The HyperTexts

What is Poetry?

by Michael R. Burch

What is Poetry? After more than forty years of intensive reading and study, and after having published hundreds of poets and thousands of poems, I am finally ready to venture a definition, supported by examples:

Poetry was, is and remains man’s most important, powerful and world-changing art.

I realize that my definition is likely to ruffle a few feathers, so please bear with me while I explain the method behind my apparent madness. First, let me begin with the idea that poetry is art.

Poetry is one of the major human arts, along with music, dance, acting, sculpture and painting. Poetry is also one of earth’s oldest art forms, probably predating not only other forms of literature, but even literacy itself. Fragments of ancient poems can be found on the gravestones, monoliths, rune stones and stelae of most literate cultures. The fact that such poetic fragments tended to materialize as soon as writing appeared strongly suggests that poems were being passed down orally from generation to generation — in chants, songs and/or recitals — before writing developed. And this makes perfect sense because poetic devices like rhythm and rhyme make poems and songs easier to remember than prose (i.e., more ordinary, less intensely memorable speech). Any tribe that lacks writing has a tremendous incentive to use oral poetry to preserve its history, laws, customs and religious beliefs as faithfully as possible. As we will see shortly, the Bible is a good example of oral poetry that was passed down — probably for centuries — before written texts were finally created.

While prose is primarily one-dimensional (conveying ideas prosaically as I am doing here), poetry is multi-dimensional. Prose works primarily through Sense (the communication of meaning and ideas). But as the poet/critic Herbert Read pointed out, poetry works its magic through Sense, Sound and Suggestion. To illustrate how poetry differs from prose, let me offer this example:

Bread and Music
by Conrad Aiken

Music I heard with you was more than music,
And bread I broke with you was more than bread;
Now that I am without you, all is desolate;
All that was once so beautiful is dead.

Your hands once touched this table and this silver,
And I have seen your fingers hold this glass.
These things do not remember you, belovčd,
And yet your touch upon them will not pass.

For it was in my heart you moved among them,
And blessed them with your hands and with your eyes;
And in my heart they will remember always,—
They knew you once, O beautiful and wise.

In Aiken’s wonderfully moving poem, he communicates Sense (meaning, ideas). But he does much more than that. He also employs lovely, sad rhythms that touch and move readers through the properties of Sound. And like an alchemist he also uses the magical properties of Suggestion (metaphor, transcendence). For instance, he relates being able to physically touch his lover to her being able to physically touch their table, silver and glasses. Aiken makes us feel the pain he experiences because he is still able to touch inanimate objects but not the human being he loved so much. Aiken also ventures into a metaphysical realm we might call “transcendence” when he claims that his lover’s touch will not pass from physical things even though she is gone. He even claims that the table, silver and glasses will always remember his lover, within his heart! While these may seem like rather wild claims, when we read the poem it’s easy to accept them as facts, without questioning them. So in a way perhaps Aiken has convinced us that his lover was so unique, so beautiful and so wise, that she was able to charm inanimate objects into spiritually entering his heart and remembering her there. Or perhaps this Suggestion is not to be taken literally, but simply as an expression of overwhelming love, loss and grief.

Here is a poetic fragment by Sappho, one of the first great lyric poets. She was considered to be one of the wonders of the ancient world by certain of her peers, and this epigram demonstrates why:

Sappho, fragment 42
loose translation by Michael R. Burch

Eros wracks my soul:
a wind on desolate mountains
leveling oaks.

Like Aiken, Sappho uses the magical properties of Suggestion (metaphor), comparing her being shaken to her core by Eros (erotic love) to trees on a desolate mountainside being shaken by shattering winds.

Here is another powerful example: a poem used as an epigraph (gravestone inscription) by the ancient Greeks:

Does my soul abide in heaven, or hell?
Only the sea gull
in his high, lonely circuits, may tell.
—Michael R. Burch, after Glaucus

Please allow me to note at this point that song lyrics are a form of poetry. Music without words can be stunningly beautiful and wonderfully moving, but it is primarily through poetry that songs like “Imagine,” “White Christmas” and “Bridge Over Troubled Water” communicate complex ideas. From this point on, when I refer to poetry, I am including song lyrics in the larger category. If you are convinced that you “don’t like” or “hate” poetry, and yet you love the lyrics of your favorite songs, then you really are a poetry lover, like most of human race!

