Dedicated to culture and critical thought since 1998
9/21/1 Misc: alt.arts.poetry.comments

A gathering of poets.

On Wednesday night, I posted the following message on the alt.arts.poetry.comments newsgroup...

Since it seems as though the very highest caliber literary critics are housed here in this newsgroup, I was wondering if anyone would please answer the question, "What is Poetry?" Please limit your answer to one sentence if possible but take two if necessary. I will be posting the responses on my website so, if you don't wish to have your words displayed on the site, don't answer the question. If you do answer the question, the answer will be on the main page on Friday.
L Vargas

Here are the responses...

The first person, "Randi" had this message:

"Poetry is something that cannot be defined in one sentence. A poem is a self-contained collection of words that use various rhetorical and metrical devices, often combined with vivid images and metaphor, to explore, elucidate and constitute human experience and our shared effort to express that experience with an emphasis on grand themes such as existence, identity, god, and death. Poetry is something that cannot be defined even in three sentences."

"Poster Parent" had this retort:

"OK im going to have to fundamentally disagree with almost everything you have just said... a poem is NOT self contained. poetry is networked, fluid and provisional. how can a work be understood without understanding what went before it? poems exist in the mind of the reader, in the language, not in ones hand. words on the page are mere references. a work can only exist in the mind of the reader. subsequently, theyre comprehension, even theyre existence are entirely dependant on the readers own thougths and experiences. poems do not necessarily concern themselves with "grand" themes. since the romantic period no subject has been deemed unworthy for poetry. the worthiness of poetry is justified by the interpretation of the subject matter, how the subject matter is used. to take the ordinary and make it extraordinary is a more common maxim in poetry. thus, poetry can be defined: poetry is when language becomes unfamiliar.

To which "Randi" responded:

Okay, what are some "great" poems that do not concern themselves with grand themes of love, death, time, consciousness, etc.? Maybe they exist, but none spring to mind right now. Let's try to answer my question with poems that are recongized great in the university canon. Not that that's the only canon, but let's see if you can find such a poem among the Shakespeare, Milton, Keats, Whitman, Dickinson, Eliot, Yeats sort of crowd. As far as poems not being self-contained, perhaps I overspoke, but I think you do too. Of course a reader brings his own brain to the equation, and poems exist in a societal context, yada yada yada. But the poem itself is a complete, self-contained entity just like individual people are "self-contained" but exist in a social setting and we react to them based on a complex set of factors. I certainly hope you're not spouting the extreme deconsructionist view that texts don't have any meaning except what the reader brings to them. Whitman wrote that music is what happens inside the brain when you are "reminded by the instruments." I agree with this because it preserves a role for the instruments that provide the reminder. And presumably it gives the same, or at least a similar, reminder to separate listeners. And so the musicical composition and performance can be "self-contained" even though there is a role for the listener. The same with poems. They are self-contained even if they call upon the reader to do a little of the processing and to understand the context.

"Cavesky" has the right idea:

poetry is that certain bitter and sweet piece of the orange-rind that, when you bite into its concentrated essence, brings immediately to mind not only a perfect sensory portrait of the entire orange from which it came, but of every orange you have ever savored.

"Lynda" just chose to type this:

oh goodie! do spelling & grammar count?

Karen Tefelson went the textbook route:

Poetry - verse with artistic value or intent. Verse - written or spoken groups of words that are arranged to take advantage ot the sounds of and rhythm of the words.

Finally, Donald Jones remarked:

I am finding this thread very worthwhile and educational reading. Thanks for asking that question.

ASUNDER PRESS would like to thank the members of AAPC who participated in this exercise.