Supplemental Log: What is poetry?

Presumably, we all know a poem when we see one, but how do we know?

Certainly we know because poems look like poems and sound like poems and maybe even feel like poems. Yet, how do poems obtain that look and sound and feeling? Exactly what is poetry?

The Merriam-Webster dictionary tells us poetry is “writing that formulates a concentrated imaginative awareness of experience in language chosen and arranged to create a specific emotional response through meaning, sound, and rhythm.”

Well, of all the highfalutin … to paraphrase MW:

Poetry is a type of writing wherein the writer — or poet — takes everything they know about the look and sound and feeling of words and language to create a specific effect of look and sound and feeling.

But, really, this is true of all good writing.

Now in college, there is much fun to be had at the expense of unsuspecting academics by defining poetry as “the extreme intensification of language with special attention to its connotative and denotative powers for deriving the maximum significance.”

Put simply, “poetry is jamming as much meaning as possible into as few words as possible.”

My own highfalutin definition was based on my experience of how big words tend to sound smart and are impressive when pronounced-and-used correctly. It’s the kind of thing you store in your dinner party arsenal so you can hold your own in a conversation.

The fact of the matter is: MW’s definition is true whether you’re writing a poem or a novel or a dinner party tidbit. It’s a definition for good writing in general, but we’re looking for poetry in particular.

This is something you have to decide for yourself and which will be discussed again in the final email, because true pedants repeat themselves to make sure the folks don’t forget who’s right.

So, quick review:

  • The dictionary definition of poetry: writing that formulates a concentrated imaginative awareness of experience in language chosen and arranged to create a specific emotional response through meaning, sound, and rhythm.
  • MW paraphrased: poetry is a type of writing wherein the writer — or poet — takes everything they know about the look and sound and feeling of words and language to create a specific effect of look and sound and feeling.
  • Yupster-stumping dinner-party definition: the extreme intensification of language with special attention to its connotative and denotative powers for deriving the maximum significance.
  • THAT paraphrased: poetry is jamming as much meaning as possible into as few words as possible.

Now, how do you define poetry?

Go ahead and define it for yourself; the only wrong answer is to say “Stupid,” while the only stupid answer is to say “it depends” or something else of that nature. If someone asks you “what is poetry?” your answer depends on you and you alone.

You can put it in plain and simple language; you can try to sound  like a literary savant (but saying it so it doesn’t sound practiced takes a lot of practice, it should trip off the tongue like it was nothin’); you can preface whatever you say with “Well I think poetry …” that way folks don’t think you’re trying to force-feed them your opinions, which you really don’t have to worry about if you’re swapping definitions with other people who just want to talk about poetry for the sake of talking about poetry (a.k.a. your poetry friends); just whatever you do share it.

Go talk to people about poetry. Agree. Disagree. Whatever. Sharing’s not just for kindergarteners.