Oh, No, You Didn’t; or, In Which I Venture Forth a Definition of Poetry

In his incredible book Homo Deus, a sweeping view of the entire history and future of the human species, Yuval Noah Harari, asserts that over time we have greatly reduced the incidence of the three major threats of much of our history: famine, plague, and war; and will in the not too distant future also get under control economic and ecological equilibrium, the two things he identifies as the key modern issues. What will we do then, he asks, and jocularly offers a suggestion: “What will the scientists, investors, bankers and presidents do all day? Write poetry?”

Oh, ha ha. What a joke. Who would do a crazy thing like that…?

But it made me thing of the two strong reactions I had recently in one week as I was encountering poetry:

– “Wow, people are writing some really interesting poetry,” and

– “Oh, dear.”

I ran into some really good work this week, as I was poking around in what people are up to from various fine presses — powerful, inventive. Wow. It is humbling. And inspiring!

And I also ran into work on the other side of the spectrum in some closer encounters. Somehow too many people have gotten the impression that if you put heartfelt thoughts on paper in short lines, and rhyme the endings, you have a poem.

It’s okay to write your heartfelt thoughts on paper in full sentences. You don’t need to make rhymes. The process itself is the point. The record will make for an interesting encounter with yourself years hence. If you have to call it something, call it a diary or memoir or thoughts on life.

Poetry is…well, as soon as I write a definition, I’ll begin to argue with myself, and doubtless you will too. But I’m going to give it a shot.

Poetry is experience/memory/sensation/idea/imagination distilled and thoughtfully crafted with:

– an ear to sound, an ear to silence

– an eye to how it sits on the page (IF it sits on the page), an eye to density, to white space, to line breaks, stanza size and number

– a deliberate creation of rhythm and arhythm

– use of imagery, metaphor, simile developed through imagination

– some awareness of what has come before in poetry tradition

– a sense of something at stake in what is being addressed and how it is being addressed

So come on, all you scientists, investors, bankers, presidents, average schmos. The species could do worse than to concern itself with the task of writing good poetry. AND work on solving all those other problems. In rhyming couplets of iambic pentameter.

One thought on “Oh, No, You Didn’t; or, In Which I Venture Forth a Definition of Poetry

  1. Thank you for the thought-provoking definition, Marilyn.

    The opening paragraph reminded me of a quote from John Adams: “I must study politics and war that my sons may have liberty to study mathematics and philosophy. My sons ought to study mathematics and philosophy, geography, natural history, naval architecture, navigation, commerce, and agriculture, in order to give their children a right to study painting, poetry, music, architecture, statuary, tapestry, and porcelain.” Sadly, we are still having to deal with politics and war, but some of us are able to also move onto the further studies that Adams envisions, including poetry. I’m sorry Harari made a joke of it.

    Like

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