The Essence of Poetry, a Debatable Issue (part one).

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This essay is the first part of a larger essay on poetry and its development.

Submitted: January 11, 2019

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Submitted: January 11, 2019

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The Essence of Poetry, a Debatable Issue (part one).

Ever since the Ancient Greeks the essence of poetry has been a subject of debate. Aristotle’s book The Poetics is probably the first attempt of defining the art of poetry. Through the ages, other authors have succeeded in coming up with ideas to clarify what actually makes good poetry. This essay is not an attempt to establish beyond any doubt what constitutes well-written poetry, but it will go into some aspects of poetry which seem to be more or less obscure to a lot of people. This essay will not deal with rhyme schemes or metrical variations. However, it will sometimes use those terms to clarify a particular point. The aim of this essay is to have people interested in poetry open up their minds to the various ideas that make up the world of poetics, thus offering them a better understanding or appreciation of the field of writing we call poetry. The essay is structured in the form of attempts to find answers to pivotal questions. Both poetry readers and writers of verse may find the essay of interest to them.

What is poetry?

Ask different people this seemingly innocuous question and you will get very different answers. A ten-year-old may come up with a nursery rhyme, a young teenager may tell you there is rhyme, and a sixteen-year-old may utter a very negative remark. Teachers can tell you that the following remark is quite normal for the youngster that had to read some poetry he or she was not able to cope with: “It’s boring.” A grown up in his thirties may have yet another answer. Indeed, the answer depends on the experiences one has had with poetry in its broadest sense. Nevertheless, there is one thing that almost everyone can do; distinguish between poetry and prose as soon as a text is seen on paper. They may mention stanzas or rhyme or meter, or the absence of some, or all of them. Still, they are all capable of recognizing a poem. It led to some people claiming that there is just one true rule of thumb that can be used to describe poetry; the lines of the text do not run from margin to margin. This helped a lot, that is, until some people started writing what they called prose poetry. Those texts do run from margin to margin. One can argue about prose poetry not being a form of poetry. The claim being it is just a short piece of prose that merely has its length in common with true poetry. The jury is still out on this.

What is the correct form of poetry?

Correctness is important to human beings. It is essential to categorize all the things we encounter in life, and we establish that something belongs to a category by judging its appearance. If it looks wrong for the category, then it doesn’t belong there. It is a bit like judging whether the following vehicle belongs to the category of cars. The vehicle has an engine; check. The vehicle uses a fossil fuel; check. It has a licence plate; check. It needs oil in its engine; check. The driver needs a licence; check. It can go onto freeways; check. It has wheels; check. So, it is a car. Wrong. It only has two wheels, that makes it a motorcycle; a completely different category. We apply this way of thinking to everything we see. So, we also apply it to poems. That’s where trouble starts. The constituent parts are not that similar. As soon as there is variation, people would like to establish if one form is better than another. When new forms develop, this is one of the mayor problems. When metre was abandoned by lots of poets, could their work still be called true poetry? This question looks trivial to most modern, experienced readers of poetry, but it was an essential issue when the new style of writing came into being. When the term new-fangled was applied to the new development, it usually meant that the more traditional people involved in the art form objected to it.
Does all this mean that poetry can be whatever you would like it to be? Asking the question means answering it; no that’s not true. Acceptance of the new form becomes essential in deciding whether or not you can call a piece of text a poem. If poetry readers don’t accept it as being a poem, they will probably shy away from or reading it. Consequently, if something runs the risk of not being appreciated by the traditional readers of poetry, a publisher is not likely to put the text in a volume of poetry. Deviating to the extreme from what has become the accepted forms can be a sure way to fail to reach a reading public. This obvious fact is ignored by a lot of people who would like to publish their writing, and who get turned down by publishers. A publisher is just a human filter between an author and a reading public. Unfortunately, it is not a perfect filter. A publisher pays a number of people to judge whether to publish something or just chuck it in a bin. Those who judge the texts have their own tastes and their own prejudices about everything they have to read. On top of that they have to consider if something has commercial merits too, otherwise the publishing company will make a loss. It is not a fail-safe procedure. It certainly does not mean that everything a publisher ignores to publish as poetry belongs to the category non-poetry. It may mean that the poetry is not up to the standard wanted by the publisher, or it may not be commercially appealing enough.

What is the influence of time?

Time is another essential factor in deciding if something can be called poetry. It may well be that a particular type of writing - which is not ordinary prose - may become part of the poetic corpus on a later date. At present, there is a debate going on about rap lyrics being poetry or not. If it gets rejected as poetry in this day and age, it may well be that in a number of years, rap lyrics are perfectly acceptable forms of poetry. One important group of people that can help in speeding up the acceptance of a particular form of writing belonging to a genre, is the group of students who study literature at universities. As soon as sufficient numbers of students want to write about the new form, a giant step forward in acceptance is made.

 

Other aspects of poetry are going to be dealt with in part two of this essay.

 


© Copyright 2019 Bert Broomberg. All rights reserved.

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