On a Definition of Poetry

“It’s Not Poetry if it Doesn’t Rhyme”

This is the title of a recent post I was reading, and it got me thinking. First of all, it’s a definition of poetry. It defines poetry as something that rhymes and if taken at face value, excludes almost all the works Shakespeare and Milton. They mainly wrote blank verse. More usually, readers who say this are using “rhyme” figuratively. What they’re really saying is that poetry without form on a definitionisn’t poetry. Form includes rhyme and meter. So, what someone is really saying is that free verse isn’t poetry. Apart from whether the definition is wrong or right, that led me to wonder why definitions are important.

Do definitions matter?

There’s no question that definitions change over time, but we nevertheless have them. Not too long ago, the definition of planets was revisited and Pluto was demoted to a proto-planet. There was disagreement, but not the kind we might have gotten had certain kinds of poetry or poems been demoted to proto-poems (though I think some should be).

But here’s why definitions matter: Without them, no one could excel. Mastery and achievement wouldn’t exist.  For example, if not for definitions, sports wouldn’t exist (let alone the Olympics), hence the reason for Robert Frost’s famous quip: Writing free on a definitionverse is like playing tennis with the net down. Every rule, in a sport, is a definition that defines the sport. Baseball is defined by its number of outs, bases, players, etc… Once one begins fiddling with the rules that define baseball, then it ceases to be baseball. If there were no rules to baseball, tennis, or basketball, then anyone could play them and everyone could make up their own rules and everyone could be a Babe Ruth or Michael Jordan. For my own part, the first thing I would do is to lower the basket so I could dunk the ball. I’d also make the basket a lot bigger — but only for me. I know I’ll make any number of enemies by following this up with the obvious analogy: There’s no difference between lowering the basket (or the net) and writing without rhyme. There’s no difference between giving yourself 12 outs, instead of 3, and writing without meter. Writing poetry without rhyme and meter is vastly easier. So is dunking a basketball when the hoop is only six feet off the ground. The fact that the NBA would never change the rules for all the wannabes means that the rest of us get to see who the real pros are.

Does that make some kinds of poetry better than others?

Does that mean that some things that are called poems, really aren’t?

Yes and yes. Would you prefer watching basketball with or without rules? Having rules that defined poetry allowed a wide variety of poets to excel. Games are nothing more than a defined way of playing and kids love games. Why? Because games give kids a chance to be better than the next kid. Rules give kids a chance to be competitive, to excel, to accomplish and to master.

on a definitionWhen I was growing up in the seventies, poetry was taught with a nebulousness that made clouds look decisive. Poetry was a feeling. There were no rules; and you can still find those Deep Thoughts right up to the present day. On About.Com, Mark Flanagan, apparently tasked with defining poetry, comes up with the following chestnut:

“…defining poetry is like grasping at the wind – once you catch it, it’s no longer wind.”

The end result of “deep thoughts” like these is that I lost interest in poetry. Who wants to play a game without rules? I decided that poetry was the dumbest art form on the planet. If I saw a game being played willy-nilly, I’d think the same thing. It’s a peculiar thing that the prior generation’s effort to make poetry something “anybody can do” ruined it for children like me. It was only when I began teaching myself about poetry that I learned the truth. There is a definition of poetry. It isn’t easy. You can’t neatly sum it up in a Miriam Webster’s entry, but there is a definition and there are rules. That’s when I got interested in poetry. First, I wanted to learn the rules. Next, I wanted play by the rules. I wanted to prove that I could do it. Next, I wanted to excel. I wanted to master the mystery. Even the seemingly diminutive haiku is defined by centuries of tradition.

Is a definition of poetry useful?

Some readers may object that poetry can’t be compared to sports. The point, however, is not to compare poetry to sports, but to compare a definition of poetry to the kinds of rules that define a sport, or music, or architecture or carpentry. If you don’t have a definition, then you don’t have a game. If you don’t have a game, then who’s going to watch or play?

Definitions, like rules, are useful because they give us a way to ascertain the skills of the players. They allow us to judge how the player is doing. mechanics-imageOne of the hallmarks of the contemporary poetry critic is his and her complete avoidance and non-discussion of the aesthetics or mechanics of poetry. The vast majority of contemporary criticism limits itself to the content of poetry. Why? Because, as with Flanagan’s quote above,  contemporary critics and poets have convinced themselves that defining poetry, to quote Flanagan again, “kind of leaves you feeling cheap, dirty, all hollow and empty inside like Chinese food.” However, in order to critique the mechanics/stylistics of a poem, you have to have a definition of poetry. Can’t be any other way.  And you have to have a definition of what constitutes mediocre or good writing.

During a dispute back in 2009, England’s Poetry Society offered the world this definition of poetry:

“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.”

In other words, poetry is anything you want it to be, and they do mean anything. Poetry Magazine, for its part, has taken to publishing comic strips, among other things, and calling them poems. What all this means is that if everyone can make up their own rules/definitions, then there’s no way to judge the skills of the poet or the accomplishments of the poem. If there were no rules in Basketball, then a player like Michael Jordan could never emerge. Or how about gymnastics? We would have no means or vocabulary with which to contrast the poor gymnast with the great gymnast. No Tiger Woods could emerge because everyone would be a Tiger Woods. They’re all playing their own special game of golf and the critic has no way to compare or contrast.

Without a definition of poetry, you can’t have criticism of poetry. In truth, you can’t even have poetry because if poetry is anything, then it’s also nothing. Or, as Syndrome put it in the movie The Incredibles: “If everyone’s a super, then no one is a super.” Anyone who can’t define poetry certainly shouldn’t be teaching it. What exactly would they be teaching? A definition of poetry is not only useful, it’s crucial. Individuals and organizations who fail or refuse to address a definition of poetry do a disservice to the reader, to poetry, and to the next generation of poets. Out of curiosity, I googled the following: “definition of poetry” “Poetry Foundation”. I found nothing straightforward. The fact that the Poetry Foundation, the premier (and self-appointed) curator of American Poetry doesn’t offer a definition of poetry (or even a denial that a definition is possible) is a disgrace.

What about it then?

Where can you find a definition? There are all kinds of quips and one-offs by a variety of poets.

Poetry is truth in its Sunday clothes. –  Joseph Roux

Poetry is what in a poem makes you laugh, cry, prickle, be silent, makes your toe nails twinkle, makes you want to d o this or that or nothing, makes you know that you are alone in the unknown world, that your bliss and suffering is forever shared and forever all your own. – Dylan Thomas

Poetry is, at bottom, a criticism of life. – Matthew Arnold

I could no more define poetry than a terrier can define a rat. – A.E. Housman

Poetry is the universal language which the heart holds with nature and itself. – William Hazlitt

Poetry is not only dream and vision; it is the skeleton architecture of our lives. It lays the foundations for a future of change, a bridge across our fears of what has never been before. – Audre Lorde

Poetry is all that is worth remembering in life. – William Hazlitt

A poet’s work is to name the unnameable, to point at frauds, to take sides, start arguments, shape the world, and stop it going to sleep. – Salman Rushdie

Poetry is like making a joke. If you get one word wrong at the end of the joke, you’ve lost the whole thing. – W.S. Merwin

Poetry is a way of taking life by the throat. – Robert Frost

Poetry is the record of the best and happiest moments of the happiest and best minds. – Perrcy Bysshe Shelley

At the touch of love everyone becomes a poet. – Plato

Poetry is a search for ways of communication; it must be conducted with openness, flexibility, and a constant readiness to listen. – Fleur Adcock

Do you know how poetry started? I always think that it started when a cave boy came running back to the cave, through the tall grass, shouting as he ran, “Wolf, wolf,” and there was no wolf. His baboon-like parents, great sticklers for the truth, gave him a hiding, no doubt, but poetry had been born—the tall story had been born in the tall grass. – Vladimir Nabokov

Poetry is man’s rebellion against being what he is. – James Branch Cabell

Poetry should surprise by a fine excess and not by singularity—it should strike the reader as a wording of his own highest thoughts, and appear almost a remembrance. – John Keats

All poetry is misrepresentation. – Jeremy Bentham

Poetry is plucking at the heartstrings, and making music with them. – Dennis Gabor

Poetry is not a turning loose of emotion, but an escape from emotion; it is not the expression of personality, but an escape from personality. But, of course, only those who have personality and emotions know what it means to want to escape from these things.   – T.S. Eliot

Poetry lifts the veil from the hidden beauty of the world, and makes familiar objects be as if they were not familiar. – Percy Bysshe Shelley

Poetry is at least an elegance and at most a revelation. – Robert Fitzgerald

The poem . . . is a little myth of man’s capacity of making life meaningful. And in the end, the poem is not a thing we see—it is, rather, a light by which we may see—and what we see is life.  – Robert Penn Warren

You can tear a poem apart to see what makes it tick . . .. You’re back with the mystery of having been moved by words. The best craftsmanship always leaves holes and gaps . . . so that something that is not in the poem can creep, crawl, flash or thunder in. – Dylan Thomas

Poetry is the language in which man explores his own amazement . . . says heaven and earth in one word . . . speaks of himself and his predicament as though for the first time. – Christopher Fry

Poetry isn’t a profession, it’s a way of life. It’s an empty basket; you put your life into it and make something out of that. – Mary Oliver

Writing poetry is the hard manual labor of the imagination. – Ishmael Reed

Most people ignore most poetry because most poetry ignores most people. – Adrian Mitchell

