But is it Poetry?

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My 2¢

I couldn’t resist..

The Observer, as mentioned in the previous post, published an article entitled Poetry guardians reject modern verse. The Observer writes:

Members of the [Queen’s English Society – QOS], set up to defend the ‘beauty and precision’ of the English language, have turned their attention to contemporary poetry and poets, arguing that too often strings of words are being labelled as poems despite the fact they have no rhyme or metre.

What defending the “beauty and precision” of the English Language has to do with defining poetry is unclear. After all, there are any number of free verse “poems” Observer Linkcontaining English that is both beautiful and precise. If the Queen’s English only wants a beautiful and precise definition of poetry, then I assume that the Encyclopedia Britannica’s editors probably live in the same neighborhood.

It seems, however, that they had already decided what that definition should be:

‘A lot of people high up in poetry circles look down on rhyme and metre and think it is old-fashioned,’ said Bernard Lamb, president of the QES and an academic at Imperial College London. ‘But what is the definition of poetry? I would say, if it doesn’t have rhyme or metre, then it is not poetry, it is just prose. You can have prose that is full of imagery, but it is still prose.’

The campaign is being spearheaded by Michael George Gibson, who said it was ‘disgraceful’ that the Poetry Society had failed to respond properly to his demands for a definition. ‘For centuries word-things, called poems, have been made according to primary and defining craft principles of, first, measure and, second, alliteration and rhyme,’ said Gibson. ‘Word-things not made according to those principles are not poems.’ True poems, he said, gave the reader or listener a ‘special pleasure’.

While I may be mildly sympathetic to their angst (if not their goals) stating that “true poems” give readers “special pleasure” is hardly a beautiful or precise definition. Everyday my WordPress Spam filter weeds out hundreds of comments promising “special pleasures”. Were they all poems? – beautifully nubile, inviting and precisely suggestive? I’ll have to turn that filter off…

The Poetry Society's Definition of Poetry?

The Poetry Society's Definition of Poetry?

On the other hand, the Poetry Society’s response was equally ridiculous, if not more so:

The Poetry Society has responded to the criticisms. One trustee told Gibson: “There is poetry in everything we say or do, and if something is presented to me as a poem by its creator, or by an observer, I accept that something as a poem.”

This is the kind of airy fairy poetry definition that makes the Queen’s English Society look good. If the Poetry Society truly responded that everything is a poem just because somebody told them so, then they are brain dead. If nothing else, their poetry “trusteeship” isn’t to be trusted and should be revoked. Try telling your local journal editor that your Aspirin bottle’s ingredients list is a poem. (Evidently, that would be good enough for the Poetry Society.) There’s a reason colleges rake in millions of dollars from MFA programs. And it’s not because anything and everything is a poem.

Another trustee, Ruth Padel, dropped back and punted a T.S. Eliot:

Ruth Padel, a prize-winning poet who used to be chair of trustees at The Poetry Society, added: ‘As for “what poetry is”: in The Use of Poetry TS Eliot said, “We learn what poetry is – if we ever learn – by reading it.”‘

Apparently, her prize-winningness doesn’t do well with definitions of poetry. Padel, in effect, is putting words into Eliot’s mouth. What Eliot meant and what Padel meant could have been two entirely different things. But we’ll never know because Eliot isn’t around to clarify (which is why you should always quote the dead). My own opinion is that Eliot’s quote doesn’t help her cause. The poetry that Eliot would have read and learned from didn’t  include the free verse of the 20th century (which he thought had gone too far). Rather, it included the very poetry that Gibson and QOS would consider… well… Poetry.

Michael Schmidt, whose “word things” Gibson and the Queen’s Snark refused to consider poetry, responded thusly:

Schmidt, professor of poetry at the University of Glasgow, argued that for centuries poets had added variations to patterns and rules. ‘It seems a primitive and even infantile notion that there are rules poetry must obey,’ said Schmidt, who accused the QES of placing poetry in a ‘straitjacket’. ‘Poetry that follows the rules too closely is bad poetry. I think every form of verse, free or metrical, establishes a pattern and plays on variations of it.’

To which one can only respond: “It seems an equally primitive and even infantile notion that there aren’t any rules poetry must obey.”

