Sunday, February 18, 2007

Poetry...Let's Talk (part 1)

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.


SQT said...

I am the last person who can comment on this. Just the idea of writing prose makes me itch. I don't know why, but poetry has just never been my thing. I do think it may have a lot to do with studying iambic pentameter in high school. ((shudder))

Every once in a while I'll read some poetry and think it's fantastic, but defining it is beyone me.

Stewart Sternberg said...

prose isn't considered poetry. However, you're right, many people have difficulty with poetry because of the rules with meter and structure.

Travis said...

I can't define poetry either. I've been told that I write poetry and perhaps it is true.

But I think what I write is a collection of words that seem to flow in a lyrical manner, and express my feeling at that moment in time. Sometimes it rhymes, and sometimes it has meter.

I never set out to write in a classical poetry form. I just let the words flow, and then end up calling it a poem for lack of a better word.

Perhaps contemporary poetry is just verse writing?

Robert said...

Thanks for wrestling out loud with this one, Stewart. It reminds me of the Russel Baker quote:

"I gave up on new poetry myself thirty years ago, when most of it began to read like coded messages passing between lonely aliens on a hostile world."

Obviously, I haven't given up. On the contrary, I've pored in time, energy and tuition money into this topic. So, if it's really all about undisciplined self-expression, I've been had. But I know that's not the case.

Contemporary poetry is wrestling with the same thoughts you are wrestling with: with a no-holds-barred approach to verse, how do you construct your own forms? How do you give shapes to those thoughts too deep for words when nobody has a formula? It's either the biggest license to do whatever the hell you want and call it art, or one of the biggest challenges in art: here - a blank page - do something meaningful.

Part of the problem, I think, is that a lot of academic exercises are getting published these days and called poems. People into poetry like them because they stretch the boundaries or play on some extensive and elaborate field of existing thought. But the layman reads it and just goes, "huh?"

That said, there are some great accessible writers out there writing the antidotes to our fast-food media-glut denigration of language. I'd wade through a mountain of esoteric sludge to kiss their feet. And I have.

What is poetry? These days, it's something remarkably rare.

etain_lavena said...

Ghee Stewart, its a difficult question, its like we all have our own idea of what it is. And I agree Prose is not poetry. If you want to read some really good poetry, Inconsectual(his link is on my blog)...writes amazing stuff. My poetry is mostly filled with emotion, ppl complain that when I am depressed and they read my poetry they are depressed so it might be art wearing emotion?

Vwriter said...

What is poetry? Poetry is the vinyl record of literature.

Neitzche wrote, "It's true that I can't prove that God is dead, but that poetry has expired is a certainty, I think."

Zarathustra's puppeteer was, of course, premature, but in the modern world we can not only validate the truth of his intent, but a clever autopsy in the early 1970's defined the cause of its death to be suffocation due to its being pressed to death between e.e. cummings and Hallmark.

Even this analysis is suspect, however. Sylvia Plaith (whom Norman Mailer once called a frustrated writer of graphic novels), hinted that poetry essentially drowned to death in a sea of self-absorption.

In Japan, the art of haiku is still revered, but less so than Britney Spears.

Only in Spain are poets like Pablo Nuerada placed on an equal level with Monoply, but even their they are never exalted to the level of a good video game.

So, what is poetry?

George Orwell said it best:

War is peace.
Love is hate.
Poetry at least rhymes.

SQT said...

prose isn't considered poetry.

Well, I said I couldn't define it....

ShadowFalcon said...

I think poetry is more harder to define then prose or music...peoples tasts vary so much and even what is defined as potery is so vast that you can never really tie it down. Is that is genius or greatest flaw?

Stewart Sternberg said...

Travis, I think your statement is important. You write and then call it poetry? In that statement is the key to something else. I think poetry is a more deliberative thing, but then the definition gives more room for pure emotion.

Robert, thanks for that erudite expression, but in it is a questing person. The question still stands. Intuitively, you say that poetry isn't undisciplined self expression. I beg you to elaborate. If not here, then on your blog, and let me know when it's posted. I am truly wrestling here and need resolution.

etain...poetry filled with emotion is good, but what form? What are the parameters?

Now, I want to see Rick take some heat for his statements on poetry. If I had said those things, I would have people rallying around my corpulent self crying for blood.

Charles Gramlich said...