Prose—it might be speculated—is discourse; poetry ellipsis. Prose is spoken aloud; poetry overheard. The one is presumably articulate and social, a shared language, the voice of “communication”; the other is private, allusive, teasing, sly, idiosyncratic as the spider’s delicate web, a kind of witchcraft unfathomable to ordinary minds. – Joyce Carol Oates

Poetry is the journal of the sea animal living on land, wanting to fly in the air. Poetry is a search for syllables to shoot at the barriers of the unknown and the unknowable. Poetry is a phantom script telling how rainbows are made and why they go away. – Carl Sandburg

Poetry is the breath and finer spirit of all knowledge. – William Wordsworth

Poetry is a deal of joy and pain and wonder, with a dash of the dictionary. – Kahlil Gibran

Poetry is like fish: if it’s fresh, it’s good; if it’s stale, it’s bad; and if you’re not certain, try it on the cat. – Osbert Sitwell

The essentials of poetry are rhythm, dance, and the human voice. – Earle Birney

Poetry is thoughts that breathe, and words that burn. – Thomas Gray

Poetry is ordinary language raised to the n th power. Poetry is boned with ideas, nerved and blooded with emotions, all held together by the delicate, tough skin of words. – Paul Engle

Poetry is the rhythmical creation of beauty in words.  – Edgar Allan Poe

Poetry: the best words in the best order. – Samuel Taylor Coleridge

Poetry is what gets lost in translation. – Robert Frost 

on a definition

And there are far more at goodreads. You might think  there’s nothing very useful in all these quotes, just poets being cute and clever, but there is, actually, a subtle commonality that runs through some of them.  “Poetry is truth in its Sunday clothes.” What does Roux mean? That poetry isn’t just the clothes of the workaday, but language that is elevated whether through meter, rhyme or the figures and schema of rhetoric (and these include metaphor, simile, and all figurative language).  Hazlitt, “…the universal language…”; Keats, “Poetry should surprise by a fine excess [and] strike the reader as a wording of his own highest thoughts…”; Thomas, “You’re back with the mystery of having been moved by words…“; Fry, “…the language in which man explores his own amazement…”; Oates, “…private, allusive, teasing, sly, idiosyncratic as the spider’s delicate web…”; Sandburg, “…a search for syllables…”; Birney, “The essentials… are rhythm, dance…“; Engle, “Poetry is ordinary language raised to the n th power…”; Poe, “the rhythmical creation of beauty in words…”; Coleridge, “the best words in the best order…“; Frost, “what gets lost in translation…”

What all these have in common is the idea of poetry being defined as a way of using language. Poetry is an art that uses language not only for its semantic content, as a way to communicate, but as an aesthetic experience in and of itself — its “music”: sounds, rhythms, onomatopoeia, assonance, alliteration, and rhymes . Rhyme and meter are the most extroverted expressions, a display of a languages ability to produce repeated sounds and rhythm while the many rhetorical figures, such as simile, hendiadys, anthimeria, puns  and verbal metaphor (and figurative language in general) are a more introverted play with language – using words to express ideas that are unexpected and novel. Prose, inasmuch as it also uses these techniques, can be poetic, but the aesthetic aims of prose and poetry are different.

Think of Robert Frost’s final quote, which I deliberately put at the end: Poetry is what gets lost in translation. Because of poetry’s emphasis on linguistic play, poetry is notoriously difficult to translate. Something as basic as a pun, a staple of many haiku, is lost  unless both languages are lucky enough to share puns. The wholesale disregard of rhymes, internal or otherwise, when translating  into free verse is another example. on a definitionMeter is much easier to reproduce, but does any English meter really reproduce the music of Chinese meter or Latin quantitative meter? How about onomatopoeia, alliteration or assonance? These are all essential to poetry, but are nearly impossible to capture, altogether, when moving from one language to another. Poetry truly is what  gets lost in translation.

So many writers, poets and organizations seem pathologically afraid to exclude anyone. But rather than doing the art form a favor, their unwillingness to exclude so much as the ingredients list of Mac & Cheese has done and continues to denigrate the very art form they claim to cherish and encourage. I personally have no qualms drawing a line in the sand. If all a writer is doing is lineating prose, then it’s not poetry or, at best, it’s bad poetry.  If the writer does nothing more with language than what I expect from an IRS instruction manual, then it’s not poetry. Content, in my view, is secondary; and that will probably rub a lot of poets and readers the wrong way but unlike, at least, the public stance of numerous poets and organizations, I think it’s worth having some idea, some rules, that define what poetry, and great poetry, truly is. It gives the next generation something to fight for or against.

To quote Salman Rushdie again:

A poet’s work is to name the unnameable, to point at frauds, to take sides, start arguments, shape the world, and stop it going to sleep.

Take a position. Define poetry. Write by that definition. It doesn’t have to be mine. Don’t, whatever you do, buy into the bloodless notion that anything and everything is poetry. Poetry isn’t like the wind. As any Japanese poet will unhesitatingly tell you, the wind is like the wind.

Britannica and a definition of Poetry

There are a few sources which have tackled the definition of poetry. I’ve appended a definition provided by Poetry.Org. Their definition was originally copied from Wikipedia (since changed). Wikipedia’s current entry is less a definition than a historical overview. However, one of the more interesting entries is Britannica’s.

on a definition

Britannica’s entry on poetry begins with a primal scream of terror presented with a stiff upper lip. Only the British can do it. The article’s author writes: “This article considers the difficulty or impossibility of defining poetry…” As anyone knows, there are two reactions when terrified—fight or flight. Britannica opts to fight. The editors begin their definition by roundly upbraiding the reader. Did you really come to Britannica expecting a definition?

“People’s reason for wanting a definition is to take care of the borderline case, and this is what a definition, as if by definition, will not do. That is, if a man asks for a definition of poetry, it will most certainly not be the case that he has never seen one of the objects called poems that are said to embody poetry; on the contrary, he is already tolerably certain what poetry in the main is, and his reason for wanting a definition is either that his certainty has been challenged by someone else or that he wants to take care of a possible or seeming exception to it: hence the perennial squabble about distinguishing poetry from prose, which is rather like distinguishing rain from snow—everyone is reasonably capable of doing so…”

Did you get that? Let me translate: “If you came to the Encyclopedia Britannica looking for a definition of poetry, it’s because you have an agenda and the august editors of Britannica will not, I say will not,  be a party to your filthy crusade. So there.” Apparently, the author of the article never got the memo: Definitions are what Encyclopedia’s do. Encyclopedias aren’t supposed to cop attitudes when readers come looking for information.

Britannica next offers a rebuttal to Frost’s quip that poetry is what is lost in translation:

“And yet to even so acute a definition the obvious exception is a startling and a formidable one: some of the greatest poetry in the world is in the Authorized Version of the Bible, which is not only a translation but also, as to its appearance in print, identifiable neither with verse nor with prose in English but rather with a cadence owing something to both.”

So, after having informed the reader that no definition will be forthcoming, the editors (without a hint of irony) assert that the Bible (or an unspecified part therein) is poetry. All it takes, it seems, are a few thees and thous. What the editors apparently fail to consider is that the “poetry” of the King James Bible may not be the “poetry” of the original. The King James Version, in fact, was not a new translation done from scratch, but a revision of The Bishop’s Bible 1568 and the Tyndale’s New Testament of 1526 among others. Besides that, there is considerable dispute as to the faithfulness of the King James Bible.  It’s quite likely that the King James Bible is better and more poetic, written during the glory of Elizabethan poetry, than the original. It might be more accurate to call the King James Bible a transliteration rather than a translation. Bottom line: try translating the King James back into Greek and then we’ll talk.

Britannica then follows this up with a curious revelation:

“When people are presented with a series of passages drawn indifferently from poems and stories but all printed as prose, they will show a dominant inclination to identify everything they possibly can as prose.”

How this is relevant to a definition of poetry isn’t exactly clear.  For example, when people are presented with passages of iambic pentameter, they regularly misread it (see Iambic Pentameter from Shakespeare to Browning), reading it like prose. Are we therefore to conclude that there’s no difference between blank verse and prose? Both studies probably say more about the “people” than about poetry or iambic pentameter.

Even so, despite the opening disclaimers, provisos and exculpatory cautions, Britannica sides with Justice Potter Stewart (Jacobellis v. Ohio), when it essentially uses the obscenity test (or was it pornography?) to define poetry. To whit: “We know it when we see it.” The editors of Britannica therewith offer up there choice piece of “pornography”:

“Happily, if poetry is almost impossible to define, it is extremely easy to recognize in experience; even untutored children are rarely in doubt about it when it appears:

Little Jack Jingle,
He used to live single,
But when he got tired of this kind of life,
He left off being single, and liv’d with his wife.”

on a definitionImmediately following this, the editors finally reveal their true colors:

“It might be objected that this little verse is not of sufficient import and weight to serve as an exemplar for poetry. It ought to be remembered, though, that it has given people pleasure so that they continued to say it until and after it was written down, nearly two centuries ago. The verse has survived, and its survival has something to do with pleasure, with delight; and while it still lives, how many more imposing works of language—epic poems, books of science, philosophy, theology—have gone down, deservedly or not, into dust and silence. It has, obviously, a form, an arrangement of sounds in relation to thoughts that somehow makes its agreeable nonsense closed, complete, and decisive. But this somewhat muddled matter of form deserves a heading and an instance all to itself.”

