What is poetry? A question composed of three simple words opens way for exploration into an artistic medium that we may recognize on sight, yet fail to grasp the complexities of. We will often know a poem when we see one, but we do not always know what went into writing it; how it came to be. Instead the poem simply is, a string of words that somehow creates a door, enticing us or daring us to step through. When we do the mechanics of the piece that have been carefully employed by the poet takes us on a momentary journey of the mind and sense. We taken into the piece and shown a thought or moment made immortal in text by our meeting it.
Such claims seem at first grandiose and exaggerated, and perhaps to some extent they are in contrast with the worries and concerns of our every day lives. Reading a poem will not mend a broken heart, but it might make you feel less alone. Writing a poem might not change the world but it might make you feel heard. The transmission of meaning and emotion, the reception of ideas set to rhythm and sound, this is the heartbeat of the experience of poetry. To understand poetry we must examine first the tangible parts of the art: the poem and the poet. For without the two what poetry is remains an aytheric mystery, the human condition unexpressed.
A poem is the work of a poet, it is the “stuff” of poetry; the created work that we can experience. Trying to define what a poem is is not as simple as describing a particular form or attribute, for there are many different types of poems each with their own traits. A poem can follow a specific format for rhythm and rhyme or it can lack these elements as an open verse piece might. Regardless of the format, all poems are purposefully constructed using specific language, the sound of the words chosen and the way they are arranged to convey specific meaning and illicit a specific emotional response in its readers.
“There is no way of using of language that is exclusive to poetry”(Lindsay, 2013). For example just because something rhymes does not necessarily mean it is a poem, as much as just because lines do not rhyme does not exclude a work from being a poem. Instead a poem being defined by simply what it is we also need to look at what it is not. A poem is not simply the result of emotional self-expression. While many poems do in fact convey emotions they tend to do so in a way that expresses something that we might all feel. Instead of the poets own personal experiences being expressed as a form of release they are often the inspiration to address something that is more universal to the human experience.
A poem being the observation of the human experience on a microscopic level will not generally give advice. While there will indeed be a message to the poem, it will be one of observation, thought, and reflection instead of advice. A good example of this is Robert Frost’s “Stopping by the woods on a snowy evening” in which the speaker on his life journey stops to contemplate and wish for death, but instead chooses to keep going. The poem does not try to tell us not to commit suicide, but instead is painting us this scene of why the character in the poem does not, despite his yearning (Frost, 1923).
The poem is purposeful utilization of language devices, meaning and sound. It creates a rhythm with the words stressed and syllables chosen. The sound of the words themselves is just as important as the meaning. The combination of sounds, rhyme, stresses that make up the rhythm evoke a response in the reader that reaches past the mind and grasps at something we can feel. Almost musical this creates the presentation and atmosphere for the meaning to come across from. Sometimes the mood of the poem can contrast the language and meaning. A poem about death for example,can uses seemingly happy or upbeat rhythm to contrast its meaning. Edgar Allan Poe’s “Annabel Lee” is an example of this. Poe used an upbeat anapest rhythm, where every third syllable is stressed, to tell the story of a man laying on his deceased loves grave and his thoughts on her death. The result is a creepy atmosphere and the feeling that the speaker in the poem might indeed be insane (Poe, 1849).
Reading a poem is a very different experience than reading a textbook. The textbook strives to be precise and understandable in its delivery of information. The poem in contrast can utilize metaphor, symbolism, tone, double entendre and other devises that seem to confuse while in actuality, they are building upon the meaning of the poem by their intended response in the reader. The difference in the way that information in conveyed in the textbook vs poem example is importance to note. The textbook exists to convey information and raw data while the poem in contrast exists to be whole in itself, a delivery of meaning and information that creates an experience.
This experience is a form of communication as much as the words in the poem. It is an intimate yet universal connection between the writer and the reader. That in reading the poem a philosophical conversation on the human condition has been continued. A conversation that spans the whole of written history. Interpretation of the experience and the meaning of the poem itself is now the duty of the reader, as well as part of the experience itself. Poems can often cause problems in interpretation, we do not all share the same life experiences, we are not all living in the same period of time with the same cultural and personal happenings.
However because poems seek to transcend these boundaries the fact that we can have different interpretations is part of what poetry is. With poetry we have to listen, try to discern what we are hearing, then try to decide what the message is. Sometimes we have background information on the poem or the poet, and this can help with interpretation, but many times when we read something we do so ahistorically leaving us to depend much more on the sound, rhythm and tone of a poem to gleam its meaning. This is akin to walking into the middle of a conversation and trying to pick up on whats being talked about. While sometimes our personal interpretations might be wrong we still experience the sounds, rhythm and overall mood of the piece.
The poet is the creator of the poem. Up until this point I have compared poetry and the poem to art. The art I envision however is one of a magical nature. When I consider the poet I think of him as not only an artist but even more specifically a magician. Magick is defined by many as a “The Science and Art of causing Change to occur in conformity with Will” (Crowley, 1929).
The poet, much like a magician, must harness and master the tools of his trade. The sound and meaning of words used, the rhythm and rhyme in which they are presented, the emotions the sounds of his words evokes. The observations of life are transmuted through an alchemic process for purification. For the poet this process is structure and utilizing his poetic charms for the creation of an experience. The poem is created as such, carrying with it the power to create a change of thought or emotional state in the reader, to carry forth a message beyond the poets own voice and hand.
It is only in that mindset, one of a magical nature meeting a disciplined creator that I feel I can begin to grasp what poetry actually is. The alchemy of life itself through words and art. The process of taking something experienced and abstract and capturing it in a moment contained and created by a verse.
The poet Bob Hicok, in a speech he gave to The College of St. Scholastica in February of 2013, described the act of writing poetry as receiving the origin of a thought and as a poet it is his responsibility to make something of that origin of thought: to follow it through and challenge his own mind in relaying it. That this simple act of writing materially changes the composition of the universe. This indeed is akin to magick, the transmutation of thought into a tangible material we can see, share and experience.
“The mystery of initial conditions, the next mystery is what can be made of the mystery of initial conditions. Be empty every day and let something new fill you. There is something spiritual about the endeavor and you are constantly made humble because you can’t take credit for the origins. But you are responsible to make what you will of the origins. What you do is not as small as making a poem but it is as large as making your mind. “
“When I write I want to seize the second to exist at the point in time when time itself is coming into existence, this is impossible since consciousness is always retroactive there is a delay of you doing or thinking a thing and your awareness of doing or thinking. But I still have a desire to live and write without hesitation and from that immediacy surprise myself away from the known patterns of my mind.”
“When we write we change the material existence of the universe. While this is the case with any action, when we write well these changes embody our most basic curiosities and tenderness’s.” (Poets on Poetry 02/01/13, 2013).
- Crowley, A. (1929) Magick Book IV : Liber ABA Part III : Magick in Theory and Practice [online] Retrieved from: http://www.sacred-texts.com/oto/aba/defs.htm [Accessed: 4 Dec 2013].
- Frost, R. (1923). Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening [online] Retrieved from: http://www.poetryfoundation.org/poem/171621 [Accessed: 2 Dec 2013].
- Lindsay, Dr. A. (2013). Lecture #1: What Is Poetry? When Is a Poem?.
- Poe, E. (1849). Annabel Lee. [online] Retrieved from: http://www.poetryfoundation.org/poem/174151 [Accessed: 6 Dec 2013].
- Poets on Poetry 02/01/13 (2013). The College of St. Scholastica. [online] Retrieved from: http://youtu.be/0z3H8LNyHfE [Accessed: 30 Nov 2013].