Here's some helpful definitions / rules that I use:

1. Poetry is that which confuses Stewart Sternberg and drives him toward madness.

As a corollary, 2. If it can be defined by Stewart (i.e., prose) it is not poetry.

Vwriter said...

Mr. Gramlich, I salute your insight.

Stewart Sternberg said...

Okay, Vwriter, least I didn't call it a dead art form. What next? A comment from Michelle?

Anonymous said...

About poetry...I wouldn't dare submit my poetry. But trying it has been useful for me. It's helped me improve my prose, which is what I want to write well and someday be known for. I won't be running out to buy a chapbook anytime soon, but I do look for poetry and craft some so I can write better stories. more lyrical prose. I like a flourish of poetry in prose, mine and others.

Stewart Sternberg said...

gem, I am entirely in agreement. Poetry, when seriously attempted, can do wonders to help with prose. It helps the economy of one's work.

Turnbaby said...

My earliest efforts at reading were guided by my grandmother from her favorite poems. And I am very music oriented and the really good lyrics are poetry. When I wrote before it was most often poetry. Even got an A in the class. Then I just stopped--of course I stopped all creative writing except for fits and starts.

Now I have started writing agan and the poetry seems to be lurking in the background. I may just have to take a stab at it.

As for a definition--i do think it is like porn--I know it when i see it ;-)

Stewart Sternberg said...

It is astonishing to me how fluid the definition seems to be. If a short story writer said: "Well, I don't to worry about the rules. Who cares about POV, or character..." People would think him mad. Yet poetry? Astonishing

Sphinx Ink said...

As an English major in the distant past, I read and analyzed poetry for my classes, but I've never read poetry in my leisure reading. It feels to me like an "assignment."

Ironically, I have found myself writing poems from time to time--mostly following periods of upheaval or tragedy in my life. That impulse, plus the popularity of songs, tells me that humans have a fundamental need for poetry. (And, yes, we must classify song lyrics as poems, as strange as that seems for some of them -- e.g., WILD THING.)

I have found poems I like. My favorite poem is still DOVER BEACH by Matthew Arnold (which I first read in high school). Wistful, rather sad, even existential, but lovely, especially the last lines:

"Ah, love, let us be true
To one another! for the world, which seems
To lie before us like a land of dreams,
So various, so beautiful, so new,
Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light,
Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain;
And we are here as on a darkling plain
Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,
Where ignorant armies clash by night."

Any of you who haven't read it can find it at

Chuck Zaglanis said...

Hi all,

I've posted the poem Stewart refers to on my blog. Feel free to hurl tomatoes and what have you.

For years I've held to the same thoughts on poetry that Stewart and Rick keep close to their wasted dark hearts, but I'm trying to open myself to other interpetations so that I can be more accepting of the poems sent to the magazine I work for. It's not easy, it flys in the face of everything I hold dear about "Invictus" and "Death Be Not Proud" but I'm trying people.

Stewart Sternberg said...

Thanks Sphinx. I like that poem as well. And it is interesting to hear someone say that reading poems makes them feel like they are completing a school assignment.'re the guy who started this whole thing, so people should probably head over to your blog, following my link there, and see what led to this debate.

JR's Thumbprints said...

I'm not going to agree with you on this; however, I will say that a certain spell had been cast upon me; that I had to write a few poems as a requirement for a class. Hey, where is Dr. Brooks anyway? Anyway, I've always been the type of person who would push the envelope on a topic. The only poems that truly fascinate me are from the confessional poets, especially Plath. "Lady Lazarus" is my favorite. Unfortunately, there's no need for a stethoscope in this case.

DonkeyBlog said...

You were in a pensive, cheeky mood when you wrote this post, Mr Sternberg! “Yeah..well..thanks Emily. Lemme jot that down.”

He heh, that’s very funny. Now, in regards to your question,

“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?”

What’s the problem about how it looks or how it reads or what it’s called? If publishers are stupid enough to take a piece of crud that the author’s calling poetry, or short-story writing, or “maverick fiction” (hey, I just made that last one up, but wouldn’t it be great to be marketed as something called a maverick fiction writer?) or whatever, then won’t the market decide whether or not it’s any good? Won’t people vote with their feet?

Reactionary-schmacksionary – everything anyone’s ever written is reactionary – who can write about anything that isn’t some how related to something they experienced or heard? Even sci-fi is reactionary! Poetry is just writing for people with short attentions spans and/or a childish affinity for rhymes!

There, now you see? You’ve gone and got me all riled up and talking shit!