I couldn’t have said it better. Not only that, you might recognize a common theme: “It has, obviously, a form, an arrangement of sounds in relation to thoughts…” There it is again — language (and form too). This little ditty is a poem because of its language, because of the way it exploits language, not for its notional and semantic content (which is nonsensical), but for the language’s aesthetic properties — the rhyme (parallel sounds) and the meter (accentual). Poetry exploits the properties of language (independent of the poem’s content) to inform and elevate the semantic content. This is what distinguishes  poetry from prose. This, traditionally, has been poetry’s reason for being. Prose may be poetic, and display some of the same techniques as poetry (though never end-rhyme or refrains), but that is not its aim or reason for being.

How much should we expect definitions to change?

My guess is that if any objection is to be made, it’s that definitions change. Get used to it. Okay, but then what is it now?

It used to be that if it didn’t rhyme, it wasn’t poetry. If rhyme is understood in its broadest figurative sense (in the sense of a work of literature concerned not just with the content but with the aesthetics of language itself), then I’m still inclined to agree. I’m not willing to concede that on a definitionanything and everything is or can be a poem. Either that, or I’m content to call the uncooperative poem a bad poem or, if we want to be trendy, a proto-poem— a minor and lonely object that’s kind of interesting but didn’t quite have enough material to become a full blown poem.  In fact, I’m really liking that term.

I think it’s okay that we hew to an understanding of poetry that has worked for hundreds and thousands of years, the nervous self-indulgence of the twentieth century notwithstanding. And we can change our definition of “rhyme”, in its figurative sense, to include the figurative language available to free verse — assonance, alliteration, and all the rhetoric that has always been more common to poetry than prose. The poetry of Allen Ginsberg is chock-full of rhetorical figures and schema, lest you think that rhetoric only applies to fusty medieval manuscripts (and Walt Whitman’s poetry too). I’d be willing to say that Ginsberg’s poetry, figuratively speaking, has got “rhyme”.

Anyway, the next time somebody is having their kumbaya moment, proclaiming that poetry is like the wind, or a butterfly or that a definition would crush the delicate flower that is poetry, you can come back to this post for a draught of bitter.

Poetry is hard as hell.

From Poetry.Org

Poetry (ancient Greek: ποιεω (poieo) = I create) is an art form in which human language is used for its aesthetic qualities in addition to, or instead of, its notional and semantic content. It consists largely of oral or literary works in which language is used in a manner that is felt by its user and audience to differ from ordinary prose.

It may use condensed or compressed form to convey emotion or ideas to the reader’s or listener’s mind or ear; it may also use devices such as assonance and repetition to achieve musical or incantatory effects. Poems frequently rely for their effect on imagery, word association, and the musical qualities of the language used. The interactive layering of all these effects to generate meaning is what marks poetry.

Because of its nature of emphasising linguistic form rather than using language purely for its content, poetry is notoriously difficult to translate from one language into another: a possible exception to this might be the Hebrew Psalms, where the beauty is found more in the balance of ideas than in specific vocabulary. In most poetry, it is the connotations and the “baggage” that words carry (the weight of words) that are most important. These shades and nuances of meaning can be difficult to interpret and can cause different readers to “hear” a particular piece of poetry differently. While there are reasonable interpretations, there can never be a definitive interpretation.

Nature of poetry

Poetry can be differentiated most of the time from prose, which is language meant to convey meaning in a more expansive and less condensed way, frequently using more complete logical or narrative structures than poetry does. This does not necessarily imply that poetry is illogical, but rather that poetry is often created from the need to escape the logical, as well as expressing feelings and other expressions in a tight, condensed manner. English Romantic poet John Keats termed this escape from logic Negative Capability. A further complication is that prose poetry combines the characteristics of poetry with the superficial appearance of prose, such as in Robert Frost’s poem, “Home Burial.” Other forms include narrative poetry and dramatic poetry, both of which are used to tell stories and so resemble novels and plays. However, both these forms of poetry use the specific features of verse composition to make these stories more memorable or to enhance them in some way.

What is generally accepted as “great” poetry is debatable in many cases. “Great” poetry usually follows the characteristics listed above, but it is also set apart by its complexity and sophistication. “Great” poetry generally captures images vividly and in an original, refreshing way, while weaving together an intricate combination of elements like theme tension, complex emotion, and profound reflective thought. For examples of what is considered “great” poetry, visit the Pulitzer prize and Nobel prize sections for poetry.

The Greek verb ποιεω [poiéo (= I make or create)], gave rise to three words: ποιητης [poiet?s (= the one who creates)], ποιησις [poíesis (= the act of creation)] and ποιημα [poíema (= the thing created)]. From these we get three English words: poet (the creator), poesy (the creation) and poem (the created). A poet is therefore one who creates and poetry is what the poet creates. The underlying concept of the poet as creator is not uncommon. For example, in Anglo-Saxon a poet is a scop (shaper or maker) and in Scots makar.

Sound in poetry

Perhaps the most vital element of sound in poetry is rhythm. Often the rhythm of each line is arranged in a particular meter. Different types of meter played key roles in Classical, Early European, Eastern and Modern poetry. In the case of free verse, the rhythm of lines is often organized into looser units of cadence.

Poetry in English and other modern European languages often uses rhyme. Rhyme at the end of lines is the basis of a number of common poetic forms, such as ballads, sonnets and rhyming couplets. However, the use of rhyme is not universal. Much modern poetry, for example, avoids traditional rhyme schemes. Furthermore, Classical Greek and Latin poetry did not use rhyme. In fact, rhyme did not enter European poetry at all until the High Middle Ages, when it was adopted from the Arabic language. The Arabs have always used rhymes extensively, most notably in their long, rhyming qasidas. Some classical poetry forms, such as Venpa of the Tamil language, had rigid grammars (to the point that they could be expressed as a context-free grammar), which ensured a rhythm.

Alliteration played a key role in structuring early Germanic and English forms of poetry (called alliterative verse), akin to the role of rhyme in later European poetry. The alliterative patterns of early Germanic poetry and the rhyme schemes of Modern European poetry alike both include meter as a key part of their structure, which determines when the listener expects instances of rhyme or alliteration to occur. In this sense, both alliteration and rhyme, when used in poetic structures, help to emphasise and define a rhythmic pattern. By contrast, the chief device of Biblical poetry in ancient Hebrew was parallelism, a rhetorical structure in which successive lines reflected each other in grammatical structure, sound structure, notional content, or all three; a verse form that lent itself to antiphonal or call- and-response performance.

In addition to the forms of rhyme, alliteration and rhythm that structure much poetry, sound plays a more subtle role in even free verse poetry in creating pleasing, varied patterns and emphasising or sometimes even illustrating semantic elements of the poem. Devices such as alliteration, assonance, consonance, dissonance and internal rhyme are among the ways poets use sound. Euphony refers to the musical, flowing quality of words arranged in an aesthetically pleasing way.

Poetry and form

Compared with prose, poetry depends less on the linguistic units of sentences and paragraphs, and more on units of organisation that are purely poetic. The typical structural elements are the line, couplet, strophe, stanza, and verse paragraph.

Lines may be self-contained units of sense, as in the well-known lines from William Shakespeare’s Hamlet:

To be, or not to be: that is the question.

Alternatively a line may end in mid-phrase or sentence:

Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer

this linguistic unit is completed in the next line,

The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune.

This technique is called enjambment, and is used to create a sense of expectation in the reader and/or to add a dynamic to the movement of the verse.

In many instances, the effectiveness of a poem derives from the tension between the use of linguistic and formal units. With the advent of printing, poets gained greater control over the visual presentation of their work. As a result, the use of these formal elements, and of the white space they help create, became an important part of the poet’s toolbox. Modernist poetry tends to take this to an extreme, with the placement of individual lines or groups of lines on the page forming an integral part of the poem’s composition. In its most extreme form, this leads to the writing of concrete poetry.

Poetry and rhetoric

Rhetorical devices such as simile and metaphor are frequently used in poetry. Indeed, Aristotle wrote in his Poetics that “the greatest thing by far is to be a master of metaphor”. However, particularly since the rise of Modernism, some poets have opted for reduced use of these devices, preferring rather to attempt the direct presentation of things and experiences. Other 20th-century poets, however, particularly the surrealists, have pushed rhetorical devices to their limits, making frequent use of catachresis.

History of poetry

Poetry as an art form predates literacy. In preliterate societies, poetry was frequently employed as a means of recording oral history, storytelling (epic poetry), genealogy, law and other forms of expression or knowledge that modern societies might expect to be handled in prose. The Ramayana, a Sanskrit epic which includes poetry, was probably written in the 3rd century BCE in a language described by William Jones as “more perfect than Latin, more copious than Greek and more exquisitely refined than either.” Poetry is also often closely identified with liturgy in these societies, as the formal nature of poetry makes it easier to remember priestly incantations or prophecies. The greater part of the world’s sacred scriptures are made up of poetry rather than prose.

The use of verse to transmit cultural information continues today. Many English speaking–Americans know that “in 1492, Columbus sailed the ocean blue”. An alphabet song teaches the names and order of the letters of the alphabet; another jingle states the lengths and names of the months in the Gregorian calendar. Preliterate societies, lacking the means to write down important cultural information, use similar methods to preserve it.

Some writers believe that poetry has its origins in song. Most of the characteristics that distinguish it from other forms of utterance—rhythm, rhyme, compression, intensity of feeling, the use of refrains—appear to have come about from efforts to fit words to musical forms. However, in the European tradition the earliest surviving poems, the Homeric and Hesiodic epics, identify themselves as poems to be recited or chanted to a musical accompaniment rather than as pure song. Another interpretation, developed from 20th-century studies of living Montenegran epic reciters by Milman Parry and others, is that rhythm, refrains, and kennings are essentially paratactic devices that enable the reciter to reconstruct the poem from memory.

