Literary criticism

What is Poetry?

By: Geoffrey Hoffman


What is poetry? In what form should it be written? Ought it to be written at all, or is it nothing but escapist nonsense behind which we shy from reality?

These are questions so old that it has become unfashionable to ask them, even though no one is satisfied with the answers that have been given in the past. The reason for this is, I think, that people talk at length about poetry without attaching any clear meaning to the word. It is Greek in origin, and its original meaning was ‘making’; but it divorced itself from that meaning millennia ago. Nowadays the word has half-a-dozen different interpretations, all of them valid. It is, for example, sometimes used to mean ‘verse’, or ‘beauty’ (as in ‘the poetry of nature’) or purple-passage writing of any sort. These different concepts have all attached themselves to the existing word ‘poetry’, and taken it over as a convenient label. The process was so gradual that it was barely recognised. The result is that thinkers tend to use the blanket-word ‘poetry’ without distinguishing its different meanings. Often they set out to define the word, rather than the meanings behind it. Confusion follows.

In asking what poetry is, I am concerned with only one of the sub-meanings of that word. What I want to isolate and define is the quality whose presence turns a piece of writing into great poetry. In this sense of the word, poetry can be written in prose. Take for example the opening pages of Dickens’ Bleak House, or the ending of Charles Lamb’s Dream Children, or any of the shorter prose works of the French Romanticist Chateaubriand. From them it is clear that prose can be poetic. But is it essentially the same as poetic verse?
The opposite of the poetic quality may be termed the prosaic quality. Anybody who has read reams and reams of dull verse (for example, a good deal of Clough) will recognise that a prosaic quality can be found in verse as well as in prose. In this sense, prosaic verse is essentially the same as prosaic prose.

What then is the difference between verse and prose, the poetic and prosaic qualities? The first step towards disentangling these complexities must be to take a much closer look at the borderline, which divides verse from prose.

The following passage from Pater’s description of the Mona Lisa was written by him in continuous prose. The transition was by Yeats.

“She is older than the rocks among which she sits;
Like the Vampire,
She has been dead many times,
And learned the secrets of the grave:
And has been a diver in deep seas,
And keeps their fallen day about her;
And trafficked for strange webs with Eastern Merchants,
And, as Leda,
Was the mother of Helen of Troy,
And, as St. Anne,
Was the mother of Mary;
And all this has been to her but as the sound of lyres and flutes,
And lives
Only in the delicacy
With which it has moulded the changing lineaments,
And tinged the eyelids and the hands.”

It seems that the borderline between free verse and prose is very uncertain indeed.

What has traditionally been regarded as verse might be defined as composition in a predetermined form of rhythm. In the following attempt to define this further, all examples are taken from what is universally accepted as poetry. The verse of Classical Latin and Greek poetry depended on metrical forms based on artificial vowel lengths without any set number of syllables per line, and (at least before Catullus) without rhyme. Among the best-known examples are the works of Homer and Virgil. These show beyond doubt that neither great poetry nor verse has to be written in lines of uniform length or in rhyme. And certainly English verse need not rhyme: to argue otherwise is to say that English unrhymed or ‘blank’ verse can never give rise to poetry – which would be to reject most of Milton, Wordsworth and Shakespeare. How far verse must be of ‘predetermined form’ is already becoming a problem.

I have never heard anyone deny that parts of the Hebrew Bible contain poetry of the highest order. To say there is no poetry in Hebrew is tantamount to saying that poetry can be written in some languages but not in others: which is absurd. Yet Hebrew poetry is written in a form of verse, which is alien by modern western standards. Even the psalms are, in the most ancient texts, written as continuous prose. When divided into lines of verse, they reveal no predetermined rhythmic scheme whatever. What does appear is a repetitive movement (or rhythm) of ideas. The following is one of the best and clearest examples of this. It comes not from the psalms, but from Jonah.

“For Thou didst cast me into the depth,
In the heart of the seas,
And the flood was round about me;
All Thy waves and Thy billows
Passed over me….
The waters compassed me about, even to the soul;
The deep was round about me;
The weeds were wrapped about my head.
I went down to the bottoms of the mountains;
The earth with her bars closed upon me for ever;
Yet hast Thou brought up my life from the pit….”

Here the same basic idea is echoed in line after line, each time in slightly different words, and usually with a development of the thought from line to line. This system is known as ‘parallelism’. It is a kind of rhythm of ideas, and even in the original Hebrew it is apparently unconnected with metrical stress.

