, loved, and hated in a variety every changing amount of ways, so can the definition. As each poem is something different to one person, so is the definition of poetry.

  14. I am not sure whether I would call myself a fan, but I really like his "definition": Poetry redeems from decay visitations of the divinity of man.

    Propositions in a particular order with particular references and senses can sometimes make things happen. Saying (or writing) something in a way that brings understanding and clarity is much, much harder.

    Sometimes, I am sure all of us come up with some idea that is brilliant, and it presents itself in such a magnificent way. Failing to put it down in ink usually means that it is forgotten, it decays. The ink preserves it in a very real but also metaphorical way.

  15. I think poetry is really too subjective for it to only just have one (or a few) definition(s). What poetry does for one person might be entirely different from the next. And whether intentional or not, some readers often see extra meaning between the lines of a piece, and depending on how enthusiastic you get about trying to define it, that alone opens up a whole door of possible descriptions. The only way I can think of to go about defining something as nebulous as poetry is to emphasize the actual mechanics of it, and then to add in a provision about how there are many interpretations of poetry on a higher level, and that what those interpretations actually are is mostly entirely dependent on the individual.