Academy Log: Poets Defining Poetry

Why are we talking “Poets Defining Poetry” when we’ve had to write our own definitions?

Once you have your own definition you are not an immediate connoisseur of poetry who knows what’s what and how everyone should react to something.

You’re equipped with your own dinner party definition of poetry with which to wow that mass of people who like talking about poetry, or like pretending to talk about poetry but who really just like to sound smart (people who may paraphrase your definition later so they can sound as brilliant as you without full-on stealing your definition).

What you have, when you have your own definition of poetry, is ownership of your place in the conversation. Defining poetry for yourself means you have picked yourself a perch from which to view the realm of poetry and start deciding what you like and what you don’t like.

Your definition is your point of view, your opinion summed up as a springboard for how you address every poem you meet. This is the first step to engaging with poetry, and you’ve been doing it since before you could even read (think back to your Itsy Bitsy Spider days).

The second step is understanding that there are other points of view out there; and, the best introduction to that fact is hearing and discussing the definitions of others. Eventually, though, everyone will have voiced their own definition — or mumbled about how it depends which is swiftly followed by someone somewhere giggling angrily — and the question of What is poetry? will still be on everyone’s minds.

This is when you start quoting poets who have at some point voiced their own definition of poetry. These quotes are always fantastic, because in defining poetry it is near impossible for a poet to not wax poetic.

This is the fair game cheatquote a poet’s definition of poetry.

Seriously, get out there and gorge yourself on the musings of poets on their chosen craft and find one that gives you little goose pimples because it’s just too perfect or because it somehow makes your own definition of poetry sound even more brilliant because of that adage great minds think alike.

Oh, and you get to have more than one favorite, my two favorites below (the first about the experience of reading a poem, the second about writing a poem). Sometimes, one definition just isn’t enough. It’s the same with looking at a diamond, gorgeous from every angle. So, go out there and find the facets of the diamond which best appeal to you.

If I read a book [and] it makes my whole body so cold no fire ever can warm me I know that is poetry. If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know that is poetry. These are the only way I know it. Is there any other way?

Emily Dickinson

The poem, even a short time after being written, seems no miracle; unwritten, it seems something beyond the capacity of the gods.

Theodore Roethke