What is Poetry? Definition & Explanation

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      Asked by Boswell what is Poetry, Dr. Johnson is said to have answered, with his characteristic horse-sense and down-to-earth realism, “Why, Sir, it is much easier to say what it is not. We all know what light is; but it is not easy to tell what it is.”

      Many of the definitions commonly offered by poets and critics alike are unhelpful in this task of defining poetry. They are so broad that they fit all literature as well as poetry. Some of them are: Poetry is ‘imitation’, Poetry is ‘expression’, or Poetry is ‘a mode of communication’, or yet Poetry is’ a criticism of life’. They tell us nothing in particular about poetry. They are general statements which are true not only of poetry but of all literature; indeed, of all art.

      Definitions such as Wordsworth’s: ‘Poetry is the breath and finer spirit of all knowledge....’ are still more vague and unhelpful. Being rhetorical in character, they tell us nothing specific about poetry and so lead us nowhere.

      Certain things are best defined by their contraries; and we shall see if we can get any nearer to a definition of poetry that way The readiest antithesis we think of in connection with poetry is prose. But this is somewhat mistaken. For, prose differs from poetry only in form, not in spirit or essence (except in degree). Secondly, even the formal characteristic of poetry, that is meter, does not always constitute a differentiating criterion. Metre, (in the strict, formal! sense) is held to be not absolutely essential to poetry. What we discern at most in poetry that is not conched in any recognizable meter is a kind of rhythmical movement. And this is nearly (if not quite) as much to be noticed in prose of the best kind. (We speak of ‘the other harmony’ of prose).

      The proper antithesis to poetry, said Coleridge, is science, not prose. Here is a real opposition in respect of treatment of the facts of life. But it is doubtful if they could be regarded as opposites in respect of ends. The end which both pursue is truth. Science is concerned with truth of the objective universe; and its instrument is Reason. In poetry we are concerned with the inner world of man’s dreams and aspirations, joys and sorrows; or yet the external world (of animate and inanimate reality) as his perceptive or intuitive imagination sees it. Since our life is not bounded by the material world alone, and we live not only on the plane of reason but also on that of feeling and imagination, objective truth is not the only ultimate for us. So the truth of human feeling and imagination as well as that of quantitative, verifiable fact, taken together, complete the domain of truth. Science and poetry are therefore complementary.

      We may set about defining poetry (though we may not agree about any single definition) by disentangling our concepts about it one by one. If literature is the art of words, then poetry affords the best illustration. It is (as we have already noted) the concentrated essence of literature. Other forms of literature may do with condensation, economy. But they are so often necessary in poetry in order that the emotional impulses do not dissipate themselves. Poetry, therefore, is the best words in their best order (Prose is words in their best order-Coleridge). It is poetry that is in the fullest sense an exploitation of language—it is words working hardest. The poet makes use of words not only as symbols of ideas and objects but also as projectiles of feeling and tone. He also organizes his intention through the complex web of words There is not only the plain sense of the poem to be considered, but also the whole complex of suggestions carried by the overtones and undertones of words. All of these act in unison, and help determine the reader’s response.

      Poetry, again, is not rhetoric. The latter is poetry made a mere mechanic art, where true inspiration is kicking. It is the flash of intuition, of renins, of genuine poetic inspiration, that makes poetry, or else it becomes mere uninspired verse. You may have all the other essentials of poetry but this Hash of intuition, in verse. But that alone makes all the difference. It is the guiding, ordering, informing spirit, the soul of poetry.

      It might easily be assumed that inspiration is the ultimate criterion of poetry, and that he who has it needs nothing else. But no, the art of words, of expressive and rhythmical utterance, has got to be mastered even by one who is visited by this ‘spark from heaven’ that is inspiration. Following the trail of the inspirational flash, he might be consumed by hours of painful toil. For, as Shelley hinted, inspiration might be already on the wane when composition begins. “A great many of the world’s poems”, says Flelen C. White, in her excellent study of the Metaphysical Poets (P. 286), “begin in a jet of inspiration and it is the business of the artist to take hold where inspiration fails and carry through the process of creation”. It is here that poetic composition seems to entail arduous and painful toil, as Dante has testified. But how shall we reconcile this theory of toilsome labor with the “spontaneous overflow” theory of Wordsworth True, the art of poetic utterance must come as leaves to a tree, or it had better not come at all, said, Keats. But faced with this paradox, shall we say that the criterion differs from genreto genre - that a lyric is a spontaneous overflow while an epic composition would not answer to such a formula. But when we consider an epic as a series of short poems composed at intervals stretched over a long period, then what is true of the short poem must also, in great measure, be true of the longer poem. At any rate, spontaneity has reference only to the rough, rapid shaping of the poem in the mind of the poet (the way ‘Kubla Khan’ was composed in the mind of Coleridge, though in this exceptional case the poet did nothing but try and remember the original wording ‘as far as he could’ without needing to revise or alter a word.) The final shape that a poem takes must be the result of careful revision and rewriting. It is worth our while entering into the writer’s workshop and looking over his shoulder to see how the poem takes its final shape.

      It is also worth remembering, in this connection, that several of the world’s best poems are only a palimpsest - the poem, as it finally evolved, bearing only a remote connection with the form in which it originally sprouted, at several places. It even strikes us that of the several possible alternatives before the poet’s mind, he not so much happened upon the right phrase by inspiration, as chose it deliberately and with careful weighing. As a result, we have a poem which in print may not bear the marks of revision, but has necessarily undergone this process of overwriting. The truth about ‘toil’ and ‘spontaneity’ has once and for all been told in that classic poem of WB. Yeats: “Adam’s Curse” -

A line will take us hours may be;
Yet if it does not seem a moment’s thought
Our stitching and unstitching has been nought.

      The poetic process, as described by Wordsworth, again, has some points in it that need our answering. In the threefold activity that precedes poetic composition, viz. perception (or sensation), recollection (or contemplation) and emotion—inspiration seems to come at the end of the chain process of poetic causation. The inspirational and the overflow theory might lead one to suppose that poetry is all a matter of ‘rapture’, of ‘air and fire’. Rapture or the divine afflatus can explain only some kinds of poetry but not all. All poetry is not ‘overflow’; some great poetry is at least as much close intellection, an affair of fundamental brain-work, as it is an affair of emotional or passional outpouring. Witness, for example, the poetry of the Metaphysicals. Very often, in them feeling is generated as well as controlled by (or fused with) a passionate attempt at ratiocination In the melting pot of the Metaphysical mind are fused the disparate elements of thought, knowledge, feeling and experience. The imagination has kindled to an image of associated ideas, the reason pursues the implications with rigor and the heart responds to the intellectual and imaginative effort with a measure of passion or thrill of excitement. ‘The vision and the design’ thus find expression in a poem.

      The precise nature of inspiration and its working out in the mind of the poet, who is only an instrument in the grip of this force beyond himself like the Aeolian harp laid out to the wind (from this point of view, it is not so much the case that the poet writes the poem as that the poem writes itself), is a mystery which we shall never unravel. We may safely leave it to the Psychologist.

      Part of the mystery that attaches to the nature of poetic causation also seems to attach to the result. Coleridge said that great poetry is never fully understood. Yes, to understand great poetry more than one glance is necessary. And even after repeated ‘attacks’ a poem does not yield up all its meaning. Or part of its fascination must ever remain unexplained, part of its meaning unspoken.

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