Academy Log: Poems Defining Poetry

Let them read poems.

So, we each have our own working definition of poetry, summing up how we experience the stuff. We each, also, can quote a poet — most likely a dead one — who said something just so right about a poem that the conversation must be over.

It isn’t. Why? Because, officially, this conversation has been going on for more than 2,000 years and it would be mighty presumptuous to say we’ve solved this recurring riddle that man has battled for so long. (Frankly, it’s a little embarrassing that dictionaries think they know what’s what.)

The discussion of poetry officially began c.335 BCE with Aristotle’s Poetics, a work that has only half survived since he wrote it; spoiler, he preferred verse be short and written as performable scenes (verse dramas) over the oh-so-impressive-and-lengthy-and-wordy epics.

Then — and this is what we’re aiming for today, folks — in c.19 BCE this Roman guy named Horace wrote a poem about poetry called Ars Poetica or “The Art of Poetry”. How brilliant is that? There’s an approximately 2,000-year-old poem out there about poetry. (Be still, my heart.)

Specifically, he talks about three main points:

  1. Unity of Effect (a term made popular by Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Importance of the Single Effect in a Prose Tale” and brought home by his “Philosophy of Composition“), the idea here is that no element of the poem is left to chance and every choice that can be made is made (not unlike knowing the F4Q exist and using them);
  2. Special considerations when writing verse dramas (like those later written by Shakespeare and Marlowe), builds off the Unity of Effect/F4Q since those building blocks are necessary even to character/story development (not kidding); and,
  3. What makes a poet (Horace believed in common sense, humility, high ideals of man & poetry; this coming from a time and place when poetry was held in high esteem and poets were essentially prophets).

Your mission is to read some poems about poetry. Those three little words will get 54 million search results, including websites dedicated to making lists of this very topic, but they’re linked to the Poetry Foundation’s website which has a killer browser that will come in handy all through this series. (If I could have babies with their website I would, and they would be brilliant.)

Oh, and here’s a small but incredibly popular and definitive poem extracted from Alexander Pope’s An Essay on Criticism (which makes me want to pee myself) that has the whole Unity of Effect thing down pat:

True ease in writing comes from art, not chance, 
As those move easiest who have learned to dance.
'Tis not enough no harshness gives offense,
The sound must seem an echo to the sense:
Soft is the strain when Zephyr gently blows,
And the smooth stream in smoother numbers flows;
But when loud surges lash the sounding shore,
The hoarse, rough verse should like the torrent roar;
When Ajax strives some rock's vast weight to throw,
The line too labors, and the words move slow;
Not so, when swift Camilla scours the plain,
Flies o'er the unbending corn, and skims along the main.
Hear how Timotheus' varied lays surprise,
And bid alternate passions fall and rise!

Find a poem you would gladly recite from start to finish to accompany your dinner party definition and your fair game cheat; the poem you just need to know.