NOTES TOWARDS A DEFINITION OF 'POETRY'
(A belated, discursive and presumptuous response to The Poetry Society's definition of a
poem as: 'whatever a writer wishes to style a poem')
Wilfred Owen, caught up in a cataclysmic war, felt that it was a poet's duty 'to warn'. Philip Larkin, leading a rather less precarious existence as a librarian, described his desire 'to preserve'. For me, interested both
in history and in context, it is somehow sufficient to preserve some of the warnings.
Poetry, just like any other pastime, is best viewed as a by-product of the wider society which it reflects and is, in turn, subsumed by. In this respect, our shallow, anecdotal, 'not what but who' culture is well-served by the 'Literature' it continues to generate. On the rubble-ed site of an art-form once capable of sustaining the efficient presentation of memorable ideas, a succession of culprits have fly-tipped their 'jottings'. I allow myself to hope that, in time, the appellation 'Free Verse' will come to be understood primarily in the context of 'verse for which no payment is required'. (Alongside more-or-less everything else) we 'moderns' have devalued poetry. Every time - if J.M.Barrie's ghost will pardon the liberty - some crass editor publishes an under-cooked, artless, self-admiring, null travesty-of-a-poem, somewhere a fairy (or at the very least a brain cell) dies. By that token, I've probably polished-off a few myself.
Is poetry, somehow - I wonder - a 'seventh sense'? Are there, as a corollary, people 'out there' who wander through life not realising that they experience this particular sensory-deficiency? And, if so: why do so many of them elect to work in publishing? Poetry should (in this performance-ridden, time-obsessed age) be flourishing. And yet, by contrast, we continue to read - or televisually view - the doings of non-existent persons in utterly fictitious circumstances. What could we be thinking of!?
Personally, I'm loath to disparage the current, influential crop of 'post-modern' practitioners. Quite the reverse. From their Olympian heights in academe they appear to have set themselves the ultimate literary challenge: to write using only flat, prosaic cadences; with rarefied, unrealistic imagery and about sweet Fanny Adams. Via the use of shrewd psychology ('Hey, don't be a fuddy-duddy!') they have carried-off the huge confidence trick of making most of us believe that their way is the only way of 'creative writing'. Balderdash! It is a merely-fashionable outlet for mediocrity, kitted-out to preen upon a cat-walk. If it persists, it is solely through the reluctance or inability of the current 'in-crowd' to distinguish the (rare) diamonds from the (all-too-frequent) dirty diapers rotating stolidly in the slap-happy, shop-soiled launderette that is our contemporary poetry scene.
Dear old Shelley famously said poets are the 'unacknowledged legislators of the world' - today, that couldn't be further from the truth: the contemporary 'names' more closely resemble the world's Electric Toothbrushes - something many feel, vaguely, that they ought to possess but which they are, nevertheless, entirely unable to utilise properly. Perhaps the-makers-of-poems have one more, final role to perform. In a society which appears completely in thrall to 'celebrity' - one in which footballers or even chefs (for goodness sake!) are the new gods - more poets both could, and should, publish anonymously. This might help to return the spotlight onto the 'work' rather than on 'the personality' (or lack of). Even that daddy of modernism, T.S. Eliot, was moved to declare (in a rare moment of clear-headedness) that, whilst he could understand people wishing to write 'poems', he could never fathom the motivation behind them wanting to become 'poets'.
None of these musings, however, has brought us any closer to an acceptable definition as to what constitutes poetry.
I would contend that most 'real' poetry is 'about' (or, at least, displays a tendency to be about) the great existential themes: the quest for Meaning, the search for love, the overture to - and the act of - dying. Put simply, the big themes deserve to be addressed. I also believe that the five, wriggling digits on the slippery hand of poetry are:
1. ORIGINALITY (sounding 'like one's self').
2. ECONOMY (saying the most, in the least).
3. ACCESSIBILITY (being perfectly comprehensible to persons who use the same
language, who possess 'reasonable' levels of intelligence
and who are paying 'reasonable' attention).
4. UNIVERSALITY (enabling complete strangers to share a perception or experience).
5. MEMORABILITY (resonating on the tongue and in the mind).
I further believe that a poem is, essentially, a device through which one human being (henceforward called 'the writer') makes an attempt to enter the head of another (henceforward to be known as 'the reader'). This device can, perforce, only act in the one, single direction -thus rendering it liable to charges of selfishness, clumsiness etc. To obviate these charges it is necessary to observe a strict etiquette:
'When making the attempt to enter the 'reader's head, the 'writer' should always
knock first, paying particular attention to their footwear. Entrance is by invitation
only and -should the 'writer' wish to stay - it is important to display good manners
at all times. While it is permissible to sign the visitor's book or leave one's card,
a considerate 'writer' will never fiddle with their attire, scuff the furniture or
In order to facilitate more 'reader-friendly' poems I append the following:
A CHECKLIST FOR USE WHEN WRITING POETRY
1. Never presume personalised or specialist knowledge.
2. Use only words which can be found in the Concise Oxford English Dictionary.
3. Be colloquial, not stilted.
4. Never affect 'style' for its own sake. 'Style' is like a kind of latex mask
which some writers feel it is necessary to don prior to making a
statement. If and when it becomes so rigid as to preclude a certain type of
truthful articulation, it must be considered a Parkinsonian disability.
5. Distrust the adjective.
6. Disregard 'mad' Ezra. You won't, often, 'make it new' but you should at least try to
make it different.
7. 'Form' is just the peg we hang our coat on. It's the coat itself which people remember.
8. Always ensure that you're actually saying something- not simply trading in 'poetic'
9. Authenticity. If you write of an experience, it is important that you actually lived it
and wish to share it as a genuine act of communication.
10. Be leery of similes: nothing is really like anything else.
11. Resemble the boxer: unless you figure on landing a series of 'hammer blows', go in
quickly -punch- get out.
12. Again, like the boxer: be prepared to take a few 'hits' on your way.
13. Strong beginning, resonant ending.
14 Be concise, even terse. Never ramble nor commit tautology. DON'T USE TOO MANY
In conclusion, it might be possible to postulate some kind of 'negative' definition: 'Poetry' is that which is left over from a piece of writing once we've removed the lazy, the stilted, the verbose, the hackneyed, the self-serving, the ill-conceived and the mis-informed.
Kevin Saving © 2009