It follows that great poetry need not be limited to “composition in a predetermined form of rhythm”. In other words, this example shows that poetry need not be written in any formal system of verse.

Chinese poetry is based on a similar system of parallelism in unrhymed free verse. It cannot be denied that Chinese verse exists, though it has little in common with western forms; and the Chinese would rightly be outraged if we denied that there was such a thing as Chinese poetry. It is one of their most honoured skills.

These examples of non-western poetry have put three matters beyond question: first, that verse can sometimes not be easily distinguished from prose; secondly, that poetry in verse cannot always be distinguished from poetic prose; and finally, that poetry is not dependent on, or confined to, formal systems of verse.

All the kinds of verse we have looked at so far contain some kind of recognisable repetitive movement (or rhythm) such as may often be found in prose. Though a poetic quality can exist independently of verse, is it dependent on any form of rhythm? In the following passage from Kingsley’s The Water Babies, which is of course written in prose, a repetitive movement is very largely responsible for the poetic effect:

“And he watched the moonlight on the rippling water,
and the black heads of the firs, and the silver-frosted
lawns, and listened to the owl’s hoot, and the snipe’s
bleat, and the fox’s bark, and the otter’s laugh….”

On the same page in my edition comes an equally poetic, though seemingly un-rhythmic line:

“A bright red light moved along the riverside, and threw
down into the water a long taproot of flame,”

Rhythm may be the basis of the poetry here, but its form is so weak (at least in the second part of the sentence) that we hardly sense it at all – unless we are deliberately hunting for it. In fact most poetic prose, being denied metrical rhythm, depends far more on visual imagery. Paradise Lost could not have been written in prose (English prose, that is) because it depends on a peculiar Miltonic music; but The Wind in the Willows, with its gentle visual appeal, could not have been written in verse.

To sum up: poetic verse cannot always be distinguished from poetic prose; there is no clear borderline between verse and prose; a poetic quality can be found even in extreme examples of each; verse may be of great assistance to poetry, but the two are in no way inseparably linked.

Nevertheless, verse and poetry are so often found together as to be definitely associated in our minds. Why? To answer that question it is necessary to define poetry, and then to see how and why it achieves its effect.

Up to the present day, definitions of poetry have tended to conflict, because they have been influenced by the standards of their age. Pope looked in poetry for ‘wit’ – “What oft was thought, but ne’er so well expressed.” The nineteenth century looked for imagination, the love of nature, and emotion. Matthew Arnold was even to look back and declare: “Dryden and Pope are not classics of our poetry; they are classics of our prose.” Later poetic opinion renounced the views of Matthew Arnold and nineteenth century ideals as an emotional blind alley. In the twentieth century, some followed Eliot towards the Metaphysicals, or Auden to the ultra-modern for the main line of the tradition. Others strove for originality to the extent of abolishing punctuation or deliberately setting out to shock.
The struggle between traditionalist and modernist has always seemed meaningless to me. What does it matter how a poem is written, so long as it is written well?

There are at least two conflicts here: between the Romantic and the intellectual; between the old and the new. These schools are so extremist that all sides of the question must be partly right. To model oneself only on time-worn enthusiasms is to make one lose touch with the age, so as to become irrelevant to it. On the other hand it is equally pointless to discard experience, and there is no absolute virtue in being new – that sort of modernism is only an antidote for the inferiority complex. Romanticism and Classicism and intellectualism and all the other poetic isms are complementary trends. There need not be a main line of poetry. Indeed, how could there be a main line of poetry? Who laid the rails?

Metaphysicals, Classicists, Romantics, Modernists and all the rest of them: they all represent aspects of poetry. Any attempt to discredit one of them can only be moulding reality to suit a theory. What is required is a definition of poetry that will embrace them all.
Yet before we can attempt a definition we must face up to one further clash of poetic ideals: the conflict between subject and style. There was a school, which flourished once in France, that declared the sound of a poem to be all that matters – that a great poet does not need a great subject. Their works included:

“Craie et silex, et herbe et silex,
Et herbe et craie et silex,
Et silex.”

That is in English:

“Chalk and granite, and grass and granite,
And grass and chalk and granite,
And granite.”

