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Thursday, July 10, 2008

What is poetry?

What is poetry? Discuss.

This is a puzzling question. Nobody has yet been able to produce satisfactory definition of poetry. Many of us know when we hear it, but we cannot exactly explain what it is. Let us consider some of these definitions by the well-known poets.

Mathew Arnold said, “Poetry is a criticism of life”; but the word “criticism” itself needs defining. Even if we use the word “interpretation” instead, it does not help as much; for a novel or any other work of art may be a criticism or interpretation of life.

Another definition by Shelley emphasizes a great beauty and truth. “Poetry is the perfect and consummate surface and bloom of all things. It is as the odor and the color of the rose to the texture of the elements which compose it, as the form and splendor of unfaded beauty to the secret of anatomy and corruption”; but it is not sufficiently exclusive, because the same definition may be given of the other great arts: painting, music, architecture, etc.

Wordsworth says, “Poetry is the breath and finer spirit of all knowledge, it is the impassioned expression which is in the countenance of all sciences”; which as Mathew Arnold remarks, it is “finely and truly said”, but does it amount to a definition?

And this long definition by Edgar Poe may be given to think over: “We shall reach, however, more immediately a distinct conception of what true Poetry is, by mere reference to a few of the simple elements which induce in the Poet himself the true poetical effect. He recognizes the ambrosia which nourishes his soul in the bright orbs that shine in Heaven – in the volutes of flowers in the clusters of low shrubberies – in the waves of the grain-fields – in the standing of tall Eastern trees – in the blue distance of mountains – in the grouping of clouds – in the twinkling of half hidden brooks – in the gleaming of silver rivers – in the repose of sequestered lakes – in the stars-mirroring depths of lonely wells. He perceives it in the song of birds – in the sighing of the night-wind – in the repining voice of the forest – in the surf that complains to the shore – in the fresh breath of the woods – in the scent of the violet – in the voluptuous perfume of the hyacinth – in the suggestive odor that comes to him at eventide from far-distant, undiscovered islands, over dim oceans, illimitable and unexplored. He owns it in all noble thoughts – in all unworldly motives – in all holy impulses – in all chivalrous, generous and self-sacrificing deeds. He feels it in the beauty of woman – in the grace of her step – in the luster of her eye – in the melody of her voice – in her soft laughter – in her sigh”.

All these definitions contain important truths about poetry, but do they give a final and satisfying answer to the question. “What is poetry?” Yet we need not despair. We can enjoy and benefit by poetry without being able to define it precisely; just as we can enjoy the scent of a rose without a scientific definition of it.

We must learn that, while most poetry is written in verse form, there are passages of eloquent prose which are really poetry – what are sometimes called prose-poems. And, still more commonly, there is much verse that is not poetry at all. Simply to write a piece in rhythmic meter and rhyme does not necessarily make a poem. And here we come back to the impossibility of defining poetry. It is a thing that can be felt, but it cannot be described or defined. A true poem is the product of sincere and deep feeling, and it touches the heart and appeals to the emotions. It is an expression in beautiful language of some experience that appeals to the human heart. A real poem will make you feel what the poet who wrote it felt, so that you will really experience what he experienced. The true poet has the power of using words so as to produce in us a sort of enchantment.