By Joseph J, Kozma
Ask this question in a group and you will find yourself in the middle of never ending discussions and arguments. Why? Because definitions aiming to describe the true essence of poems/poetry are so many that they seem endless. You cannot discuss them all in a lifetime. Or so it seems. Let me give you a few examples from a collection of 50 definitions: “Poetry is emotion put into measure,” Thomas Hardy. “A complete poem is one where the emotion has found its thought and the thought found its words,” Robert Frost. “Poetry comes nearer to vital truth than history,” Plato. “Poetry is an echo, asking a shadow to dance,” Carl Sandburg.
These definitions describe the product, the poem, not the process, poetry.
You probably have your own definition.
I have read many scholarly and popular discussions but I found none that came close to mine: A poem is a special form of communication. Collectively, all of these special communications are poetry.
Why would you want to write a letter? Because you want to communicate. Why would you want to write a poem? For the same reason. It could be communication to yourself, but most likely because you want to be heard.
The definitions listed above describe the color of the painting (the poem) not it’s structure and reason for its existence (the creative process).
The next question is what that special communication can do to you and how do you know that it is a special communication. Ask this: When you hear or read a poem, does the language sound special to you or just like every conversation in a grocery store, car dealership, or doctor’s office? If it does, it is not special. Then it is not much of a poem.
What does it do to you? Does it lift you up? Does it inspire you – make your emotions slightly different? Do you want to hear and see it more? If you do, you have found a poem. Yes, good poems lift you up. They give you a reason to think and enjoy it.
What do you enjoy? The content? The language? The difference? Do they make you different? Do they give you a faint feeling of addiction? Many people feel that way. Emily Dickinson said: “If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off. I know that is poetry.” This statement probably is an exaggeration, but it describes the emotional aspect of reading good poems. In general, one can say that only certain types of poems provide an emotional stimulus. Lyric poems “lift you up”. They are usually short and are charged with emotions. South American and European poets write that way and frequently harvest a Nobel Prize for poetry. It is not just a freak fact that no US born citizen has ever received the Nobel Prize for poetry, it is because of the absence of certain charged emotions. If you read the major poetry journals you will know exactly what I try to describe without being derogatory. Narrative poems are fine but they are primarily prose, which is enjoyable on a different level.
If you “understand” a poem, you are not reading or hearing it right. A poem does not need to be understood. It needs to be felt. It needs to create an impression.
Understanding is needed for scientific publications, columns and advertisements … not for poems.
When a poem impresses you, you want to hear it again, you want to read it again. Each time you gain new experience, the poem keeps making impressions. That is the real “understanding.”
Analyzing a poem is difficult under the usual and accepted conditions of reading. New terminology is needed to describe what your impression is.