In preliterate societies, all these forms of poetry were composed for, and sometimes during, performance. As such, there was a certain degree of fluidity to the exact wording of poems, given this could change from one performance or performer to another. The introduction of writing tended to fix the content of a poem to the version that happened to be written down and survive. Written composition also meant that poets began to compose not for an audience that was sitting in front of them but for an absent reader. Later, the invention of printing tended to accelerate these trends. Poets were now writing more for the eye than for the ear.

The development of literacy gave rise to more personal, shorter poems intended to be sung. These are called lyrics, which derives from the Greek lura or lyre, the instrument that was used to accompany the performance of Greek lyrics from about the seventh century BCE onward. The Greek’s practice of singing hymns in large choruses gave rise in the sixth century BCE to dramatic verse, and to the practice of writing poetic plays for performance in their theatres.

In more recent times, the introduction of electronic media and the rise of the poetry reading have led to a resurgence of performance poetry and have resulted in a situation where poetry for the eye and poetry for the ear coexist, sometimes in the same poem. The late 20th-century rise of the singer-songwriter and Rap culture and the increase in popularity of Slam poetry have led to a renewed debate as to the nature of poetry that can be crudely characterised as a split between the academic and popular views. As of 2005, this debate is ongoing with no immediate prospect of a resolution.

Love poems proliferate now, in weblogs and personal pages, as a new way of expression and liberty of hearts, “I have won many female relations with this valid resource”, has said a contemporaneus writer called Federic P. Sabeloteur.

65 responses

  1. When they mentioned the Bible, the first thought that came to mind is the book Song of Songs. It’s considered Hebrew poetry. Now as to whether its good poetry or not, who knows. It’s certainly bad in English though lol Then again, from the English standpoint, it looks a lot like your proto-poetry. Perhaps that is why it is one of the greatest kinds of poetry in the world? ;)

    • //Perhaps that is why it is one of the greatest kinds of poetry in the world? ;)//

      That depends on who you ask.

      Biblical scholarship can’t even agree on whether the Song of Songs is a single work or a collection of vignettes. It’s extremely unlikely that the translators of the King James Bible would have considered the Song of Songs “a poem”. In Elizabethan times, writers took as much pride in their skill with prose as with poetry (John Lily and his Euphues). They wouldn’t have felt the need to identify The Song of Songs as a poem, and probably would have disagreed (its value no less prized for being prose).

      I’m not sure when The Song of Songs was first called “a poem”, but as a historical matter, calling it that may or may not be accurate. Whatever it originally was, it has come down to us as a beautiful work of prose. However, in the last century or so, we’ve gotten to calling anything “poetic” — La! — a poem. At best, calling the Song of Songs a poem is a quaint anachronism. The truth of the matter is that we don’t know. The Song of Songs may not even have been Hebraic, originally. That is, the Hebraic version could itself be a translation.

      If someone wants to call the Song of Songs the greatest kind of poetry in the world, why not call the entire Bible the greatest kind of poetry in the world? Some do… And then there is the whole question of translations.

      Ultimately, the work that everyone calls the “The Song of Songs” is a translation (not the original). Some are poetry. Some are prose. It all depends on who does the translating. :-)

  2. I followed much of what you wrote, but when the Britannica example came in, I got flummoxed and it occurred to me that defining “poetry” and defining a “poem” are two different tasks.

    It’s comparable to defining “sports” versus defining “basketball.” The former is important for distinguishing one set of things from another set of things. The latter is important for distinguishing one item from another item that are both (potentially) of the same set. And one item can belong to more than one set (basketball is both a sport and a business, for example).

    Basketball is not chess, but both (officially) are sports. Prose poems are not metrical poems, but both (arguably) are poetry. The Rules of Sports do not make basketball basketball. Nor do the Rules of Poetry make a poem a poem. Basketball helps define “sports” just as each poem helps define “poetry.” The set of rules and definitions enlarges with each new instance.

    How do we know what set we’re playing in?

    We choose.

    And we know (even if we don’t accept it) that others might not agree with our choices. That’s how new types of sports (and poems) are invented and adopted and adapted and refined.

    Talk to anyone who fervently believes that chess (or, say, auto racing) is a sport, and you might see sports very differently than you do now. Poetry’s no different.

    • That occurred to me, but I think the division you’re thinking of is better made between literature and poetry.

      In other words, sports is to literature as basketball is to poetry. Basketball and gynmastics are both sports just as short stories and poetry are both literature. The definitions of poetry and a poem don’t support a division, as you suggest, into two different tasks. The term poetry, after all, is more or less the plural form of poem and a noun that refers to the making of poems (or, as the dictionary puts it: a term referring to poems collectively). It’s just a quirk of language that we don’t, for instance, say that someone writes noveltry. I, a carpenter, do carpentry. I, a poet, do poetry. If I were a puppeteer, I would do puppetry.

      As to the comparison with chess and auto racing, the real comparison is between subsets of literature. Comic books or comic strips, for example, might be compared to chess and auto-racing. Plenty of folks debate whether the comic strip really deserves to be called literature. Once one starts diluting the definitions of poetry or the poem, then these terms loose their meaning.

  3. And down the rabbit hole of literal and figurative meanings we go…

    Categories aside, my larger point is: Writing a poem is an imaginative act closer in nature to a child’s game of “finding what will suffice” (to quote Stevens) than to a set game like basketball. The rules are always arbitrary and only seem inevitable after the fact.

    • Thanks Steven. I guess I’m not seeing the rabbit hole. All analogies only go so far. While the rules of basketball are finite, like the Japanese game of Go, the play of a great player is as much an imaginative act as the making of a great poem.

      I also resist the commonplace that the rules are arbitrary. If that were the case, then we wouldn’t be able to teach poetry and we wouldn’t be able to recognize or distinguish poetry from other forms of literature. This blog wouldn’t be possible. If we can recognize poetry after the fact, we can define it before the fact. That, after all, is precisely what great poets do (and all great artists for that matter), when they sit down to create a poem or poetry.

  4. I’ve been following your blog for a little while now. Maybe a year. Possibly two. I stumbled across it when I was researching content for a poem, this much I remember for certain. But I don’t remember which poem or what I was researching. I do remember, however, being instantly impressed with whatever it was I came across and deciding to follow your blog on the spot.

    This post here is by far your finest. By far your finest among those I’ve read. Thank you for this.

    I discovered poetry when I was 12. At the time I was living in a residential home for extremely troubled youth. Such was the nature of my childhood that my psyche was fragmented to bits, and the cocktail of drugs I was given didn’t help. I could not hold my thoughts together. I could not communicate. I saw reality in every unreality, and vice versa. I was riddled with fears, doubts, and mental torments. I was this thing these people think of as “the wind”, without form, without coherence, without a present, and without a future.

    What changed all this was stumbling across a book of poetry. Not the absolute chaos thought of as poetry today, but actual poems. This book was “The Best Loved Poetry of the American People” published, if I recall correctly, by Doubleday. There was something about the structure of these bits of writing that managed to make it through my fragmented thought process. And over time this steered the course of my life away from the great block of ice I had no idea was in front of me. It very likely saved my life.

    There’s a lot more I could say. It’s been a long and arduous journey for me. But for the past 13 years I’ve been trying to study and write poetry as a way to give back to the spirit of this thing that saved me from utter disaster so long ago. During this process, I came to develop my own understanding of this art form. In the end I found myself developing my own prosody, for my own uses, and elaborating from there. The process is still ongoing. In the end, some years back now, I decided that I would write both free verse and structured poetry. I have two categories of free verse, actually, which are “symmetrical” and “asymmetrical”, the latter being truly “free” in modern, hippie, “just say what you feel, man” sense of the word. The former being free only in the sense that there the structure is not currently defined as an existing form.

    Anyway, to put an end to my rambling. I’ll just say that I agree with you completely. Maybe you would be willing to follow my blog as well. I’m not currently attempting to get published because structured poetry horrifies postmodern editors. But it would mean something to me to have a pair of eyes such as yours checking out new posts as they arrive.


    Again, thank you for posting this. What you’ve done here is a credit to the art and much needed.

    • Hi Erin, thanks for the comment. Given that blogger wasn’t launched until 1999. how did you date your earliest post to 1992? Does blogger let you do that?

      You’re quite a skilled poet in meter and rhyme and I’d be glad to follow your blog. I’m not much of a correspondent though, and don’t be disappointed. I get way too absorbed in my own projects. Anyway, I meant to leave a comment at your blog, but I get too impatient with Disques asking me to jump through all sorts of hoops. It’s just another way for Google to track ones every word, and that begins to rub me the wrong way.

    • Yes, Blogger lets you back-date posts. One of the reasons I really like it, because I can organize my posts relative to when the poems were actually written.

      As to Disqus. You’ll find that as soon as you click in the text field to make a comment, you are given the option to sign in via Facebook, Disqus, a couple other options–Or the option to just “pick a name” and enter an email (email can be gibberish, like abcd@efgh.com). Then when your comment is finished, just hit the little right facing arrow button. Not sure why it’s a right facing arrow and not a “send” button. Maybe to mislead the spam-bots.

