What is Poetry?
First, let me say that my academic training is not in poetry, or even literature. When I was in school, I thought science and rigorous analysis offered definitive answers to all of life’s questions. It was not until I developed some life experience that I realized that life’s mysteries couldn’t be easily quantified and reduced to a set of proven hypotheses supported by appropriate data. But I submit that perhaps this lack, which I constantly feel as I journey through the poetic world, makes me qualified to address the question, “What is poetry?”
I think most poets and non-poets alike would concede that poetry is not as popular an art form in Western culture as it might be. Consequently, many people who encounter poetry are not sure what to make of it (Try reading Billy Collins’ poem “Introduction to Poetry” to get a feel for popular opinion.). To the general public as well as to the poets, I must confess that I sometimes have that problem too.
When I see lines in print that are presented as poetry I wonder sometimes how to view them. Some poems are straightforward and easily understood. Poets like Billy Collins, Li-Young Lee, Robert Frost, Adrian C. Louis and others can be read and basically understood upon first reading. It does help deepen one’s understanding to reread these and other authors, but still a clear understanding can be derived reading their poems just once.
On the other hand, when I read TS Eliot, Wallace Stevens, WS Merwin, Tomas Transtromer or Wislawa Symborska rereading is mandatory for me to gain understanding of the meaning and beauty of the works. I expect others find this to be the case as well.
Furthermore, I have been mainly citing poets that write in mainly in free verse, excluding Frost who stated, “Writing free verse is like playing tennis without a net.” The advent of free verse or vers libre in French poetry in the nineteenth century opened the way for poets to explore new ways of presenting their ideas without the constraints of meter and rhyme. This exploration led to what we have today when many feel that it appears anything goes in poetry.
A reaction to this has been the New Formalist movement championed by former NEA Director, Dana Gioia and others. This group feels that poetry must have structure in order to be effective and in fact to be poetry at all. Here, however, I take my cue from something I read in a recent issue of Poets & Writers magazine which asks the question, “Was it really necessary to have an argument within poetry about avant-garde and new formalism? Isn’t there room enough in poetry for everyone? It seems to me that for a work of art to be valid it must first connect with its audience in some way. Four time National Poetry Slam winner Patricia Smith’s poem Undertaker resonates with me as much as Eliot’s Four Quartets.
On occasion I have taught a class at a local senior center on poetry appreciation and writing. In the first class we do an exercise where we brainstorm answers to the question, “What is poetry?” Each group comes up with a slightly different definition. Perhaps the best thing to do is look to Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart when defining pornography: “(It) is a difficult thing to define, but I know it when I see it.” I think many of us know poetry when we see it. We just need more of it around!
Ed Krizek was born in New York City and lives in Swarthmore, PA, a suburb of Philadelphia. He holds a BA and MS from University of Pennsylvania, and an MBA and MPH from Columbia University. He is a member of the Unitarian Universalist Church of Delaware County, has published over seventy articles, poems and short stories in various publications, and won prizes in several poetry and short story competitions. You can see more of his work at www.edkrizekwriting.com and follow his blog www.edkrizek.com.