Wednesday, December 4, 2013

On Poetry

Recently I reviewed an anthology that included some poetry. A few weeks ago I edited another anthology that also contained poetry. Not only did this raise the issues, for me, of exactly how to go about editing or reviewing poetry; it raised the more fundamental issue of what actually constitutes poetry.

There was a time when poetry was much more formal than it is today. By ‘formal’ I mean quite literally that poetry adhered to certain specific forms, both in terms of rhythm, line structure and line length. I don’t know much about the technical language. Suffice to say that it was complicated, but also precise. There were also various forms to follow governing the rhyming structure of poetry.

Sometime during the twentieth century at the latest, much of this formalism was abandoned. What took its place was a free form kind of poetry. Not simply blank verse (i.e., non-rhyming), but seemingly possessing little or no formal structure. There may be subtle rules and structures to which poetry continues to adhere, but I suspect that most of us are unaware of them.

Today, when many people write poetry, they either follow a simple rhyming form, with lines that (sometimes) scan; or they write in an entirely unstructured way. While the former is clearly ‘poetry’, I generally find it uninspiring. Choosing a word because it rhymes with another has never seemed to me to be a particularly good criterion. It often leads to bad word choice or very questionable rhymes. The rhythm of such lines (if the author has paid attention to rhythm at all) often seems clunky.

On the other hand, I really doubt that some freeform poetry is really poetry at all.

One does not create a poem
Simply by spreading the words
Across several lines
In a manner
Something like this.

Much freeform poetry seems to be little more than prose with arbitrary line breaks.

So what, for me, are the essentials that differentiate poetry from prose? I would suggest three things:

1.     Words and phrases need to be used in unusual ways, images that jolt us out of our normal level of awareness.
2.     Words need to be placed. By this I mean that there is a reason for ending a line with this specific word rather than another—this may be for rhyming, but also for other purposes. The same is true of the word that starts the line, and, indeed, for the key words within any line.
3.     Lines need to possess some kind of rhythm; not necessarily, these days, any of the precise meters used in the past, but some kind of rhythm and flow, nevertheless. At the very least, lines are broken at that particular place for a reason, perhaps to create suspense, or to generate a specific juxtaposition of ideas.

Some of these elements will be borrowed from time to time in the service of prose. Used together, though, they constitute the minimum necessary before I would regard a collection of words and phrases to be a poem. There may be other elements that I have overlooked here.

People may object strongly to any kind of formalism in poetry. In my discussion here I have tried to keep formalism to a minimum. Nevertheless, if I am going to be asked to edit or critique poetry, I need to use some criteria. Now you know what they are.

1 comment:

  1. I have struggled with free form, both from an appreciation of it and trying to write it myself. I am also a member of a popular poetry website and published around a hundred poems there, all of them rhyming. I have to say that my feeling has been from the feedback that even those who specialize in free form admire good rhyming poetry, and in some cases are even a little jealous of those who can pull it off.
    I never thought that people consider writing rhyming poetry more difficult than free form until I got this feedback, indeed, I thought the opposite was the case.
    I have to agree with you about forced rhymes, but I accept that as the challenge; to make those rhymes natural, as can be seen in the very best of poetry. This has led to a lot of frustration, and a slow output, but that feeling when everything comes together beautifullly is indescribable! Sometimes I read my own poetry after a long break and think, "Did I write that!?"
    For sure, I feel I missed the target sometimes, but console myself by thinking of those great (music) albums with the occasionally dodgy track, or the poem you skip over in an anthology of a great poets work (even some Shakespeare doesn't do it for me!) but I do know that as a poet my goal is to try to keep traditional rhyming poetry alive before it disappears for ever.