      As to my skill in meter and “rhyme” (I use a lot of alternatives to rhyme, actually), you might find it interesting to spot-read over the course of the past 12 years–Maybe two pieces per year. You’ll see a definite evolution on this regard, going from bad, to worse, to better, to where I am today. I think, however, that my “skill” is more the willingness to take whatever time is necessary to bring a poem’s content to life within the confines of a given structure than it is to do with real skill. :) And, time it takes. Much time.

  5. A good article, Patrick, with much I agree with and much I disagree with. To start with the former, we’re essentially in agreement with our personal definitions (I’d prefer to say “standards”) of poetry being, as I once tried to put it aphoristically, the art of not seeing through language (ie, not making language transparent and subservient to semantics/meaning, as in most prose). Whether that art takes form via rhyme, meter. sound, imagery, line-breaks, or even form itself, it’s all about reasserting the power of language as something in conjunction with, rather than as a passive vehicle for, meaning. On the other hand, I do view that more as a standard as opposed to a definition; meaning that I think there’s a lot of works that I’d call “poetry” that don’t achieve that standard and are, thus, bad poetry as opposed to not poetry.

    If I were trying to define poetry to begin with, I’d think it easiest to define poetry as any linguistic work that’s simply not prose, since prose is prettily easily defined. However, I’m not trying to define poetry because the entire issue starts off on the wrong foot, as do all such discussions/debates about defining words. Ever since reading Yudkowsky’s A Human’s Guide to Words (http://wiki.lesswrong.com/wiki/A_Human%27s_Guide_to_Words) all I can do is hear echoes of those posts in my head every time definitions on any subject come up. That guide pretty much explains what’s wrong with the whole endeavor from the outset, and though I’m loath to try and explain it all by myself, I’ll try my best (while being as succinct as is possible).

    Before getting to the words/definitions issue, I have to mention the sports/poetry analogy, which I feel is plain misguided because the purpose/goals of sports and art, in general, are too different to compare them. Rules in sports must come a priori or no game is possible; however, I’m pretty sure man was creating art long before they had words for what to call what they were doing, much less rules/standards. One can also contrast sports and art by recognizing how greatness is measured; in sports, as you say, it’s measured by how well one succeeds within the limits/rules of a game, so we can easily point to, say, Michael Jordan’s numbers to argue convincingly that he was great. This simply isn’t the case in art, where geniuses arise most frequently not out of just playing by the rules/living up to standards, but by subverting expectations and doing things so powerfully that they create their own new standards.

    Shakespeare is an obvious example of someone that frequently didn’t play by the rules/standards of drama in his day to the point that Ben Johnson said he “lacked art,” meaning he “lacked an ability to play by the classical rules of drama”. We don’t notice today because Shakespeare’s breaking of the rules became its own standards by which future works were measured. Outside of poetry one may look to artists like Picasso or Monet, filmmakers like Godard or Kubrick, composers like Wagner or Stravinsky; all of them broke the established rules/standards/definitions of their own day in one way or another. In fact, this is why art changes and sports don’t; if it was really about playing by rules/definitions then English poetry would sound no different than it did in Chaucer’s time (or even before). it reminds me of what William Logan recently wrote in an article for Poetry Mazazine in their “A Few More Don’ts” series: “Don’t think if  you cheat on form or slip the meter, no one will notice. They’ll know and think you a fool. Don’t think it impossible to cheat on form. If you do it well, they’ll think you a genius.” The whole idea of a genius being someone who cheats form well in art is impossible in sports. In sports, if you cheat the rules, you aren’t a genius, you’re just a cheater.

    There are certainly more ways (perhaps even more fruitful) in which to attack to the “sports/poetry” analogy, but I’ll leave it there for now. In general, though, I’d just recommend dumping the whole analogy because, while it reads well superficially, it falls apart with the slightest critical examination.

    With that out of the way, to get back to the issue of “defining” poetry, it’s best if you don’t think about the word at all. The rational way to look at words is, as Yudkowsky said, not some mystical thing meant to capture the “essence” of objects, but rather as a communication signal that attempts to translate extensions (features of external objects) into intensions (internal definitions) (http://lesswrong.com/lw/nh/extensions_and_intensions/). It’s probably most helpful to start by asking what people think about when they think of poetry, because that will give you an idea of a general intension to start with. Then, you may analyze various objects that have been called poetry and try to reduce them, as much as possible, to their extensional parts and ONLY then try to draw a boundary around those which are similar enough to warrant their own word (http://lesswrong.com/lw/o0/where_to_draw_the_boundary/). The problem is that human brains don’t work this way (http://lesswrong.com/lw/no/how_an_algorithm_feels_from_inside/). Much like yourself, Yudkowsky uses the example of Pluto in one of his articles by saying (better than I could):

    “We know where Pluto is, and where it’s going; we know Pluto’s shape, and Pluto’s mass—but is it a planet? And yes, there were people who said this was a fight over definitions—but even that is a Network 2 sort of perspective, because you’re arguing about how the central unit ought to be wired up. If you were a mind constructed along the lines of Network 1, you wouldn’t say “It depends on how you define ‘planet’,” you would just say, “Given that we know Pluto’s orbit and shape and mass, there is no question left to ask.” Or, rather, that’s how it would feel—it would feel like there was no question left—if you were a mind constructed along the lines of Network 1.”

    You can replace “Pluto” there with “poetry,” and things like “shape, mass, trajectory” with “rhyme, meter, line-breaks” etc. and it’s the same point. Once you reduce a linguistic work to its parts, there is (or should be) no question less to ask, since arguing over whether it’s poetry would just be to commit the fallacy of compression (http://lesswrong.com/lw/nw/fallacies_of_compression/):

    “’The map is not the territory,’ as the saying goes. The only life-size, atomically detailed, 100% accurate map of California is California. But California has important regularities, such as the shape of its highways, that can be described using vastly less information.. Hence the other saying: ‘The map is not the territory, but you can’t fold up the territory and put it in your glove compartment.’ …Reality is very large… But your map of reality is written on a few pounds of neurons, folded up to fit inside your skull… Inevitably, then, certain things that are distinct in reality will be compressed into the same point on your map. But what this feels like from inside is not that you say, ‘Oh, look, I’m compressing two things into one point on my map.’ What it feels like from inside is that there is just one thing, and you are seeing it. A sufficiently young child, or a sufficiently ancient Greek philosopher, would not know that there were such things as ‘acoustic vibrations’ or ‘auditory experiences’. There would just be a single thing that happened when a tree fell; a single event called “sound”… Sometimes fallacies of compression result from confusing two known things under the same label—you know about acoustic vibrations, and you know about auditory processing in brains, but you call them both “sound” and so confuse yourself. But the more dangerous fallacy of compression arises from having no idea whatsoever that two distinct entities even exist. There is just one mental folder in the filing system, labeled “sound”, and everything thought about “sound” drops into that one folder. It’s not that there are two folders with the same label; there’s just a single folder. By default, the map is compressed; why would the brain create two mental buckets where one would serve?” (again, “poetry” replaces “sound,” the various types of poetry replaces “acoustic vibrations” and “auditory experience”).

    To quote one more extract from an important article on the matter:

    “The one comes to you and says: ‘Long have I pondered the meaning of the word “Art”, and at last I’ve found what seems to me a satisfactory definition: “Art is that which is designed for the purpose of creating a reaction in an audience.”‘” Just because there’s a word “art” doesn’t mean that it has a meaning, floating out there in the void, which you can discover by finding the right definition. It feels that way, but it is not so. Wondering how to define a word means you’re looking at the problem the wrong way—searching for the mysterious essence of what is, in fact, a communication signal. Now, there is a real challenge which a rationalist may legitimately attack, but the challenge is not to find a satisfactory definition of a word. The real challenge can be played as a single-player game, without speaking aloud. The challenge is figuring out which things are similar to each other—which things are clustered together—and sometimes, which things have a common cause.”

    Really, the entire issue over debating words/definitions says more about human cognition than it ever says about words/definitions themselves, and in cases like this there’s no way to “solve” the problem, to “define poetry,” without recognizing what the problem is in the first place. Asking “what is the definition of poetry?” becomes one of those questions like “what is the meaning of life?” or “do we have free will?” in that it’s asking the wrong question to begin with. Combining rationalism with an understanding of how our brains function–especially in regards to processing language–solves most of these problems… but convincing people their brains are creating problems that lead them to ask questions that have no answers is not the easiest thing to do.

    • Hey Jonathan, you make some reasonable arguments as to why you don’t like the sports analogy, but I stand by it. All analogies, at some level, are flawed. To defend every interpretation really would lead down the rabbit hole; and your own interpretation extends the analogy in ways that I didn’t. My use of the analogy pertains, solely, to the importance of definitions.

      // I’m pretty sure man was creating art long before… rules/standards.//

      Maybe. Maybe not. There’s no point in speculating on prehistory. Fact: During any given period one can recognize a common definition of a given art (rules and standards).

      //Shakespeare is an obvious example of someone that frequently didn’t play by the rules/standards of drama in his day to the point that Ben Johnson said he “lacked art,” meaning he “lacked an ability to play by the classical rules of drama”.//

      Both Jonson and Shakespeare (and their contemporaries) shared a common definition of poetry. It’s the reason their poetry (and therefore drama of the period) can be dated to the Elizabethan period.

      As to the discussion by Yudkowsky, I just don’t care for that kind of academic parsing. If any question is anatomized enough, it’s easy to lose the difference between an ant and elephant.

  6. [[[ My use of the analogy pertains, solely, to the importance of definitions.]]]