They believed that poetry was in the word, not the thought: in the forme, not in the fond.
Today their ideals are discredited, because a poem which is stylistically perfect cannot retain its appeal for long if it has nothing worth saying. To be a great poet, you must not only express yourself well; you must also have something worth expressing. Southey’s Curse of Kehama for instance is so verbally brilliant that it can only have failed to be in the first rank of poetry because its story has no lasting value to the reader. Or, if you believe that the subject of a poem is irrelevant to its effect, read over again Donne’s straightforward declaration:

“Death, be not proud, though some have thought thee
Mighty and dreadfull, for thou art not so.”

There is no verbal ornamentation here, only an impact of meaning and rhythm. It could almost be said that Donne’s religious poetry is all subject.

Today there is a tendency among some poets to consider the meaning as the only thing that matters in a poem. One or two critics are so keen to analyse what a poem says, and in particular how it reflects human realities, that they barely seem to notice how the poem is actually written, what its overall effect is, and how that effect is achieved: in a word, the style.

Surely we are driven to the conclusion that poetry is neither wholly in style nor in subject, but in the general effect created by both. In the sense we are discussing, poetry is a quality: it is the general evocative effect of a poem, as a blend of all the facets of style and theme. Perhaps we are now ready to venture a definition.

Poetry is that quality in written composition which arouses, evokes or ‘pleases’ in the Wordsworthian sense of that word. It works through the emotions, the intellect, the aural and visual senses, though these four media need not all be emphasised to the same degree.

In other words, poetry is that quality which evokes a certain class of reaction in the reader – a sense of heightened and excited awareness. The type of poem does not matter, so long as this reaction is produced. Poetry is a blend of different elements into an evocative whole.

It follows that Dame Edith Sitwell’s idea that the object of poetry is to dignify the beautiful must be wrong. Neither the subject matter nor the style need be independently ‘pleasing’, so long as the over-all effect of the poem is so. The tragedy experienced by Hamlet would in real life be horrible, but it is enormously evocative as poetry. War is not beautiful, and Wilfred Owen’s descriptions of it do not dignify it; but his poems are often overwhelming in their poetic effect. In the same way, Eliot’s Waste Land is shocking in its realism, and the words he chooses are often intended to jar by their unpleasant connotations; but the evocative unity of the poem as a whole, and the evocative effect of its parts, are poetry, and it is great.

The fact is that poetry transfers itself in our minds to the literal meaning; yet its value cannot be simply in conveying ideas which could be better conveyed in un-poetic prose.

To summarise: poetry is not solely contained in the subject matter of a poem, nor in its style. Poetry lies in the over-all effect which is created by all the facets of subject and style together. We may analyse Paradise Lost or The Dunciad for all we are worth, without coming nearer to an understanding of what makes them poetry. They are great not because of details (however important those may be) but because of the general impression or effect which they create.

We are faced with the problem of an art which, as Wordsworth said, is “distinguished by its power of giving pleasure”. Such an art would appear to succeed or fall by its readers. Just as beauty is in the eye of the beholder, so poetry is relative to the reader, which means that there can be no absolute standards of what is poetry and what is not: there are no permanent touchstones of poetic taste.
It is not logical to speak, as Dame Edith Sitwell did, of “the object of poetry”. Poetry is not a human being with intentions and purposes; poetry can have no object of its own. Individual poets may have different objects in writing, and different readers may have different objects in reading, but poetry itself can have no object. I do not think this matters. It does not prevent poetry from having a use, indeed a value, from the point of view of the writer, and the reader, and – who knows? – perhaps from the point of view of God.
But before we can say what use if any there is to poetry, further questions must be answered. We have seen that poetry is an evocative art, since it is identified by its power of evoking certain reactions in the reader. What exactly are those reactions? When I first mentioned them, I defined them as “a sense of heightened and excited awareness.” Awareness of what? What exactly is it that poetry evokes?

Eliot has said that the best poetry will communicate on a first reading; that it will rouse in us a sense of familiarity, as if we were for a moment identified with the poet’s mind, and knew his poem from the inside, although we had never seen it before. One might describe this as “the creative sympathy”, since the reader is in effect being drawn into communion with the state of the author’s mind at the moment of creation. Tennyson’s description in Locksley Hall of tropic islands (and is it at the same time a description of peach blossoms on a blue sky?) as “summer isles of Eden on dark purple spheres of sea” gives us more than visual appreciation. Reading it in its context, we receive a positive shock of creative pleasure, however many times the image is re-read. Similarly, Eliot’s Waste Land communicates before it is understood, because it transfers to us the driving urgency of a need for expression. Or take the much-argued-over passage from Shelley –

“Life like a dome of many-coloured glass
Stains the white radiance of eternity.”

