What Is Poetry? by Violet Nesdoly
Welcome to our newest contributor, Violet Nesdoly.
I’m delighted to be re-entering the world of group blogging. Though I enjoyed my hiatus, I’m happy to get back into this saddle. In my posts here, I plan to talk about a genre dear to my heart—poetry.
It’s a huge topic with a history as old as humanity itself. As well, it’s constantly changing. If there’s any type of writing that allows one to break established rules, make one’s own rules, and express individuality, it’s poetry. So, perhaps a good place to start is to ask, “What is poetry?”
Physically, we might identify poetry as writing with intentional line breaks where numbers of lines are grouped together to form stanzas. However, the recent popularity of prose poems makes recognizing poetry by lines and stanzas less trustworthy.
A familiar way of presenting poetry was to begin each line with an uppercase letter. But with the coming of free verse and its more casual diction, many poets dropped such capitalizations.
Some insist that “real poetry” has end-rhymes and a steady rhythm. Again, poetry in free verse with its conversational tone neutralizes that identification.
So, is there any one thing that we could say characterizes the whole genre—from one-line American sentences to book-length ballads? As I poked around looking for an answer, I came across some wonderful definitions of poetry.
“Poetry is a river; many voices travel in it; poem after poem moves along in the exciting crests and falls of the river waves,” says Mary Oliver in A Poetry Handbook, p. 9.
Edward Hirsch, in his book How to Read a Poem, begins his glossary definition of poetry with this: “A magical, mysterious, inexplicable (though not incomprehensible) event in language.” He goes on to quote other poets’ definitions: Wordsworth: “The spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings . . . recollected in tranquility”; Robert Graves: “stored magic”; André Breton: “a room of marvels.”
I found more but didn’t feel my question had been satisfactorily answered until I came to a definition Hirsch attributes to Australian poet Les Murray: “We cannot know poetry by any intrinsic properties of poetry itself, but by our contact with it. It has an intensity which cannot be denied” – How to Read a Poem, pp. 299, 300.
If I understand Mr. Murray correctly, he’s saying it’s not how a poem looks or sounds that identifies it as a poem but its effect on us, the readers—an effect achieved through intensity.
Poetry = Intensity
Intense defined: “Having great or extreme force; performed strenuously and steadily, ardent; expressing strong emotion; having its quality strongly intensified” – Funk and Wagnalls College Dictionary.
If we translate these definition aspects of intense into poetry-writing characteristics, we could say that poetic writing “has force,” that is, uses strong, specific words to name both things (nouns) and actions (verbs).
Poetic writing that is “ardent” and “expressing strong emotion” is emotionally honest, transparent writing in which the writer may risk self-disclosure.
When I think of “quality strongly intensified,” I think of food. We make food flavours intense by removing the water, that is, by reduction. In the same way, intense writing is reduced, concentrated writing with the extra words removed. Poetry does this well. It’s not unusual for a poem to be under 100 words. You have to use words efficiently to make an impact with so few.
So, if we no longer need to limit what we call poetry by how it looks or the way it sounds, I’m sure we’ll find writing that we can connect with as poetry in all kinds of places. I see it in the poems of my favourite poets like Jan Wood. But I also see it in newspaper columns written by wordsmiths like Rex Murphy. I spotted it a few weeks ago in this post on the Inscribe Members’ Blog.
Where will you find your poetry? Be on the lookout for it—in pieces you readily recognize as poems but also in newspapers, novels, essays, blog posts, maybe even your own journals.
Violet Nesdoly is a freelance writer and poet who lives near Vancouver, B.C. Her poems have been published by Utmost Christian Writers, Time of Singing, Your Daily Poem, Prairie Messenger, and others.