What is Poetry?

Over the course of the next few weeks, I will post fortnightly a series of essays, which will represent some rambling thoughts of mine on the nature, origin, function, and importance of poetry. Once these four essays are complete, I will go on to write essays that will mostly analyze some poem or poet. If I end up doing anything else in the future, I will always give an indication of some specific series of essays I will write. This first essay will tackle what poetry is: what is the nature of poetry?

On the surface, poetry is just what it is: what a culture recognizes to be so. Poetry is, in this case, a convention, a word referring to a series of expected formalisms and intentions concerning the written word. And there is a danger that in attempting to define it we might limit it in such a way as both to diminish our own perspective on the nature of poetry and also to suppress our own creativity in the pursuit of poetic composition.

Nevertheless, I believe it is worthwhile to attempt to understand what poetry is, which involves attempting to avoid erroneous conclusions. In doing so, the mission is both descriptive and prescriptive, or at least constructive. Far be it for me to, as many have sometimes done, limit what contents and forms poetry should take. Let me be clear: as far as I am concerned, there is an infinite number of possibilities for writing poetry well, in terms of both matter and form. But, that being said, I am also assured (mostly from personal writing experience, mind you) that there is also nearly an infinite number of ways of writing poetry badly. We are in the business of embracing some infinities and excluding others.
Then, what do our conventions typically end up clustering around when we attempt to write poetry? I will not be tackling the origins of poetry until the next essay, so I won’t discuss how I believe this has taken place yet. But I can provide a synchronic rather than a diachronic look at poetics for the moment.

The first thing to consider is that there is a distinction between poetry and prose in most languages and cultures that we are aware of. And this is the case even in non-literate societies. Whether we are dealing in the spoken or the written word, this dichotomy exists. In fact, contextual language is a rather universal phenomenon. In other words, within any language as actually used by people within a culture, there are different conventions of speech for differing contexts. And this is the wider phenomenon in which one must place poetry. Indeed, there can be various contexts in which different kinds of poetic speech are considered appropriate even within the same general culture. But if we were to take all those linguistic contexts classified as poetry, what would distinguish them from others? We will name three here: aural, lexical, and logothematic patterning of certain kinds, though we cannot treat these kinds exhaustively.

Perhaps one of the most distinctive aspects of most poetry is the deliberate attempt to create aural patterns of sound for the ear. In some languages (English being one of them), this is almost all this is required to make something “poetry” (whether it is good or bad). There are endless ways to do this: the ones we are familiar with in English involve meter and rhyme primarily, but other techniques abound, such as alliteration and assonance. For some languages, such as the classical languages of the Mediterranean, the difference between long and short vowels was utilized to create a metrical effect; whereas, in English, the tendency has been to exploit the differences between alternating pronunciation stress (accent). The language itself will usually dictate what the aural patterns must be.

Lexical patterns abound in poetry as well. Many words within a language are “poetic” words, generally used within poetic contexts. Generally, this also corresponds to archaic lexemes, since another feature of poetry is that it often reflects earlier stages of its own development (though poets in the modern world have often sought to emulate common speech or even be idiosyncratic). But beyond these use of a selective lexical set, there is also the juxtaposition of similar and contrasting words in curious combinations that also tends to characterize poetic language. Look at these words, for example:

Here I lie beneath a blackest sky
For never did you cease to lie

In this example, the two uses of the word “lie” are homophonic and homographic, though obviously not synonymic (else they would be no distinction at all). But the choice was a deliberate one (though perhaps a bit on the nose).

But all sorts of lexical patterns could be considered a subset of the following kind of patterns, logothematic patterns. Whereas aural patterns concern sound, logothematic patterns concern meaning, or the sense of the language. I distinguish logothematic patterns from grammatical patterns, as grammatical patterns are somewhat algebraic, sometimes using words whose meaning is essentially correlative1 or substitutionary2 rather than positive3.

The great set of logothematic patterns which characterizes poetry more than any other contextualizing of language is metaphor. Metaphor abounds in all linguistic contexts, but it is singled out in poetry more often than in any other situation. In conversational speech or prose, for example, metaphors are often hidden or are somewhat pedantic when called attention to, but in poetry, it is essential that they are in the forefront. Even when hidden, they are hidden to be found, their subtlety lending force to their meaning. Whereas, when they are concealed in mundane contexts, this is in order to avoid the energy required to make sense of every metaphor used. We digest prosaic language more quickly than poetic, and it is this density of meaning that is part of the essentiality of poetry.

Indeed, in the end, there are patterns of the sorts mentioned above in all language, and, yet again, the only way to really distinguish poetic from prosaic language is just to enumerate all the individual ways in which various kinds of patterns are used by convention. Thus, it seems we have only pointed out the trivially true so far.

So, I will take a more philosophic turn. All knowledge derives from differentiation, that we can sense one cognitive experience of the world from another. Objectively speaking, the world is full of variety and differentiation because of the low entropy of the present universe around us. Entropy concerns the possible configurations of a system, in this case, the universe as a whole, treated as a closed system (i.e. with no outside input of further energy). If the universe reached a point of highest entropy, there would be nothing but a practically endless sea of homogenously spread matter and energy. No distinctions could be made between one kind of combination of “stuff” in space and time and some other.
Per the second law of thermodynamics, the overall tendency of the universe is towards higher entropy, though local regions are constantly decreasing their entropy through various organizational means. Probably the most impressive kind of localized systems that work to decrease their own entropy are living organisms, of which humanity is one species. As entropy goes, life manages to decrease it remarkably well within its bounds.

Thus, we now can turn to the subjective aspect of differentiation. Just as the world around us is differentiated, so are we as organisms. And the relationship between our differentiation and that of our surrounding environment is our knowledge of that environment. Such is the basis of all knowledge.

I contend, then, that poetry is an attempt to intensify what language does generally already. Of course, such an intensification requires an extra expenditure of energy on our parts, and so there must have been good reasons for humanity to foster poetic language as distinguished from prosaic and mundane language, even if some of those reasons were unconscious. There is a trade-off between the effort to foster poetic language and what is gained thereby.

Of course, I will treat what I think this means for the origin of poetry in the next essay. There is also much to be said for the actual social context of poetry. Poetry was not invented by lone individuals; it was invented by groups. The oldest poets, the story-tellers of the prehistoric tribes of humanity, were selected for a role that they played in their societies. And that must be treated later as well.

Featured image: Minerva visits the nine Muses at Mount Helicon, painted by Johann K├Ânig.

  1. Such as and, or, if, etc. []
  2. Such as pronouns. []
  3. Nouns, verbs, adjectives, etc. []

Please don't forget to share!

Leave a Comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.