Wednesday, April 22, 2009

What Is “Poetry”? Why Do You Want To Write It? And in What Form?

by Tom Mach

A poem is defined as “a composition in verse, characterized by the imaginative treatment of experience and a condensed use of language that is more vivid and intense than ordinary prose.” A “verse,” on the other hand, is a “metrical composition.” That doesn’t help too much if you just arrived from planet Zorro and wanted to write a poem. Poets may disagree with me, but as far as I’m concerned, poetry is a written expression of one's personal experiences without the constraints of logical, sequenced thought as you might have in an article, essay, or story. The fact that it is so personal makes it difficult for me to judge whether a poem is “great” or “mediocre.” There is much about modern poetry I simply don't understand Even those poems published in literary magazines which have won prizes make me mutter,“What in the world is this s---!” (four-letter obscenity) It’s the same expression I have with much of modern art. Some people will stare in admiration at a canvas that looks as if someone had thrown paint against it and ordered his dog walk across it with painted sponges on its paws. I find a great deal of modern poetry is like modern art. Apparently, it holds a lot of meaning for its creator. A few will admire this “work of art” because it is supposed to be famous so they believe if they stare at it long enough, they’ll "get it." Others might really “get it” and are to be admired for being in tune with the creator’s mind. But then there are still others, like me, who don’t “get it,” and are afraid to say so because they will be thought of as being uncouth and uncivilized.

I think people write poetry for the same reason other people climb mountains: because it’s there. They realize readers won’t be crashing their door demanding to buy their poetry. Readers catching a plane aren’t going to be visiting airport book racks because they’d like nothing better than to entertain themselves with a book of obscure poetry. No, poets write poetry because there is something going off in their minds and they need to express it in words, regardless what others think of it. I am always uneasy when I am in a writers critique group where there is a mixture of prose and poetry writers. Invariably, someone will pass along her poem for us to critique, and invariably, I’m the only one in the group who dares to question what this poem means. The poet gets upset with my question and the others in the group glare at me for asking such a stupid question. I truly believe poets don't want to be honestly critiqued; I think they want to be admired for awaking their muse in some unique way.

Anyway, I did a little research on poetry forms, and came up with a total of 51. Perhaps there are more forms than these. When I was younger, I thought there were only two forms—rhyming and non-rhyming—and I had always assumed that when people talked about poems they were usually referring to the former type. But ever since Whitman came out with his Leaves of Grass, rhyming poetry fell into disfavor. Pick up any book of poetry and I guarantee that the non-rhyming type will vastly outshine the other.

Well, here are the 51 forms of poetry. In the future, I intend to get into some of these with examples of my own:

ABC Acrostic Ballad Ballade
Blank verse Bio Burlesque Canzone
Carpe diem Cinquain Classicism Couplet
Dramatic monologue Elegy Epic Epigram
Epitaph Epithalamium Free verse Ghazal
Haiku Horatian ode Iambic pentameter Idyll
Irregular ode Italian sonnet Lay Limerick
List Lyric Memoriam stanza Name
Narrative Ode Pastoral Petrarchan
Pindaric ode Quatrain Rhyme Rhyme royal
Romanticism Rondeau Senryu Sestina
Shakespearean Shape Sonnet Tanka
Terza Rima Verse Villanelle

Now it’s time for me to turn off my poetry mind and return to my prose mind. (I wonder if that side of my brain has room for both.)

---Tom Mach


Allen Taylor said...

While I disagree with your definition of poetry, I do agree that much of the poetry being written and published today is mere schlock. Like any written medium, the purpose of a poem should be to communicate, not necessarily something personal about the author.

Nevertheless, this was a good read.

banana_the_poet said...

Hello Tom, I came to this post via Twitter.

I enjoyed reading this. I am the kind of poet who likes to try to write 'understandable' poetry.

Mainly because I am writing for people in general and most definitely not just for other poets. Although if they like them that is great too.

I like writing within tight structures and enjoy trying to say as much as possible in as few words as possible.

I view poetry as 'concentrated' writing. Super powerful stuff that should be taken in small drafts for fear of intoxication. Well that's how I like it.

I don't like poetry that patronises or bamboozles or tries to show how wonderfully clever the poet is by knowing lists of names of classical heroes etc.