The Queen's English Society's Definition of Poetry?

The Queen's English Society's Definition of Poetry?

Of course, Schmidt immediately contradicts himself. (It’s hard to be consistent when you don’t have a definition.) He says: “Poetry that follows the rules too closely is bad poetry.”

Quoi?

That is, Schmidt admits that there are rules that should be obeyed, but not too closely. OK, so he thinks there are rules but they’re not really “rules”. But wait a minute, Schmidt then muddies the mud. He says that “every form of verse… establishes a pattern… and plays on it.” And just what pattern would that be? And is a “pattern” the same as a rule? And who decides on the pattern? It seems, once again, that a poem is whatever the author wants it to be. Hieronymus Bosch anyone?

So, where does that leave us?

My own feeling is that arguments about the definition of poetry are futile (but a great spectator sport). The term Poetry, during the last 100 years, has been applied to everything. In certain ways, the Poetry Society is correct (though not in their intended sense). The word Poetry is meaningless. It means whatever you want it to mean. I can understand how that would depress or enrage some connoisseurs of poetry and the English language. The word Poetry has caché. It’s got class. Everybody wants a piece of it and everybody got a piece of it. In the latest issue of Poetry, cartoon strips are now considered poems – albeit with the appellation conceptual.

A Subtle Truth…

You know how women poets resent being called women poets? – as if they were a subset of real poets (read men). If you really want to get under their skin, keep saying things like: “Yeah, she’s great for a woman-poet.” Well, the same thing works for writers of free-verse. If you really want to get under their skin, consistently refer to them as free verse poets, as though they were a subset of real poets (that is, poets who write rhyme and meter).

The subtle truth is that there is already a name for the “word things” that word thingers have been writing for the last century. It is called free verse. The next time you meet a word thinger who tells you that he or she writes poetry – ask whether they mean free verse or poetry. Keep a lawn chair close by. You’ll want to be comfortable.

Gibson should take comfort from the fact that the average reader makes a distinction, rightly or wrongly, between poetry and free verse. Ron Silliman has gone on at length railing at this subtle injustice (conspiracy). It’s one of the reasons why he futily attempts to break down poetry into schools. If he could just pull it off, then all schools of poetry would be on  equal footing. There wouldn’t be Poetry and/or free verse. There wouldn’t be Poetry and/or the avant-garde. One could point to any given poet and say (succinctly, beautifully and precisely) that he is a member of this or that school. Finally, all poets would be equal.

Poetry and/or Free Verse

But there’s a reason to distinguish between poetry and free verse poetry. As I wrote in a previous post, The Art of  Rhyme and Meter, poetry began as an oral tradition – and many free versifiers have studiously eschewed that tradition.

Consider Homer’s Odyssey. The original tale is probably far older than Homer and may have been handed down for centuries from one storyteller to the next. Each storyteller probably added details and expanded the story until, by the time Homer learned it, the epic was a real feat of memorization. And as every reader of Mother Goose knows, a ditty or poem that has a rhythm or rhyme is easier to remember than one that doesn’t. And the rhythm of the Odyssey is the  Dactylic Hexameter. The meter made the epic easier to remember.

But even before Homer, the tightly wound relationship between dance, music, rhythm and sound was demonstrated by recently discovered poems from ancient Egypt. National Geographic's Egyptian Poetry DiscoveryIn a book called The Ancient Egyptian Culture Revealed, Moustafa Gadalla writes:

The Egyptians perceived language and music as two sides of the same coin. Spoken, written, and musical composition follow the same exact patterns. Both poetry and singing followed similar rules for musical composition. Poetry is written not only with a rhyme scheme, but also with a recurring pattern of accented and unaccented syllables. Each syllable alternates between accented and unaccented, making a double/quadruple meter and several other varieties. Patterns of set rhythms or lengths of phrases of Ancient Egyptian poems, praises, hymns, and songs of all kinds, which are known to have been changed or performed with some musical accompaniment, were rhythmic with uniform meters and a structured rhyme. ¶ Ancient Egyptian texts show that Egyptians spoke and sang in musical patterns on all occasions and for all purposes–from the most sacred to the most mundane. [p. 155]

This oral tradition continued with the very first works of the Anglo Saxons, the alliteration of Beowulf, right up until the start of the 20th Century, when poets like Frost, Cummings, and Yeats, continued to imbue their poetry with the sounds and rhythms of its oral, storytelling ancestry.