    But even there one can see a major difference in that, as I said, the rules of sports are absolutely necessary for a game to be played. No rules for literature except a common language are needed for someone to write. Obviously humans naturally create standards and systems and “rules” as they go, but my point was that, in art, unlike in sports, those rules are literally made to be broken by geniuses (of course they can be broken by idiots too, but that’s when we laugh instead of stand in awe; see McGonagall).

    [[[During any given period one can recognize a common definition of a given art]]]

    Perhaps a kind of tenuous agreement amongst certain people, but I doubt it’s as homogenous as you’re suggesting. I don’t think these “what is poetry?” debates is something new to the 20th century; they seem to flare up every time anything new comes along.

    [[[As to the discussion by Yudkowsky, I just don’t care for that kind of academic parsing.]]]

    Yudkowsky isn’t an academic; he writes for the layman, hence his tendency towards parables, aphorisms, and humorous examples,* even though he happens to be writing for the laymen on academic subjects. But I’m serious when I say that if you read his series on words (written from the perspective of an AI researcher, of all things) you’ll probably never be able to think of a definition debate the same way again. Yudkowsky is remarkable in his ability to clarify some very complex subjects (heck, I even learned most of what I know about Quantum Physics thanks to him), so there’s no danger in “losing the difference between an ant and an elephant”.

    *One example of those humorous examples: “As I remarked earlier, when a large yellow striped object leaps at me, I think “Yikes! A tiger!” not “Hm… objects with the properties of largeness, yellowness, and stripedness have previously often possessed the properties ‘hungry’ and ‘dangerous’, and therefore, although it is not logically necessary, auughhhh CRUNCH CRUNCH GULP.” Similarly, when someone shouts “Yikes! A tiger!”, natural selection would not favor an organism that thought, “Hm… I have just heard the syllables ‘Tie’ and ‘Grr’ which my fellow tribe members associate with their internal analogues of my own tiger concept, and which they are more likely to utter if they see an object they categorize as aiiieeee CRUNCH CRUNCH help it’s got my arm CRUNCH GULP”.”

    • Okay. You’re welcome to draw whatever analogy works for you. I’m sticking with mine. I think it’s a good one and addresses Why definitions are important.

      //No rules for literature except a common language are needed for someone to write.//

      Really? Okay — try that out and let me know how it works for you. :-)

    • //Will do; just as soon as I invent time travel. ;)//

      Why? You’re the second respondent to say, your words, there are “no rules” or, at best, they’re arbitrary. If so, you certainly don’t need a time machine to test that assertion. But that’s okay if you and others want to believe that. I don’t. Like I said, poetry is hard as hell.

    • [[[Why? You’re the second respondent to say, your words, there are “no rules” or, at best, they’re arbitrary.]]]

      I don’t think I said either; I said, specifically, that rules aren’t needed to write, unlike in sports where rules are needed to play. To say they aren’t needed isn’t the same as saying there are no rules or that they are arbitrary. We create rules/standards/definitions in regards to art because its reflective of what appeals to those doing it/experiencing it at the time. In that respect, there are always “rules” (of some sort) as far as we can look back (though perhaps not always universally agreed upon, and perhaps there was a time in the very beginning of arts where there were none); and they are only arbitrary in so much as our tastes in art is arbitrary (I don’t think it’s arbitrary; I think it’s a combination of evolutionary neuroscience mixed with our specific cultural and social experiences).

    • //I don’t think I said either; I said, specifically, that rules aren’t needed to write//

      Jonathan, rules aren’t needed if you want to bounce a basketball, swing a bat, or golf your way around a golf course, but then you’re not playing basketball, baseball or golf. Likewise, you can write however you like, but you may not be writing a passable or even recognizable novel, play, or poem.

      Here’s your quote: “No rules for literature except a common language are needed…”

    • [[[rules aren’t needed if you want to bounce a basketball, swing a bat, or golf your way around a golf course, but then you’re not playing basketball, baseball or golf. Likewise, you can write however you like, but you may not be writing a passable or even recognizable novel, play, or poem.]]]

      Your first sentence is what I meant about not being able to play one of those sports without the rules. As for the second sentence, it’s a bit of a chicken-or-the-egg dilemma; did we only start writing novels, plays, and poems once we had the rules/definitions for what a novel, play, and poem was; or did we invent the words “novel,” “play,” and “poem” to describe what was already being written? I lean more towards the latter. I could understand if you wanted to argue that, eg, you can’t write a sonnet if there are no rules/definitions of what a sonnet is. In that respect, definitions/rules must precede the creative aspect. But as for my quote: “No rules for literature except a common language are needed,” I still think that’s correct. A child who has never read a definition of any of the forms of literature would still be able to write, and what they wrote may easily resemble a play, poem, or novel(a) without them even knowing it.

    • And back to my original point: Definitions matter. Without them we don’t have a way to judge our skills or the skills of others. The other issues you raise might be relevant for another or different post, but I’m not seeing that they have any relevance to the present one. :-)

    • [[[Definitions matter. Without them we don’t have a way to judge our skills or the skills of others.]]]

      Well, yes, definitions matter, but I’ve been trying to argue the parameters in which and to what extent they matter. However, I don’t think definitions have much to do with how we judge skill in art; that’s where I think the sports/art analogy fails. As I’ve previously argue, judging skill in art is a much more elusive exercise with nothing as objective as sports’ statistics to point to.

    • //However, I don’t think definitions have much to do with how we judge skill in art; that’s where I think the sports/art analogy fails. As I’ve previously argue, judging skill in art is a much more elusive exercise with nothing as objective as sports’ statistics to point to.//

      Definitions have everything to do with judging skill in art. The problem isn’t that they don’t exist or are too subjective, but that you and many others don’t understand them. There are a few good critics, like good artists, who actually know something about the history of a given art and recognize greatness. Robert Schumann and Joseph Haydn both recognized the great artists of their day. They happened to be composers and that, no doubt, made them astute critics.

      //One final point: did it not occur to you when writing this that it describes the prose of Finnegans Wake better than, say, the “poetry” of Bukowski?//

      That some prose works share much in common with poetry, and vice-versa, doesn’t mean that poetry and other works of literature aren’t distinquishable.

    • [[[Definitions have everything to do with judging skill in art. The problem isn’t that they don’t exist or are too subjective, but that you and many others don’t understand them. There are a few good critics, like good artists, who actually know something about the history of a given art and recognize greatness. Robert Schumann and Joseph Haydn both recognized the great artists of their day. They happened to be composers and that, no doubt, made them astute critics.]]]

      I have given plenty of examples of artists who broke away from the “definitions” of art in their day and, because of that breaking away, are deemed great and just as skillful as those that followed the “definitions;” so the claim that definitions have “everything to do with judging skill in art” seems empirically false in light of those examples. I resent the accusation that I don’t “understand” those definitions; I most certainly do and, in fact, I think I have a much better grasp on how they work, why they exist, and why they change than you do. If we were judging skill based on the “rules” of poetry in the 19th century then Whitman and Dickinson are bad, unskillful poets, and Swinburne is a master who’s better than both of them.

      Knowing something about the history of art is not synonymous with recognizing greatness. Samuel Johnson may be the best critic who ever lived, a veritable encyclopedia of knowledge on language and English literature; have you ever looked at his list of the most eminent English poets? You wouldn’t recognize probably 80% of the names on the list. Oh, and Schumann? Wasn’t he the one whose Carnival Chopin deemed “wasn’t even music” because it broke the “definitions” of what piano music in his day was supposed to do? He also frequently disparaged Liszt and Wagner (though not without his admiration of the former as a performer, and some of the works of the latter, though in an early review he wrote that Wagner’s work was: “paltry, downright amateurish, formless, and repellent.” – I’m fairly confident in saying history has overruled him). I’ve never noticed any correlation between an artist’s greatness and their astuteness as a critic.

      [[[That some prose works share much in common with poetry, and vice-versa, doesn’t mean that poetry and other works of literature aren’t distinquishable.]]]

      It’s not about them being distinguishable or not, it’s about the fact that your own given definition of poetry includes works even you’d call prose and excludes works you’d call poetry; that’s a good clue that your definition is faulty; either that, or it’s more of a personal standard as opposed to an honest-to-goodness definition. Reduction could clarify all of this business in one fell swoop, but I know of no better introduction than Yudkowsky whom you’ve already rejected, so I guess I should just give up.

    • Don’t waste your time being resentful. If you “‘understand’ those definitions;”, then what are they? And if you think you have a ‘much better grasp on how they work, why they exist, and why they change’, then make your blog, write your post, and give us your own definition of poetry (or the reason it can’t be done). Explain yourself.. Let the reader decide. I don’t think you do. So far, all you’ve demonstrated to me is a tiresome and inexhaustible capacity for quibbling. I would give examples from your last comment, but that would only lead to more quibbling. Enough of that. And as for the statement that my definition “includes works even [I’d] call prose and excludes works [I’d] call poetry”, that’s possible, but that doesn’t change the usefulness or importance of the definition. It allows us to ask: Is Finnegan’s Wake therefore a poem?, or Are Charles Bukwoski’s poems really poetry? So far, all you’ve told us is that “No rules for literature except a common language are needed”. That ought to put a good many English departments right out of business.

  7. Basketball didn’t always have a shot clock. Guys played it, and some people watched it, but there was a lot of possession play and backcourt passing. There were plenty of games with scores like 9-12 or 7-20. The rules were changed to make basketball better, and the arena-filling game we love was created by a rule change. Lacrosse is in the process of tweaking its rules right now in an effort to improve the sport.