I am happiest when I have written maybe six lines maximum that make the reader either laugh out loud or feel a powerful emotion 'hit' of some sort.

That's why I write my poetry. Sometimes I get there, sometimes I don't. But I know what I'm aiming for every time.

TimT said...

But ever since Whitman came out with his Leaves of Grass, rhyming poetry fell into disfavor.Not here, it hasn't.

Pick up any book of poetry and I guarantee that the non-rhyming type will vastly outshine the other.Not here, it doesn't. What books of poetry are you referring to exactly? I have some Donne and Spencer on my shelves, and they outshine Whitman any day.

I disagree with your definition as well; so far as I'm concerned, a poem has to express ideas with simplicity and beauty. I get that 'what is this shit' attitude as well, but don't always hold out a hope that the writer did have an idea worth expressing. Sometimes, a bad poem is just a bad poem.

TimT said...

Sorry about the paragraphs. Something screwy is happening with blogger...

TimT said...

Oh, and I forgot also to mention that that list of poetic forms is extremely doubtful. It lists a 'stanza', which I'm 95 per cent sure is not a poetic form in its own right, and a 'carpe diem', which I KNOW is not a poetic form.

Anonymous said...

I loved hearing "I Am the Moon." Maybe that's from your book of poetry. I think it has some very powerful/thoughtful imagery. Generally, I stand in awe of poets like you. PegN

Anonymous said...

real poets are not given the opportunity to have their books widely available - I'm not surprised you don't know this, you are too afraid to say 'shit' on your own blog thinking it obscene. Stick to Harry Potter pal and stop kicking the corpse of Poetry while she's down.

Arthur Chappell said...

Some good points - it's a question of quality and accessibility - is the poem bad because the reader doesn't understand it? Well yes, it's the writer's job to reach you as you buy, read or listen to the work hoping to get something from it. Some poets do like to be obscure, abstract, and put metre before meaning. Poems needn't rhyme - Tim T blames Whitman, who I like, for forsaking Rhyme, but actually a lot of Shakespeare doesn't rhyme - he mainly wrote in blank Verse and sometimes in prose. Rhyme is not essential to a poem. My own poetry, which mostly does rhyme, follows story writing conventions - beginning, middle, end - and is mainly written for public performance so making it accessible is paramount to me. There's bad obscure verse out there but there is good stuff too - the art is far from dead. Arthur Chappell

TimT said...

No, I don't blame Whitman for forsaking rhyme, Arthur... you're confusing what I said in my comments with what Tom said in his post.

TimT said...

The rhymed/non-rhymed distinction is a bit misleading anyway - the argument is typically between free verse (as written by Whitman, Pound, Eliot and others) and traditional verse (as written by Milton, Wordsworth, Pope, etc).

Anonymous said...

Hi Tom. Your definition of poetry appears to originate in the Funk & Wagnalls Standard Desk Edition of 1976, though you don't offer the courtesy of giving us a source. It appears that your research is a bit questionable too. After correcting the spelling mistake in your link, I wasn't too impressed with what I found. But hey, I suppose I shouldn't judge a poem by its cover.

Meriall Blackwood said...

Your definition of poetry looks like the working definition that a lot of modern poets must be using. And I'll have to confess to reacting in much the same way to most modern free verse that I'm presented with.

I'd have to quarrel with it as a definition of traditional poetry, though. It excludes most of the great Western poetical works from the category of poetry.

Stuff that doesn't qualify as personal experience written without any regard to logical, sequenced thought:

Beowulf"She Walks in Beauty"
King Henry VParadise LostManfredSigurd the VolsungThe Canterbury TalesPiers the Ploughman"Jenny Kiss'd Me"
"The Glories of our Blood and State"
The IliadThe AeneidMost of the really major works of Western poetry are not works of personal experience at all: they're not lyric poetry, but epic and dramatic. And until you reach the 19th century, I'm hard-pressed to think of any work that wasn't intended to be clear to listeners of the day, even if it's since become obscure to modern ears.

I'm writing epic poetry, and I intend it to be understood by literate readers of English. So far, none of my critiquers has said, "But what does that even mean?" But you can bet that if they do, I'll be rewriting.

Meriall Blackwood said...

Ack, what a mess. I don't know what happened to my line breaks: my comment looked OK in the preview.