Maybe its controversial to suggest that free verse is a new genre (only tangentially related to the poetry of the previous 2000 years), but the assertion isn’t to the detriment of free verse. Free verse practitioners have themselves, to varying degrees, deliberately avoided the traditional rhythms of a regular meter; have eschewed rhyme; have avoided alliteration; and whole schools have rejected techniques like metaphor. All these techniques grew out of an oral tradition – frequently, or so scholars think, as mnemonic aids or for musical accompaniment.

Free verse is the child of the 20th Century printing press (which isn’t to say that free verse can’t be read aloud and enjoyed as such). And it’s not to say that free verse doesn’t borrow techniques from the oral tradition, but free verse doesn’t do so systemically. (Poets, like William Carlos Williams, studiously avoided anything short of what he considered plain speech or plain English and the avant-garde is premised on the avoidance of anything that smacks of traditional poetry.) It was the explosive availability of the printed word that made the visual cues of free verse possible. Aurally, there is frequently nothing that distinguishes free verse from prose.  Cleave Poetry, for example, is defined by its visual appearance  (rather than any aural cues).

Free verse declares itself poetry on the page. (No listener could reconstruct the poem by ear.)

The poetry of rhyme and meter declares itself poetry in the listener’s ear. The roots of traditional poetry are in music, song and lyric. (The attentive listener could, with a good memory, reconstruct a poem’s shape.)

In short, free verse didn’t evolve from the poetry of the oral tradition, it replaced it.

But is Free Verse Poetry?

Yes, but it’s the poetry of the printed page. It’s a different genre.

If all the printed records of free verse were lost and if all we had were audio recordings, only a handful could ever hope to be reconstructed on the page (depending on how pointedly the poet paused after each line break). What traditionally distinguished poetry from prose was regular linguistic patterning, not length or subject matter. Without any kind of regular linguistic pattern, there is nothing to distinguish  free verse from a paragraph of prose. If free verse isn’t printed, the genre provides no clues as to how it should be lineated.

Put Paradise Lost into one long prosy paragraph, and I will relineate it exactly the way Milton intended. Do the same with any of Shakespeare’s sonnets and I, or any one familiar with the sonnet form, could put them back together.

So, if the Queen’s English Society really wants to pursue a beautiful and precise definition of poetry, let them start there.

Just give me time to get my lawn chair.

❧ September 15, 2009 from up in Vermont.

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13 responses

  1. Pingback: CALENDARS by annie finch « PoemShape

  2. Pingback: The Rhyme and Meter of Tang Poetry « PoemShape

  3. Hello Patrick,
    I am The Michael George Gibson of The True English (Poetry) Party and a member of The Queen’s English Society who has been stirring it up about the nature of poetry.There is a lot of muddle and nonsense out there, and many of the commentators on the Observer article and so forth muddle it up further. Please read my foundation document, ‘On English Poetry and Poems‘ and then start talking. It would be great fun to discuss these matters of formalism and so forth with you all.
    Best wishes,
    Michael Gibson

  4. Greetings!

    As author of PLUTONIC SONNETS, I of course am partial to formal verse; but at the other extreme, so to speak, I also am a bit of a fan of “found poems.” Here it does seem as if ordinary writing–a phrase broad enough to include not only prose but even perhaps the list of ingredients on an aspirin bottle–can become poetry by virtue of ebing declared and presented as such. Your aspirin bottle made me think of a list I posted three years ago on poetbay.com:

    Liquids, Gels, and/or Aerosols Found Poem, Thanksgiving 2006

    EFFECTIVE IMMEDIATELY
    By order of the Department of Homeland Security
    Transportation Security Administration

    THE FOLLOWING RESTRICTIONS APPLY TO
    LIQUIDS, GELS, AND/OR AEROSOLS
    AT THE PASSENGER SCREENING CHECKPOINT

    No
    liquids, gels, and/or aerosols
    are permitted EXCEPT one
    clear transparent resealable
    1 quart (1 liter) size plastic bag
    which may contain
    liquids, gels, and/or aerosols
    in containers of 3 oz. (90ml) capacity or less per container.