Of course the simile is literally unsound; but what we are offered is the opportunity of being swept up in the poet’s own overwhelming sense of creative ecstasy: we are in his mind at the moment of creation.

Of course this is not a state of heightened ‘awareness’ in the sense that we are literally aware of the poet’s delight in creation. It is, rather, that in reading we experience what one might almost call a heightened state of consciousness, an excitement that is neither wholly emotional nor intellectual. What great poetry evokes in us is a subconsciously communicated sense of the absolute joy of twisting words into worlds, the glory of perfect creation.

This is true also of comic and satiric verse, of comic and satiric poetry: they attain the status of great poetry when the rhythm and the choice of words are exactly what they should be for the poet’s purpose; when the rhyme (if there is rhyme) seems inevitable; and these elements combine to point the sense and evoke just the right syllabic fall to achieve punch where it is needed. Consider Dryden’s description of Shadwell –

“Og from a Treason Tavern rowling home.
Round as a Globe, and Liquored ev’ry chink”.

Of their kind, these lines are perfect. Every word is in place, and the image could not be improved upon. But the effect is not merely that of a joke, to be laughed at once and passed by. The effect grows in the re-reading. What we are experiencing (all unconsciously) is the delight of the author as he tried and tested word after word, balancing syllable against syllable, until – Eureka! – perfection had been created. It is not only the actual perfection of the two lines that appeals to us, but even more the poet’s delight in attaining that perfection. It is the creative sympathy at work once more. We almost feel that, with the author, we create.

Is there any ideal form of poetry? I doubt it very much. We hear a good deal nowadays about originality and breaking away from convention, as if they had anything to do with the production of great poetry. Of course originality can be admirable, but striving for originality has a tendency to become a convention in itself, with its own stock jargon of breakthroughs and disillusionment, and its own stereotyped attitudes. This form of modernism has nothing to do with the creation of poetry, which is not bound to any school or dogma, or any set form or use of language, whether old-fashioned or avant-garde. The great writer need not be tied down to any one method or outlook. A true poet will not use poetry to express a clever pattern (though he may do so incidentally) but to express him- or herself. Whatever approach is chosen, the poetry will be great only if the poet is great.

So now we come to the nub of the argument: what use is poetry?
None of the great poets has been able to give a satisfactory explanation of why he or she writes, or why other people should wish to read. Surely, poetry must have some value other than merely dressing up pretty pictures of pretty flowers in pretty-pretty words! If it were not so, how could so many great minds of all ages have derived so much emotional and intellectual satisfaction from poetry? True poets, as distinct from mere writers of verse, have a driving need to write, which is very like a blind religious impulse, totally unrelated to what analytic critics may think:

“Behold, they speak an idle thing…
I do but pipe because I must,
And sing but as the linnets sing.”

That being so, why does a poet write?
Over the centuries there have been many suggested answers to this question: for example, Aristotle’s idea of katharsis or purging of the mind (which strictly applies only to tragic poetry); Milton’s declaration that “fame is the spur”; the need to communicate ideas and feelings; the desire for self-clarification; the love of language; and the intercourse of minds. All these must play some part in the need to write and the desire to read and be read, but together they do not add up to the poet’s sense of fervour, even of urgency; nor do they explain the excitement that a great poem evokes in the reader. The complete effect of evocation is more than the sum of such component parts.

The classic poets of Greece and Rome used to believe that poetry was the gift of a god. Until quite recently, people spoke of poetic ‘inspiration’, forgetting that what that literally meant was that the poetry was ‘breathed’ into them from outside. (Spirare is of course the Latin for ‘to breathe’.) Poetry in ancient Athens was invented as part of a religious ceremony: the festivals of Dionysus who was in origin an ecstatic god. The poetry (which was declaimed by actors) seems to have been designed to rouse the audience to a state of religious ecstasy. It may well be, therefore, that the poetic and religious feelings are linked.

