How I define Poetry- Rajnish Mishra

What is Poetry? Well, in my past, in discussions, I’ve never answered this question with certainty or finality. Now is the time and this is the page to define poetry. As it is difficult and faulty to attempt a one line definition, I’ll try to offer characteristics upon which there may be some sort of agreement. Poetry may have some or many of the characteristics mentioned below.

For a modern reader, and not audience, poetry is a thing on page or screen, i.e. a visual form. Alternately, for an audience, it may be taken as an aural-oral form that is for listening to and reciting. As “history is bunk” (Henry Ford), I will not refer to any book or critic to support me in this crucial venture. As a man cannot be but biased, so I am biased, and I am biased towards the aural-oral treatment of poetry. Therefore, it can be said finally that “poetry is a set of sounds that please by being arranged in a pattern of meanings that conforms to a wide range of available possibilities“. That raises the question of verse versus poetry.


Invoking Coleridge’s differentiation of verse from poetry proper, it can be said that poetry is not just a set of patterned sounds. It is much more. It has beauty or/and concentrated meaning in it and both are important. Beauty is given primacy as a defining characteristic of poetry because mere meaning can be conveyed in prose form too, and some say, in a better way. That does not mean that prose is not beautiful. How can a person who’s read even a page of prose in Bacon, The Bible, Dickens, or, if we follow Shelley’s drift in his “Defense”, Plato, can call prose not beautiful?


Poetic beauty, then, is different from beauty in prose (Remember to forget that there’s poetic prose of James Joyce and prose poetry of the modern poets to disprove that point). Poetic beauty constitutes of sound patterns, rhythm, rhetorical figures, tropes, symbols, images and, even in this postmodern age of no fixed points, diction. A poem may not have all the characteristics mentioned above, but it does or may have many of them.  This blog is about creation and appreciation of poetry, about its theoretical questions: raised, answered and unanswered, and above all, about taking joy in it.


If critical theory has succeeded in convincing me of one thing, it is that: ‘It is impossible to define anything, abstract or concrete, with absolute certainty’. Applied on poetry, my wisdom will be re-phrased in a focused manner as: ‘It is impossible to define poetry with absolute certainty’. Convinced as I am of the infallibility of theoretical wisdom, I dare to look into my own practice in life, and find out that I am not at all theoretical. I never ask, ‘Can I define poetry?’ as I do define it, and I know that I do so.


Instead of defining it through the text in hand and its characteristics, poetry can be defined by its effects on the reader/audience. There’s a risk here as the attempt may end up as another footnote either to the Romantic idea of poetry or to the reader-response kind of analysis. As I know that risk, I’ll try to stay clear of both Scylla and Charybdis (conscious allusion to the redoubtable critic-poet Mr. Eliot).

Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?
Thou art more lovely and more temperate.
Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May,
And summer’s lease hath all too short a date.

How does a reader/audience call a piece a poem? How do I call a piece, e.g. the four lines above, poetic? Of course I don’t carry a check list and tick mark characteristics to decide the things. I simply read the lines and vote by the end of the very first line. That will not do in a formal piece of writing. So, let’s see what makes these lines poetic. Does poetry lie in its form? Does it lie in its content? Or is it the appeal of the theme and subject to something in me that makes this piece (subjectively) poetic?


To answer the first question, let’s change the form by the simple act of paraphrasing:


I wonder if I can compare you with a summer’s day, although you are more beautiful, calmer and more soothing to senses. Although strong breezes disturb the calm and peacefulness of the days in that season and the season itself is too short, from the larger perspectives.


I have tried to keep close to the meaning of the verse lines but the result does not sound or feel like poetry. What happened during the transformation? The iambic pentameter lines rhyming in quatrain form were converted into an amorphous prose mass. The play of sounds (e.g. alliteration, assonance and consonance) was altered and watered down. The strategic positioning of key words was lost and there passed a glory from the page. Therefore, poetry has a strong and definite dependence upon form (we’ll not deal with the inconvenient categories of poetic prose and prose-poetry here).


Coleridge had taken another verse to prove a similar point about poetry in his Biographia Literaria. Here’s a very well-known verse that we’ll read to see whether it’s a poem too.

Thirty days hath September,                                                                                           April, June and November;                                                                                             February has twenty eight alone                                                                                All the rest have thirty-one                                                                                   Except in Leap Year, that’s the time                                                                    When February’s Days are twenty-nine

It’s a powerful and useful mnemonic aid and I am very sure that you have heard it. Can it be called a poem? Well, I will never call it a poem. Why? Its content and purpose are not at all in keeping with what we see as poetry, i.e. there are cultural indicators that are unwritten and ingrained up to the sub-conscious level, that make easy and fast decision making possible while differentiating between poetry and non-poetry.  I have been accustomed to, trained in a tradition that does not let me accept the piece above as poetic, although its form is verse. I don’t have to run the paraphrase test here. There’s no need for that as decision making is not at all difficult. Culturally speaking, the content of a piece plays a major role in deciding its type. Now we have reached our third and last question:


Is it the appeal of the theme and subject to something in me that makes this piece (subjectively) poetic? There’s a definite relationship between my liking or disliking a piece and its theme and subject, but that has no relation with its being in verse or prose.


Barring the exemplary exceptions, answering the first two questions will help us decide whether a piece is poetic or not. The process that quickly assesses whether a piece is poetry/poetic or not consists of comparison and/or contrast and placing a new example in relation with the old ones, i.e. assessing the new piece on the touchstone of tradition. Therefore, my expectations from poetry regarding form, content, propriety etc. will decide whether I call something poetry or not, and my expectations will arise from my own past exposure to the poetic tradition.

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