    The contents of the plastic bag must fit comfortably
    and the plastic bag must be completely closed/sealed
    and subjected to x-ray inspection
    separate from the passenger’s carry-on bag.

    You may have the items listed below,
    but you must declare them to TSA
    at the screening checkpoint
    if they are not contained in a
    clear transparent resealable
    1 quart (1 liter) size plastic bag
    and/or are over 3 oz. (90ml).

    -Baby formula/milk (to include breast milk)
    and baby food in containers
    if a baby or small child is traveling
    -Medications
    (liquids, gels, and/or aerosol)
    -Liquids (to include juice)
    or gels for diabetic or other medical needs

    All other
    liquids, gels, and/or aerosols
    may be transported in checked baggage.

    Liquids (including beverages), gels, and/or aerosols
    purchased in the sterile area
    may be carried onboard the aircraft.

    By Rob Graber
    Read 40 times
    Written 2006-11-23 03:15

    It seems to me still that introducing line breaks contrived to accentuate rhythmic, recurrent and otherwise impressive/dramatic/disturbing phrases makes this into “something like” a poem, so to speak…

    Have I spoken with tongue sufficiently forked–or, better, from both sides of my mouth?

    :-,?

    • : ) Yes, I’ve read other poems like these.

      Is it “poetry”? Debating the question is a great way to waste time. At the very least, it has nothing in common with traditional poetry – except its lineated appearance. It’s good for a lark.

      And no, your forkédness is insufficient. Let’s see you turn that into a Shakespearean Sonnet (or two).

  5. Pingback: Why do Poets write Iambic Pentameter? « PoemShape

  6. Hey, been getting back to reading through your blog more consistently now that the main portion of the holidays are through, and I continue to find intriguing, intellectually provocative posts all over this place, even from its beginning.

    We’ve talked about free verse being/not being poetry before, but I always have an ear-piercing, red-light flashing alarm going off in my head whenever I hear anyone say “but is A=B?” whenever it comes to any subject. I think I briefly mentioned this on our Amazon/Keats/Vendler discussion, but I want to refer you to Eliezer Yudkowsky’s magnificent “A Human’s Guide to Words:”

    http://wiki.lesswrong.com/wiki/A_Human%27s_Guide_to_Words

    Yudkowsky approaches words from the perspective of an AI Researcher, someone who has spent his life figuring out how the mind works and trying to replicate that in machines. His deconstruction of how the human brain uses words to categorize is superb and will, if read carefully, forever change how you view the function of language and labels.

    To avoid me simply saying “read through everything there and get back to me,” I’ll briefly spell out my opinion on the “free verse/poetry” debate using a lot of ideas Yudkowsky enlightened me to.

    The first major thing to realize is that poetry is not an objective “thing” out there in ether that we can just pluck down and grasp absolutely. As a label it is like all other labels in how arbitrary it is. We took objects that had a lot of elements and found them combined enough to ascribe a label to them, and that label was poetry. In going back to the “roots” of poetry you have shown how the musical aspects of language, its roots in song, eg, were amongst the earliest things that made the poetry label useful.

    The problem with such labels is that they tend to cover so many different aspects of different objects that when certain aspects changed (are absent, or others are added) we tend to only question whether or not a thing still belongs under the label, rather than diagnosing the components individually that have changed. So elements like metaphor, imagery, line-breaks, suggestiveness, etc. became more associated with poetry as it moved (or as associations of it moved) more towards lyric and away from epic. One might see a problem in that these elements are not unique to the classic conception of “poetry.”

    The way I see it there is a subtle shift over a long period of time where the classic conception of poetry comes to mean something closer to the modern idea of verse, while the other associative/additive aspects of poetry that weren’t innate to the original definition (metaphor, imagery, etc.) supplanted the original meaning. One thing I find fascinating about the early free verse practitioners is that they seemed to recognize the definitional pickle this put them in in terms of distinguishing poetry from prose. So I think in Whitman, Pound, Eliot, and WCR you see a lot of experimentation with elements like syntactic/rhetorical patterns and repetition (Whitman’s love of anaphora, eg) that attempts to find a “replacement” for classic meter.