While few of us can remember anything in our school textbooks word-for-word, we can easily remember hundreds or thousands of poems with considerable precision. The more we like a poem or song lyric, the more likely we are to be able to recall it at will. Thus the best poems and songs stay with us in a way that prose usually doesn’t. We can even remember poems and song lyrics that seem alien to our ears today:

Should auld acquaintance be forgot, 
And never brought to mind? 
Should auld acquaintance be forgot, 
And auld lang syne!
—Robert Burns

Poetry is unique among the arts in its ability to communicate complex ideas clearly, and also to be remembered fully. While music, dance, sculpture and painting can communicate emotion and ideas, without words there are limits to how much audiences can receive of the artists’ intentions and meanings. For instance, a talented artist might enrapture us with a stunning painting of a spider spinning its web, but could any visual artist clearly and fully communicate the complex idea below?

A Noiseless Patient Spider
by Walt Whitman

A noiseless patient spider,
I mark'd where on a little promontory it stood isolated,
Mark'd how to explore the vacant vast surrounding,
It launch'd forth filament, filament, filament, out of itself,
Ever unreeling them, ever tirelessly speeding them.

And you O my soul where you stand,
Surrounded, detached, in measureless oceans of space,
Ceaselessly musing, venturing, throwing, seeking the spheres to connect them,
Till the bridge you will need be form'd, till the ductile anchor hold,
Till the gossamer thread you fling catch somewhere, O my soul.

Because of its unique ability to aid and abet the human memory, poetry is also an important learning, teaching and wisdom “transmission” device. Before writing appeared, ancient tribes used oral poetry to preserve and transmit laws, customs, religious beliefs, myths and genealogies. The Bible is a good example of a book that incorporates a wealth of such poetry. Proverbs is a book of poetic wisdom teachings. Job is a poem about human suffering and trying to make sense of it. Psalms is a book of poems and songs (hymns). Lamentations is a book of poetic laments. The Song of Solomon (also known as the Song of Songs) is an extended love poem which contains healthy doses of erotica. Large sections of the prophets, such as Isaiah and Jeremiah, are highly poetic ethical teachings. Experts have estimated that one third of the Old Testament consists of poetry. The New Testament also contains poetry, such as the Beatitudes, the Magnificat (“My soul doth magnify the LORD ...”) and Saint Paul’s wonderful epiphany on Divine Love (“If I speak with the tongues of men and of angels ...”).

Poetry is, of course, also a form of language. The difference between the best poetry and ordinary language is like the difference between plain white bread and the most delicious meals served at the finest restaurants. While it is true that poetry is language — a form of speech — poetry goes beyond the basic communication of ideas (i.e., flat prose) to produce pleasure in readers. This communication of pleasure is the most distinguishing characteristic of art. But by “pleasure” I do not mean only happy feelings. Human audiences can also be moved by sadness, regret, compassion, fear, even terror. So perhaps we should use a more comprehensive term, such as “movingness.”

The movingness of poetry is created by the use of various poetic devices. The major poetic devices include rhythm, rhyme, imagery and metaphor. But there are many others. Here are examples of some of the more common poetic devices . . .

Rhythm. Perhaps the most distinguishing characteristic of poetry is rhythm, or the music of words. Some poems employ regular meter:

Music When Soft Voices Die (To )
by Percy Bysshe Shelley

Music, when soft voices die,
Vibrates in the memory—
Odours, when sweet violets sicken,
Live within the sense they quicken.

Rose leaves, when the rose is dead,
Are heaped for the belovčd's bed;
And so thy thoughts, when thou art gone,
Love itself shall slumber on.

Shelley’s wonderfully moving poem makes us feel the unbearable sadness of the loss of a loved one.

The Garden
by Ezra Pound

Like a skein of loose silk blown against a wall
She walks by the railing of a path in Kensington Gardens,
And she is dying piece-meal
               of a sort of emotional anemia.

