I recently maddened some people when I attacked contemporary poetry. I apologize for that. Instead of my usual negative comments I am going to examine poetry and see if through dialogue and analysis, I can come up with any meaningful observations. At least meaningful for myself. I think this will be the first of several postings on this topic, mostly because it's a broad discussion, and I don't want to do a long treatise. Instead, I want to turn the stone and look at a few facets.
I spoke to my friend Chuck (who should update his blog) recently on this topic. He finished writing a poem about a personal experience. The poem was a paragraph of feeling, well expressed and obviously drawn from a raw pool.
A good paragraph. But poetry? Since when did paragraph writing become poetry? Someone will immediately respond: "That's free verse." Yeah? Maybe. But what if a short story writer decided to do that? What if we ignored all the structure and conventions? What if we wrote our story without punctuation, without any respect for the conventions of plot, character development, or theme? What if we wrote a story that spun wildly about, bouncing from point to point until it flamed off the page?
If we responded like some of the poets, we'd say: "Well, I was expressing myself. I know it doesn't have any structure, it's "Free Prose." Right.
So allow me to return to the first point of this posting: What is poetry? or at least what is it today?
Unlike "novel" or "short story" I don't think there are any good definitions. Many people will respond intuitively: "I can't explain it, but I know it when I read it." In fact, this echoes a statement made by the self-destructive and neurotic Emily Dickenson: "If I read a book and it makes my body so cold no fire ever can warm me, I know that is poetry."
Yeah..well..thanks Emily. Lemme jot that down.
William Wordsworth, defined poetry as "the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings."
Another source asserted: Poetry is formed by sounds and syllables of language combined in distinctive and sometimes rhythmic ways. It can rhyme or have no rhyme to it at all, have structure or none at all.
Rhyme or not rhyme...have structure or none at all?
What the hell??? I sometimes feel most definitions of poetry are significant for their inability to express a definition, or none at all. It's feels too much like a justification or a defense than an honest attempt to develop an intelligent definition of an art form.
Someone else wrote: "Perhaps the characteristic most central to the definition of poetry is its unwillingness to be defined, labeled, or nailed down. But let's not let that stop us, shall we? It's about time someone wrestled poetry to the ground and slapped a sign on it's back reading, "I'm poetry. Kick me here."
Amen!!! Of course, the person who wrote the above paragraph, Mark Flanagan, after stating the problem was ineffective in his ability to slap the sign on Poetry's back. I have that sign in my hand, and I am more than willing to attach it and follow through.
So, what is poetry? Is contemporary poetry different from classic or traditional poetry? Is it an art form, or is it a sloppy rendering of words from an attention deficit group of would be writers who lack self discipline?
I pose that question here, without answer. Consider this an underpainting. In my next posting on poetry, I will sketch large my ideas, offering broad strokes to begin building a broader, more detailed picture of this "art form" which many claim to practice.
J.R., you're going to need to get that stethoscope ready again.