    I remember in reading Terry Eagleton’s How to Read a Poem that he attempted to define poetry is “a literary work where the line breaks are chosen by the writer rather than the publishing house,” which I thought was somewhat clever but also indicative of the only unique bastion left for distinguishing “poetry” from prose, and you’re absolutely right in calling this a poetry of the printed page and not the ear. Although I would say it’s a different medium (slightly), rather than a different genre.

    But the same way that poetry (or, at least, our conception of poetry) has its varied and multitudinous associations that seem to crop up together frequently, so does prose, and what are those traits of prose? Well, you have associations like the non-fictional essay constructive of (usually) propositional sentences and evidential arguments, and you have fiction with its concentration on characters and events, and occasionally character thoughts and descriptive settings. But these are also arranged curiously like essays in their paragraphs and (usually) common syntactical structures, but maybe now there’s more variety of the types of structures and statements. I still think that most of what we associate with poetry, even modern free verse, is most commonly thought of as an abstraction of these elements with (typically) less emphasis on character, story, action, linearity, and more emphasis on tone, impression, imagery, etc. Again, it’s not that any of these aspects are innate to poetry or prose, but just it seems like they tend to find themselves more naturally and commonly associated with one or the other. It’s usually when you find an equal blend of these aspects that the classic definitions break down.

    Let me provide two good examples of that breakdown: I tend to find Pope and Dryden, despite their insistence and frequent mastery of classic pentameter and heroic couplets, frequently more prose-like than, say, James Joyce, especially in a work like Finnegans Wake. Pope’s “essays” have very little that’s commonly associated with poetry except meter and rhyme, and I think that’s what tempts people to call it “verse” rather than “poetry.” But then that would prompt the question: “when does verse become poetry?” You look at Finnegans Wake and its such a playground of language, sounds, rhythms, etc. that it has all the classical aspects of poetry except those we might call the “verse” of Pope. So is it really more prose-like in terms of what we normally associate with other prose works?

    I think there’s only one way to really answer that, and that’s to go back to my Yudkowskyan philosophy of semantics in relation to this issue. Allow me to paraphrase what he said about the debate over Pluto being a planet (in this article: http://lesswrong.com/lw/no/how_an_algorithm_feels_from_inside/): once we’ve determined if a literary work has meter, rhyme, rhetorical patterns, imagery, symbolism, figurative language, wordplay, soundplay, intentional line breaks, etc. then asking whether the work is poetry or prose doesn’t matter; we already know everything there is to know about it. All that anyone is doing after that is arguing how the “center unit ought to be wired up.”

    So we can say that Pope commonly utilizes–at least in his Essays–the propositional statements of non-fiction and meter/rhyme, while Joyce commonly utilizes wordplay, soundplay, distinct rhythms, linguistic abstraction, etc. but no meter. Once we know this it makes no sense to me, Yudkowsky, and “Network 2″ brain to ask whether either is poetry or prose. We’ve already reduced it to the core elements that we associate with both.

    • Hi Jonathan, you must know me by now. I like to keep things brief and to the point. Maybe one of the reasons my blog is so useful to students and readers is that I just have no interest in the long-winded academese that can swamp other poetry blogs — a result, I think, of an over-familiarity with critical schools that turns the study of poetry into the study of the study of poetry.

      //We’ve talked about free verse being/not being poetry before…//

      We have? I don’t remember; but I hope I’ve been consistent. I may be consistent in how I intend my arguments, but not always consistent in what language I use (something I need to be aware of). And that brings me to your comment that “Although I would say [free verse] is a different medium (slightly), rather than a different genre.” I’m not wedded to the term genre. Confusingly, it can refer both to a type of literature and a style (or medium) of writing. I was using it in both senses, I think. Wikipedia offers the following for genre:

      “kind” or “sort”, from Latin: genus (stem gener-), Greek: genos, γένος) is the term for any category of literature or other forms of art or culture, e.g. music, and in general, any type of discourse, whether written or spoken, audial or visual, based on some set of stylistic criteria.