And round about there is a rabble
Of the filthy, sturdy, unkillable infants of the very poor.
They shall inherit the earth.

In her is the end of breeding.
Her boredom is exquisite and excessive.

She would like some one to speak to her,
And is almost afraid that I
             will commit that indiscretion.

Ezra Pound’s poem is rhythmic, but not metrically regular. It makes us feel the alienation Pound felt when he encountered — but really didn’t meet and certainly didn’t connect with — an aloof socialite.

Rhyme. Not all poems rhyme, but rhyme is a major element of probably 99% of the best-loved poems in the English language (for instance, refer to the introduction of William Harmon’s Classic Hundred Poems), and of 99% of the most popular song lyrics, from “Danny Boy” to rap, hip-hop and grunge rock. Here is a stellar example of a rhyming poem which according to Poets.org remains one of the most popular poems today, based on reader traffic on its website:

Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night

by Dylan Thomas

Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Though wise men at their end know dark is right,
Because their words had forked no lightning they
Do not go gentle into that good night.

Good men, the last wave by, crying how bright
Their frail deeds might have danced in a green bay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Wild men who caught and sang the sun in flight,
And learn, too late, they grieved it on its way,
Do not go gentle into that good night.

Grave men, near death, who see with blinding sight
Blind eyes could blaze like meteors and be gay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

And you, my father, there on the sad height,
Curse, bless, me now with your fierce tears, I pray.
Do not go gentle into that good night.
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

It is also important to note that some of the masterpieces of Modernism and Free Verse employ rhyme, including T. S. Eliot’s “The Wasteland” and “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.” When Eliot and Ezra Pound spoke of Vers Libre (free verse or “liberated verse”) they did not suggest that rhythm and rhyme were passe. Rather, they wanted poetry to be freer, less inhibited and less tick-tocky. They both continued to employ rhythm and rhyme in their own work.

Imagery and Metaphor. Not all poems employ imagery and metaphors, but many do. Here is an example from one of my own poems:

See
by Michael R. Burch

See how her hair has thinned: it doesn't seem
like hair at all, but like the airy moult
of emus who outraced the wind and left
soft plumage in their wake ...

Imagery allows readers to see, hear, feel or otherwise experience things discernable through the senses:

The butterfly
perfuming its wings
fans the orchid
Matsuo Basho, loose translation by Michael R. Burch

Metaphor is a “bridge” from the objective to the subjective:

Come, investigate loneliness!
a solitary leaf
clings to the Kiri tree
Matsuo Basho, loose translation by Michael R. Burch

In the second Basho poem, the solitary leaf is not just an image; it also represents loneliness. The object (a leaf) through the power of what Herbert Read calls Suggestion makes us shiver with the feeling of loneliness.

Symbolism. Symbolism is a type of metaphor in which the “connection” is commonly understood. For instance, the four seasons symbolize the stages of life and the rose symbolizes love.

Simile. A simile is a type of metaphor in which the words “like” or “as” are used to establish the connection. For instance, William Wordsworth’s “I wandered lonely as a cloud.”

Alliteration. Alliteration is the repetition of sounds. For instance: “Rain reigns roughly through the day.”

Personification. Personification is the granting of human traits to non-human creatures or objects. For instance, John Donne’s “Busy old fool, unruly sun.”

There are many other poetic devices and it is not my purpose to list them all here. Many poetic devices are used in prose. Indeed, when we see prose that seems to particularly shine, we call it “poetic prose.” The best prose writers — for instance, James Joyce, William Faulkner, Herman Melville, Vladimir Nabokov, J. R. R. Tolkien and Mark Twain — can be quite poetic.

Now, please allow me to return to my original premise that poetry is not just an art form, but is man’s most important, powerful and earth-shaking form of art. How can I justify this statement?

First, let me say that I love visual art, dance and music as much as anyone. However, without words such forms of art lack the ability to communicate complex ideas clearly and fully. When John F. Kennedy wanted to inspire Americans to aim for the stars or serve their country, he didn’t play a piano or do ballet leaps and twirls. When Martin Luther King Jr. wanted the United States to grant minorities full equality, he didn’t bring large crowds to gaze silently at sculptures and paintings. When Abraham Lincoln wanted to end slavery and preserve the union, he didn’t compose a wordless symphony.