    In swimming, the butterfly stroke was not invented until the 1930’s, and was considered a variation on the breastroke for decades before it became its own event.

    The Impressionist painters were initially considered crap by establishment painters, but their work was so lovely and compelling that definitions had to shift to accommodate them.

    When I encounter lovely and compelling writing, I love it. I copy it out, clip it, read it again and again, share it with friends, memorize it. That is what can happen with writing. I also write, because I find the making of writing compelling .The occasional moment of articulate loveliness are wonderful and the more common partial successes and outright failures are kinda wonderful too. When I look at what makes the writing I love work I see something richly crafted, and I attend as a writer or a reader to pacing, sound, rhythm, repetition… poetry.

    I liked Britannica’s attitude. It seemed to me that they were saying,”Look, I know you want to hate on some writing you think falls short. So go and do it! Say why the writing is poor, ugly, cliche, vulgar. Or ignore the crap writing. But don’t expect to advance your case on a technicality. Because there is an awful lot of crap written that are technically flawless as sonnets, sestinas or whatever.”

    When I teach poetry, I tell the kids that I am introducing a new punctuation mark: the line break. If the author doesn’t govern the line break it is prose. If they do, it is a poem. “But how to we use the line break?” Yes, exactly. How do we govern the break. Well, let’s start thinking about accent, syllables, rhyme and rhythm and figure this out.

    • [[[When I teach poetry, I tell the kids that I am introducing a new punctuation mark: the line break. If the author doesn’t govern the line break it is prose. If they do, it is a poem. “But how to we use the line break?” Yes, exactly. How do we govern the break. Well, let’s start thinking about accent, syllables, rhyme and rhythm and figure this out.]]]

      This reminds me of another definition of poetry given by Terry Eagleton in How to Read a Poem: “A poem is a fictional, verbally inventive moral statement in which it is the author, rather than the printer or word processor, who decides where the lines should end.” (pg. 25) Eagleton presents a very atypical definition of “moral statement,” so I’ve always tended to take the last part of that, about the author deciding where the line ends, as being the more relevant bit. Certainly, if we’re going to attempt to group all poetry from all cultures/times together under the same label of poetry, then the whole “author deciding where the line ends” is about the only thing in common they all share. Your bit about thinking of how to use line breaks even via classical modes (accent, rhymes, etc.) is an interesting notion.

    • Thanks Matthew, and it’s interesting to read your take on teaching. Britannica came around in the end, but I’m bemused by an Encyclopedic entry that cops an attitude. Only the British.

  8. Why is it that the world’s greatest poets throughout history (even in eras when people were certain they knew exactly what poetry is) have all, every one, resorted to metaphor when defining poetry?

    Because no matter what definition you float out there…and millions of people have tried to concretize and codify poetry…it’s always glaringly inadequate to the actual experience of a poem (for writer and reader) and it rarely sticks longer than a generation or outside a single region. Whatever “rules” one posits will take us only so far, and in a limited number of directions.

    Poetry’s a concept, a conception, a notion we conceive of in our minds…and in that it has always been a moving target. In it’s figurative form it can be applied to any number of things (e.g., the poetry of the tax code). In its literal form, well, we’re back to comparing and contrasting the relative merits and deficits of one poem, one utterance, and another (but that’s a matter of description, not definition).

    It’s tempting to think, “I’ve got it. I know what poetry is. Now I’ll tell the world. How could they be so blind?” Many would say that self-assurance is the mark of an amateur. A distraction, at best, from the imaginative work of writing. (That’s not to say that critics should ignore a poem’s form in favor of its content, but describing a poem’s form is different from defining poetry.)

    The finest poets, as we can see from your examples above, routinely turn to metaphor, knowing how slippery any definition can be for something a human mind creates.

    • //Why is it that the world’s greatest poets throughout history (even in eras when people were certain they knew exactly what poetry is) have all, every one, resorted to metaphor when defining poetry? //

      Because that’s what poets are good at: metaphor. And by the use of metaphor, a figure of rhetoric, they are demonstrating one of the most traditional features of western poetry: figurative language. Figurative language extends a passage’s meaning beyond its immediate semantic content. The definitions, each in their way, demonstrate a heightening of language — the enjoyment of language for its aesthetic possibilities. They are, in some measure, doing what poetry does.

  9. The classical Japanese poets might disagree, and one could just as easily apply the use of figurative language to novelists or playwrights. A metaphor is hazy as a definition, in any case, and purposefully so.

    • That’s why I wrote “western poetry”; and yes, metaphor in and of itself does not a poem make. Metaphor remains just one of its salient features.

  10. Again, we’re describing certain instances that can be contradicted a thousand times; we’re not defining a concept with any kind of clarity. It can’t be done.

    Shakespeare and Frost and Dickinson could do no more than describe what they felt, or perhaps what they sought. We won’t better their efforts here or in our lifetimes.

    However, if you happen to prove me wrong, I’ll gladly write a poem in your honor.

    –Steven Withrow

    • //Again, we’re describing certain instances that can be contradicted a thousand times; we’re not defining a concept with any kind of clarity. It can’t be done.//

      1.) The first section of the post argues that definitions are important.
      2.) The second part asks whether definitions are useful.

      Where’s the lack of clairty?

      3.) The Definition: “Poetry is an art that uses language not only for its semantic content, as a way to communicate, but as an aesthetic experience in and of itself — its “music”: sounds, rhythms, onomatopoeia, assonance, alliteration, and rhymes.”

      Here too: Where’s the lack of clarity?

      The way I read this discussion is that it’s not my definition that lacks clarity, but yours. In fact, based on what you’ve written, one might conclude that you have no idea what poetry is (and you’re not about to find out). And yet, if I prove you wrong, you’re going to write me a poem? So… how do I interpret that? Does that mean that unless you get some “clarity”, you’re not going to be able to write a poem because you’ll have absolutely no clue as to what a poem is? Just askin’.

  11. (Just sayin’)

    “I saw a man pursuing the horizon”
    By Stephen Crane

    I saw a man pursuing the horizon;
    Round and round they sped.
    I was disturbed at this;
    I accosted the man.
    “It is futile,” I said,
    “You can never —”

    “You lie,” he cried,
    And ran on.

  12. Like you, I have plenty of ideas about what poetry is, but they are ideas. They do not encompass; they do not hold. My ideas might be necessary for me to write *my* next poem, but you do not need them to write yours (or to judge mine). Only in the most limited sense are we all playing the same game at the same time.

    • Well, me too, but that doesn’t answer my question. What do I need to judge your poetry? If it’s affirmation, then what am I affirming? :-)

  13. [[[The Definition: “Poetry is an art that uses language not only for its semantic content, as a way to communicate, but as an aesthetic experience in and of itself — its “music”: sounds, rhythms, onomatopoeia, assonance, alliteration, and rhymes.”]]

    One final point: did it not occur to you when writing this that it describes the prose of Finnegans Wake better than, say, the “poetry” of Bukowski?

  14. I was thinking about this article recently, and it occurred to me that from a structural standpoint, poetry is organized in lines while prose is organized in paragraphs. Poetry uses the line, however badly, to shape and texturize content while prose simply presents content in a straightforward manner using blocks of text, hopefully punctuated using sensible grammar. In this sense, structurally speaking, poetry and prose can both make use rhetoric, metaphor, imagery, abstraction, and so on. The main difference is that in poetry

    ···················the line


    ··························to texturize

    ···········content in a

    ··························way that could


    ····be accomplished in prose,




    ···················“strong imagery”.

    Of course the all the devices that make prose good prose also makes poetry good poetry.


    • Ooops. My creative “texturizing” of the lines, complete with indentation and spaces, has been reduced to a left justified jumble. But, even this possesses a degree of texturization.

    • Here are my thoughts: My definition, like all definitions, is exclusionary. Since I don’t see any trade in language, I wouldn’t call this a poem (or a bad poem).

      About line breaks: Until free verse, the main difference between poetry and prose was not line breaks but, as I mentioned in the article, the idea that “Poetry is an art that uses language not only for its semantic content, as a way to communicate, but as an aesthetic experience in and of itself…” Line breaks were not, as your comment possibly suggests arbitrary. They coincided with rhyme or with a metrical pattern. Both rhyme and meter emphasize the aesthetic experience of language. If understood in this sense, then the line breaks are secondary. That is, they’re a byproduct of the poem’s linguistic aesthetics.

      It wasn’t until free verse that line breaks became utterly arbitrary (and an end in and of themselves). As I’ve written many times, this makes free verse a species of prose, not poetry (if poetry is understood in the traditional sense). Most free verse is lineated prose that is called poetry. :-)

    • Okay. Read it. Hard to believe that’s going on 40 years ago! I liked it. Not a lot has changed. Contemporary verse — which is my goto term for free verse — is still irrelevant — or so mostly irrelevant that it’s just a question of degree. The poetry sections at the local bookstores have shrunk to pale shadows of their former shelf-space. You know, I was thinking recently that tweets, in a sense, are the ultimate distillation of verse (toward which all verse has been evolving) since modernism.

      That is, when you take this:

      “I’ve always wanted to fit poetry into the life around us . . . I abandoned the rare world of H. D. and Ezra Pound. Poetry should be brought into the world where we live and not be so recondite, so removed from the people. . . . This seemed to me to be what a poem was for, to speak for us in a language we can understand.” WC Williams

      And this:

      “Poetry came more and more to seem, in Gatsby’s phrase, “merely personal,” inherently a private matter of no real importance. Its use of common language at a time when every field of knowledge took pride in its own jargon merely confirmed this suspicion.”