      Epic, Lyric and Drama can all be forms of the genre Poetry but are also different sub-genres. It might have been better if I had written: “Maybe its controversial to suggest that free verse is a new sub-genre. But I’m already beginning to get twitchy and impatient. The debate as to whether free verse is poetry, to be honest, alternately exasperates and bores me. Poetry is a genre that has room for many different verse forms and even prose. I would say that Poetry is a type of literature and that “free verse” is a mode of writing within that type of literature. In that light, trying to distinguish between free verse and poetry is analogous to distinguishing between elephants and mammals.

      You might find an argument I had with another reader interesting, look here. A commenter, calling himself Uriah Drake, took extreme umbrage at my suggestion that there was no difference between prose and free verse (but for lineation). By the end of the debate, I realized he was trying to distinguish prose (as a genre) from poetry (as a genre) but, as I wrote, prose isn’t a genre, it’s a mode of writing. I treated free verse, in the context of that post, also as a mode of writing (indistinguishable from prose in the absence of line breaks).

      Anyway, I have a feeling that Yudkowsky would make me all twitchy and impatient. I don’t like reading studies of studies…

      //I think there’s only one way to really answer that, and that’s to go back to my Yudkowskyan philosophy of semantics//

      Yes, but if what you say is true, then he misses the forest for the trees. The difference between free verse and traditional poetry is simple – the difference between modes of writing. Traditional poetry stems from music, time signatures and stanzas, and that’s reflected in the use of meter and rhyme. Free verse doesn’t use these techniques. The only similarity between free verse and traditional poetry is the use of line breaks. However, in free verse, line breaks are arbitrary. If they’re not arbitrary, then it’s not free verse. Beyond that, free verse, as a mode of writing, is indistinguishable from prose. They both use rhetorical patterns, imagery, symbolism, figurative language, wordplay, and sound play.

      //asking whether the work is poetry or prose doesn’t matter; we already know everything there is to know about it.//

      Yes, but you’re making the wrong comparison. You are, in effect, writing:

      “…asking whether an animal is a mammal or a horse doesn’t matter; we already know everything there is to know about it.”

      That’s patently false, if not absurd. Prose can be poetry, as I pointed out to Uriah Drake (sending him on an epic and apoplectic tirade). I offered him a prose poem, but he dogmatically refused to admit that the poem was prose. The more interesting question concerns the relationship between traditional poetry, free verse and prose as modes of writing (and perhaps genres).

      //So we can say that Pope commonly utilizes–at least in his Essays–the propositional statements of non-fiction and meter/rhyme//

      The meter and rhyme makes Pope’s works traditional poetry.

      //…while Joyce commonly utilizes wordplay, soundplay, distinct rhythms, linguistic abstraction, etc. but no meter.//

      The absence of meter, rhyme and line breaks makes Joyce’s works prose (rather than verse). Simple is that. If you want to call them both poetic or even poetry, I don’t particularly care. That horse is out of the barn. The appellation poetry refers almost more to the affectation, than to anything concrete.

  7. I feel as if you’ve taken something I’ve said in the wrong way, because I don’t get the sense we’re on the same page. I think maybe that’s due to my recommendation of Yudkowsky. I should clarify:

    Yudkowsky is not a poet or critic or academic. He’s an AI researching turned philosophical blogger who writes about “the art of rationality” in relation to cognitive biases, epistemology, and Bayes’ Theory. My interest in rationality and psychology initially lead me to his site LessWrong, but being someone interested in language I was pleasantly surprised to find his sequence on words, which IS NOT about poetry AT ALL, it’s about how the human mind responds to language IN GENERAL. It’s not a “study of a study”.

    Simply put: it’s a “flaw” in our cognitive processes that causes these silly debates (in general) that results in your exasperation and boredom. They won’t end until we’re able to deconstruct where we’re going wrong when we ask questions like “Is A=B?”

    [[[Yes, but if what you say is true, then he misses the forest for the trees.]]]

    Yudkowsky promotes the science of reductionism in everything he does, and reductionism could be seen as the “the forest is nothing but the trees; everything else is our illusion/delusion of what it is” philosophy. I happen to agree with that.