When the human race changes its core beliefs, and thus its ways, the “prime mover” is the spoken and written word. And the best communicators of such words are the great poets and songwriters. If we want to understand why human societies and cultures are evolving as they are, we have only to consider some of the profoundly moving things that have been said by the great artists through the ages. I will cite some of those sayings and ask you to form your own conclusions:

John Lennon

Imagine there's no countries
It isn't hard to do
Nothing to kill or die for
And no religion too
Imagine all the people
Living life in peace...

Ev'rybody's talkin' 'bout
Revolution, Evolution, Masturbation, Flagellation, Regulation,
Integrations, Mediations, United Nations, Congratulations
All we are saying is give peace a chance
All we are saying is give peace a chance

And so this is Christmas and what have we done
Another year over, a new one just begun.
And so happy Christmas we hope you have fun
The near and the dear ones, the old and the young.
A very merry Christmas and a happy New Year
Let's hope it's a good one without any fear.
War is over if you want it; war is over now.

Bob Dylan

How many roads must a man walk down
Before you call him a man?
And how many seas must a white dove sail
Before she sleeps in the sand?
Yes, and how many times must the cannon balls fly
Before they're forever banned?
The answer my friend is blowin' in the wind
The answer is blowin' in the wind.

Thomas Jefferson

We hold these truths to be self-evident:
that all men are created equal,
that they are endowed by their Creator
with certain unalienable rights,
that among these are life, liberty
and the pursuit of happiness

Yes, these are ringing lines of iambic pentameter: pure poetry! And they are perhaps the most important lines of poetry ever written. Here are other famous poets and songwriters who helped change the world for the better ...

William Blake (pro-tolerance, pro-free-love, anti-racism, anti-slavery, anti-sexism, anti-religion, anti-war, anti-child-labor, anti-establishment)
Robert Burns (a staunch proponent of the rights of average Joes and Janes, anti-monarchy, anti-religion)
e. e. cummings (pro-tolerance, anti-war)
Marvin Gaye (pro-tolerance, pro-equality, pro-ecology, anti-war)
Woody Guthrie (pro-the-people, anti-war, anti-establishment)
George Harrison (pro-tolerance, pro-free-love, anti-racism, anti-sexism, anti-war)
Jimi Hendrix (pro-tolerance, anti-war)
the Hebrew prophets (pro-compassion, anti-hypocrisy, anti-religion)
Jesus Christ  (pro-compassion, anti-hypocrisy, anti-religion)
Robert Frost (anti-religion)
A. E. Housman (pro-tolerance, pro-free-love, anti-homophobia, anti-religion, anti-war)
Michael Jackson (pro-tolerance, pro-equality, pro-love, anti-violence, anti-war)
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. (pro-tolerance, pro-peace, anti-racism, anti-war)
Abraham Lincoln (pro-tolerance, anti-slavery)
Paul McCartney (pro-tolerance, pro-free-love, anti-racism, anti-sexism, anti-war)
Sir Walter Ralegh (a fierce critic of unjust churches and states in his great poem "The Lie")
Percy Bysshe Shelley (anti-religion)
Cat Stevens/Yusuf Islam (pro-tolerance, pro-peace, anti-war)
Sting (anti-war)
Alfred, Lord Tennyson (universalist, anti-hell)
Mark Twain (pro-tolerance, anti-racism, anti-slavery)
Phil Ochs (anti-war)
Wilfred Owen (the greatest anti-war poet)
Pete Seeger (pro-the-people, anti-war)
Bruce Springsteen (pro-the-people, pro-tolerance, anti-war)
Wallace Stevens (anti-religion)
U2 (pro-tolerance, anti-racism, anti-war)
William Butler Yeats (anti-imperialism)
Neil Young (pro-tolerance, pro-peace, anti-racism, anti-war, anti-establishment)
Roger Waters (anti-war)
Walt Whitman (pro-free-love, pro-tolerance, pro-equality, anti-sexism, anti-homophobia)

The HyperTexts