Of course I do not suggest that poetry must have a religious subject, or can be written only by those who believe in God. That would be ridiculous. It is quite possible to be roused to poetic excitement by poems that express religious opinions with which the reader disagrees. Few people nowadays accept Milton’s theology, but they can still be carried away by the dramatic sweep of Paradise Lost. Millions who do not believe in Zeus and Aphrodite have appreciated Homer. But the over-all effect that a great poem arouses is surely akin to religious feeling. It should be possible for an agnostic or atheist to accept this, since I am not talking about whether or not there is a God, but about feelings: about the nature of that exaltation which, for whatever reason, believers have in actuality experienced. A great poem makes one break out in a cold sweat of excitement, a gut reaction whose intensity is akin to that of religious experience. If a poem does not have this effect, it has failed. For this reason there is no such thing as bad poetry – as distinct from bad verse. A piece of verse can be good, bad, mediocre or superb, but it will not achieve poetry unless it is what we normally call ‘great’. Poetry is great, or it is nothing.

It does not follow that only emotional poetry is poetry. It is poetry’s capacity to rouse an intense reaction in the writer and the reader that matters, not merely the ideas or feelings expressed. Thus humorous verse can be effective as verse, but it can also be effective as poetry: because humour is a gut reaction, an instinct very near the human surface. There are hundreds of satiric lines in Chaucer or Pope that trigger the creative sympathy in us, and send a shudder of incredulous appreciation shivering down the spine. It is more than our everyday reaction to a good joke, and more than appreciation of the verse as good verse. It is appreciation of the poetry as poetry: a reaction of religious intensity, bearing in mind that a religious reaction can be either emotional or intellectual.

I suggest that a quasi-religious experience is what (consciously or subconsciously) we seek when we skim through an anthology of verse, whether modern or otherwise; and the same is true when we steep ourselves in great music, or are fascinated by great visual art. So intense an experience is one we rarely find, and that is why even the major poets are often disappointing: an intense quasi-religious experience cannot be conjured up at the flick of a finger, even by the greatest of poets or other creative artists; but that, I suggest, is what (consciously or subconsciously) they are striving to achieve, and it is this which makes the writing of poetry, and the creation of great art and music, worth-while.

Whether or not this theory is correct, it must be evident why poets generally write in verse. What rhythm gives in common to both verse and rhetoric is the power of evocation – that is, of stimulating the excitement of the audience. Poetry tends to be written in verse simply because both are evocative in their effect. A poet is someone who wishes to write in an evocative manner and is therefore drawn to choose an evocative medium. The best one for the purpose is, and will remain, verse.

There is no doubt that the modernist approach to poetry was necessary when it began. Just as there was need for a reaction against Victorian emotionalism, and later against the neo-romanticism of the Edwardian period, so there had to be a reaction against their use of language. Edwardian style had fallen into a pit of conventionality. Examples are the use of words like azure for blue; deep for sea; and emotional references to the heart or soul. The language of poetry had to be returned to the language of everyday. It needed kicking back to life. The act of doing this came to be known as modernism, but then it developed into a striving to be unconventional at all costs, to the point where the linguistic tricks of modernism have themselves become a convention.

The prime example of this is the modernist trick of avoiding punctuation. If used sensibly, lack of punctuation can have its use in building up the momentum of ideas, or carrying the reader’s excitement on from line to line. Starting a line without a capital letter can make the meaning either clearer or less clear, depending on how it is used. Similarly a lack of syntax could (for example) emphasise a message that the world is in chaos – but often the absence of capital letters, or of any punctuation or logical syntax, simply obscures the meaning; too often the poet avoids them solely as a stylistic trick, because it is the required style for modernists: in other words, a convention.

This does not mean that we must revert to outdated ideas and outworn styles, like tramps putting on old clothes. What it does mean is that there can still be magic in nature, in imagination and in language. What matters most in a poem is that quality which transmutes verse into poetry by giving it magic: that is, the power to rouse the reader to a state of excitement, almost of exaltation, through language that plays on him or her as a harpist plays on a harp.

It makes no difference at all what subject or style the poet adopts. All that matters is the ability to cast a spell with thought, feeling and words.

Further than this, I can speak only for myself; but when I write, this is my immediate feeling: the breaking out of suppressed mental energy, which must be tamed; an impatient chaos, a driving aimlessness, which must be resolved into order; and linguistic order at that, because I am in love with language. As to why this need to crystallise perfection out of imperfection exists, I am aware that it is fundamentally a desire to create, and to arouse in others the creative sympathy. The subconscious sexual implications are obvious; but I like to think also that in a small degree it is sharing the creative ecstasy of God. For this reason, my poetry (even my comic poetry) is a form of religion. In every poem, I am a prophet in search of a cause.


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