    I also feel like you think I’m disagreeing with you where I’m not. I agree that all that separates free verse from prose, innately, is the the lineation. But I could just as easily say that the only thing that separates verse from prose is the meter. But in that case it does seem strange that with all this debate (not just here, but I mean in academia in general) there’s only one element that separates these three “modes” (or whatever you want to call them) from each other. I think there’s more to it than that.

    [[[Beyond that, free verse, as a mode of writing, is indistinguishable from prose. They both use rhetorical patterns, imagery, symbolism, figurative language, wordplay, and sound play. ]]]

    But this ignores the issue of whether these elements are used more frequently and given more import in works we typically call poetry or prose. That’s part of the crux of the issue in my mind. I mean, I really don’t know many prose writers that utilize all that much wordplay and soundplay (Joyce being one of the few major exceptions).

    Plus, I think you overlook the import of rhythm in free verse. If you don’t read anything else on the subject, check out Charles Hartman’s excellent (but brief) Free Verse: An Essay on Prosody. I also think you’d appreciate Derek Attridge’s Poetic Rhythm and Timothy Steele’s Missing Measures, which are more in line with your thinking on the subject (with some added thoughts).

    [[[Yes, but you’re making the wrong comparison. You are, in effect, writing:

    “…asking whether an animal is a mammal or a horse doesn’t matter; we already know everything there is to know about it.”

    That’s patently false, if not absurd.]]]

    The words “mammal” and “horse” denote very specific things about an external object. There are certain qualities both a mammal and a horse must possess in order to be a mammal or a horse. That’s one of the advantages of scientific language in that it DOES utilize reductionism, utilizing one term per one item, and adding onto them when new items/sub-items are discovered. Most brains don’t catch up so fast.

    If we recognize that in every work we call prose or every work we call poetry that there are a number of elements at work that may or may not be at work in others then I think it’s much more important we determine what elements are at work in each rather than fighting over whether a given work IS prose or IS poetry. If neither term can cogently refer to one (and one only) element then all they’re good for is to get extremely muddled like they have been. If poetry only “meant” “literary works written in meter” then there would be no problem, but do you really think that’s what most think of when they hear the word poetry? If you read someone a free-verse poem of Whitman do you really think they’d confuse it for prose?

    • //I feel as if you’ve taken something I’ve said in the wrong way…//

      That’s possible, although I wasn’t responding to Yudkowski in that first paragraph, about whom I know nothing, but more or less “thinking aloud” – warming up. I didn’t make that clear so your impression is understandable. I guess we just found a convoluted way to agree with each other. That first paragraph, as they say, was apropos to nothing.

      //Simply put: it’s a “flaw” in our cognitive processes that causes these silly debates…//

      Yes, I’ve just been looking at 37 Ways That Words Can Be Wrong. Interesting stuff.

      //I could just as easily say that the only thing that separates verse from prose is the meter…//

      …and/or rhyme, but yes, then you would be correct (in my opinion), inasmuch as we’re discussing modes of writing.

      //But in that case it does seem strange that with all this debate (not just here, but I mean in academia in general) there’s only one element that separates these three “modes” (or whatever you want to call them) from each other.//

      I’m limiting myself to “modes of writing” (or the “medium”, as you may be calling it?). That’s a strongly objective criteria. Is it written using meter or not? Period. End of discussion. (Ever heard of a free verse limerick?) Probably, once one goes searching for other criteria, like subject matter, length, use of metaphor, figurative language, etc., distinctions between the three genres can get muddled – unsurprisingly. I guess I just refuse to be drawn into the muddle. Those same academics would probably be as impatient with me as I am with them.

      //If poetry only “meant” “literary works written in meter” then there would be no problem, but do you really think that’s what most think of when they hear the word poetry?//

      No. When most people hear the word poetry, they probably conjure up something written, first and foremost, with line breaks.

      //If you read someone a free-verse poem of Whitman do you really think they’d confuse it for prose?//

      Absolutely. If a given person had never heard of Whitman, or knew that he was a poet, there would be no reason for him or her to think that they weren’t hearing prose. Whitman does nothing in his poetry that couldn’t be found in prose – just think of the Gettysburg Address. :-)

  8. I think we’re more or less on the same page, with just a few leftover quibbles. I do hope you’ll look through Yudkowsky’s Words Sequence. I haven’t been able to view language quite the same way since.