      To their logical conclusion; you get tweets. You get the twitter-verse. No rhyme. No meter. Free verse. And purely “brought into the world where we live” — a.k.a. the navel. :-)

  15. Pingback: Three Ways to Write a Poem « PoemShape

  16. Rules are fine, poetry as tennis is fine. But this is just a craving for confined spaces. Genres are confined spaces that yield all kinds of creativity and invention. And then there is the world, which aches to get out as often as in. Poets create in both places. Life happens both places. The poetic soul can move between them. Shut down either at your peril. A failure to grasp the power that may dwell in a poet like, say, Stevens, who nearly always shuns rhyme and often meter, is the reader’s loss. One of the most memorable games of tennis I ever played was with four people, no net, no ball. We all improvised and marveled at what the others were doing. So lame, I know. And yes, I know, this is your fiefdom, this your altar and empyrean and one ought go elsewhere to promote one’s own idea and leave this one spit polished. Which just means more shiny silos across the landscape…

    • Hi Kevin, your caution is duly noted. However, as I wrote in the post, poetry that’s more than its semantic content is also more than just meter or rhyme. Stevens is an example of that. And also, just because ones definition of poetry may preclude vast swaths of free verse doesn’t mean one can’t marvel at what others are doing — like Bukowski. It’s just that I read free verse as being a species of prose, not poetry. Just because one writes prose that is short and lineated, doesn’t, for this reader, make it poetry.

  17. I agree that so-called ‘poetry’ with no poetic elements and nothing to distinguish itself from prose (which a lot of today’s poetry is), simply isn’t poetry.

    I’d also add that in many cases, such ‘poetry’ isn’t just prose, it’s bad prose.

    In 1965, when I was a college freshman who wrote both prose and poetry, the great Dante translator and poet John Ciardi, visited my college. I asked him for a definition of the difference between prose and poetry and he didn’t hesitate.

    “Poetry is where the spaces talk.”

    Never forgot it. Still gives me chills.

    • Thanks for the link Keir. I continue to think, though, that the most concise and best remains that offered by Poetry.Org—not that yours isn’t worth reading.

      “Poetry (ancient Greek: ποιεω (poieo) = I create) is an art form in which human language is used for its aesthetic qualities in addition to, or instead of, its notional and semantic content.”

      That definition, like it or not, excludes a lot of “verse” written since the early 20th century.

      Your post elaborates on that definition defining that “aesthetic quality” as “patterning”, and why not? In its most figurative sense, patterning probably covers most of it, though a writer of free verse might object that this is precisely what lineation does. Lineation, that is, provides a visual/typographical pattern signifying the work’s identity as “a poem”.

      My own post is a stab at explaining why a/the definition matters. That is: Is there even a reason to have a definition? If so, why?

    • Yes, I like that definition. However, I’m also aware that even the most bland poem is still unarguably and unambiguously a poem if it follows an established meter.

      In regards to your comments on lineation: anyone who knows how to read meter would be able to recognise that a poem is written in a strict meter even the fact were disguised by removing the lineation. The same might not be true of a lineated “free verse” poem. If the lineation *does* have a pattern, *and* serves an expressive purpose, then that *could* be a point in favour of calling it a poem.

    • I’m not sure I understand the reason for the ‘however’? You seem to suggest that your definition recognizes the bland metrical poem as a poem whereas Poetry.Org’s doesn’t? If so, that’s not the way I would read it. The issue isn’t whether the poem is bland but whether the poem tries to exploit language for its aesthetic qualities. To that extent, your definition and Poetry.Org’s are in agreement.

      As regards your second paragraph, I do think your definition diverges. I’m not sure that Poetry.Org’s definition would be willing to consider typography (defined as a poem’s appearance on the page) a pattern, regardless of how “patterned” it was. Such a feature wouldn’t be a pattern of language (inasmuch as language is aural) but strictly a visual/textual/typographic one. Not saying you’re own criteria can’t define “language” to include typography, but I wouldn’t and I don’t think Poetry.Org does either. As to whether it serves an expressive purpose? That opens the whole pandora’s box. Who’s to say whether ‘x’ is “expressive”? You? The poet? The reader? I think that risks putting us right back in the “poetry is anything you want it to be” camp. Whether a thing is expressive is separate from whether a poet is using language for its aesthetic properties.

    • Probably moot points we’re debating, Patrick.

      Yes, I guess you’re right on the first point. But don’t prose writers also seek to use language for its aesthetic qualities to some extent? And might not a beautifully written piece of prose have more aesthetic value than a turgidly written poem that keeps perfect meter?

      As to lineation, as we both know, skilled composers of *metered* verse exploit the lineation when they use enjambment. When Elizabeth Barrett Browning wrote…

      I think of thee!—my thoughts do twine and bud
      About thee, as wild vines, about a tree,

      …I’m sure you would agree that the enjambment is *both* expressive and aesthetically satisfying. It’s certainly a technique that is specific to poetry.

      I was merely allowing for the possibility that a free verse poet could also employ lineation to expressive and aesthetic effect.

      Of course, if a piece of prose is just arbitrarily split into lines simply for the sake of appearance, that doesn’t transform it into poetry. I’m sure you must know that wasn’t what I was saying!

      In practice, I expect we would hold very similar viewpoints about what works we would call poetry, what works we would call prose, and what works we would say carry elements of both. But nailing down precise definitions is always tricky: the more precise you try to be about *anything*, the less clear cut it seems!

    • The best prose writers definitely have unique and recognizable styles, and would certainly say that they “seek to exploit the aesthetic qualities of the language”. The difference is twofold. First, they still use language primarily for its notional and semantic content. I can’t think of any novelist or writer of prose who would be an exception. Second, whatever they’re aesthetic criteria might be, it’s not a “prosody”.

      From Wordnet:

      n 1: the patterns of stress and intonation in a language [syn:
      prosody, inflection]
      2: (prosody) a system of versification [syn: poetic rhythm,
      rhythmic pattern, prosody]
      3: the study of poetic meter and the art of versification [syn:
      prosody, metrics]

      Mother Goose’s nursery rhymes, for example, exploit language’s aesthetic qualities to the exclusion, in some cases, of recognizable notional or semantic content. They are purely about the aesthetic sound of language, which is why they’re so memorable and appealing to children. Nursery rhymes, in a sense, are the most undiluted form of language as an aesthetic experience. All poetry, up until free verse, used the same techniques found in nursery rhymes. Secondly, all the nursery rhymes, and poetry from the Anglo Saxons through Robert Frost, used the same prosody. What this means is that you could scramble the words in a Shakespearean sonnet, explain the rules of prosody to person ‘X’, and person ‘X’ could reconstruct the sonnet based on that prosody. Because there’s no prosody of prose, no one would be able to reconstruct a paragraph by Hemingway or Steinbeck. A prosody simply describes the way poets use a language’s aesthetic qualities.

      The is no prosody of free verse. This is why I personally don’t consider free verse to be “poetry”. To me, it’s lineated prose, and by in large bores me silly. I’d rather be reading Hemingway than reading free verse. Hemingway’s prose is unlineated free verse.

      As to free verse exploiting lineation for aesthetic effect. Yes, but that’s typography. That’s not exploiting language in any aesthetic way. ‘But,’ objects the free verse poet, ‘when I read my line breaks I gesture, I breathe portentously, I bounce up and down so the audience can see and hear them!” To which I say: If there were a prosody of free verse, you wouldn’t need to. :)

    • We appear to be very much on the same page, Patrick.

      You state that what differentiates prose from poetry is “prosody”, and the three definitions given of prosody by Wordnet refer to “patterns”, “a system” and “meter”. So at this point we appear to be in agreement that the defining feature of poetry is patterning (and as you rightly state, it is also prosody that makes nursery rhymes so appealing).

      An objection you made to my defining poetry in this way was that “…a writer of free verse might object that this is precisely what lineation does”, i.e. provide a pattern. And yet you yourself provide a refutation to this argument in a later comment: “Such a feature wouldn’t be a pattern of language (inasmuch as language is aural) but strictly a visual/textual/typographic one” (and nor did I have typography in mind when I spoke of “patterning”).

      “…you could scramble the words in a Shakespearean sonnet, explain the rules of prosody to person ‘X’, and person ‘X’ could reconstruct the sonnet based on that prosody. Because there’s no prosody of prose, no one would be able to reconstruct a paragraph by Hemingway or Steinbeck”. Quite! And I was actually trying to make a similar point in an earlier comment when I responded to your initial objection that a writer of free verse could claim that lineation provides patterning: “…anyone who knows how to read meter would be able to recognise that a poem is written in a strict meter even if the fact were disguised by removing the lineation. The same might not be true of a lineated “free verse” poem”. I say *tried* to because that was actually clumsily phrased. I was trying to make the exact same point you’ve made: that if the lineation is removed from both a metered poem and a free verse poem, we can still pick up the meter (and relineate) in the case of the metered poem, but in the case of the free verse poem, it will most likely read as a piece of prose.

      When you state, in the post you provide a link to, that “…traditional verse offers the poet effects that free verse doesn’t and never will”, I couldn’t agree more! It’s *because* of my appreciation for meter that I’ve devoted a whole blog to the subject!

      It seems to me that any disagreement between us is very nebulous!

  18. Keir, I reviewed your blog and posts on quora and found many interesting observations. Nothing I could object to, other than the Beddoesian skull header on your blog site. Unless you really are a goth, it makes for an incongruous first impression.

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