    [[[I’m limiting myself to “modes of writing” (or the “medium”, as you may be calling it?)… Probably, once one goes searching for other criteria… distinctions between the three genres can get muddled]]]

    The reason I said “medium” is because of you’re noting how there’s a strong aural component to metrical poetry. Medium usually refers to the physical thing that art is created through–music/sound; painting/oil, watercolors, et al; sculpture/marble, plastic, et al; movies/film or digital; etc. Well, sound is a different “medium” than the written page, which you stated that free-verse can only be poetry “on the page.” . I actually think that’s a perfect illustration of the difference, though I’m still not convinced that free verse can’t have distinct enough rhythms to mark itself as poetry aurally.

    FWIW, I don’t think people “go searching for other criteria.” It has more to do with how associations form in our mind automatically and unconsciously. Shakespeare’s Love’s Labor’s Lost is one of my favorite illustrations of this. There’s a scene I love in it where the dullard Costard is twice given money to do a deed, but each time the givers call the money under a different name that means the same thing and Costard says:

    “Gardon, O sweet gardon! better than remuneration,
    a’leven-pence farthing better: most sweet gardon! I
    will do it sir, in print. Gardon! Remuneration!”

    Well, the idea is that, to him, “guerdon” and “remuneration” mean two different things because when he was introduced to these words he was given different amounts of money. Even though WE know they mean the same thing. Yet, that’s one way mistakes form in our minds regarding words.

    Well, I think our brain works the same way when the same label is applied to different things. So if you hear that both free verse and verse is called “poetry” it provokes one to try and figure out what they have in common. In fact, even if you’re first and only introduced to poetry through verse you might not take away that the meter/rhyme is what makes it poetry, but rather the imagery, metaphor, etc. That’s very often how these debates start is that distinctly different things are “introduced” under the same label.

    I have the same problem with people who try to declare that, eg, 2001:A Space Odyssey isn’t a film because films have strong stories and characters. Well, that’s because every film they’ve seen has had strong stories and characters so they’ve taken those things to be the defining characteristic of the medium. They don’t seem to realize that film is just the art of moving pictures, and all moving pictures, even including the experimental films of Brakhage, Warhol, et al. are still films.

    [[[When most people hear the word poetry, they probably conjure up something written, first and foremost, with line breaks.]]]

    Maybe, but I think most would associate poetry more strongly with a strong focus on imagery, rhythm (not necessarily meter), suggestiveness, a lack of narrative/plot, etc. One of my earliest distinctions between poetry and prose was that poetry didn’t have stories. Of course, that was before I knew of epic and narrative poetry, but even then I still feel like that there’s a major difference between literary works that make narrative a key aspect of their being and lyric poetry which can often compose itself of nothing but imagery like To Autumn. And, really, I feel there’s a much larger difference between To Autumn and, say, The Iliad than there is between To Autumn and any prose with a strong emphasis on imagery/tone over characters/story.

    [[[If a given person had never heard of Whitman, or knew that he was a poet, there would be no reason for him or her to think that they weren’t hearing prose.]]]

    I’d love to turn this into a science experiment. As Yudkowsky stated in his Words Sequence in the Parable of Hemlock, we can argue over definitions all day, but when it comes to making empirical claims–will Socrates die if he drinks hemlock? Will people think Whitman is poetry if they’re read him not knowing that he’s a poet?–then the only real way to settle things is to actually test it.

    BTW, this is completely off-topic, what do you think about Auden, Merrill, and Herbert? I mention the first two because given your love for classic formal poetry I tend to think that they were the best practitioners of it in the 20th Century (I like Wilbur too, whom you’ve written about, but tend to think Auden and Merrill were a bit more–for lack of a better word–artistic, rather than JUST being technically proficient). I ask about Herbert because you’ve written quite a bit on Donne, but I’ve come to think that Herbert was just as good, maybe even better from a technical perspective.

  9. Pingback: On a Definition of Poetry « PoemShape

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