Poetry as Water
In every poetry class over the last three years, I encountered the same question, “What is poetry?” I have the ability to name a dozen of my favorite poets off the top of my head and I can even struggle to compose the occasional poem, but attempting to define what poetry is exactly, frustrates me. I recognize a poem when I see it, most of the time, yet how do I explain it to someone else? Trying to define poetry is like playing the game Taboo. You have to make the other person guess your word using other words except for a select few. For example, I might get the word “Teacher.” I could not say “apple” or “school” while attempting to get my partner to guess my “Teacher.” For poetry, these “Taboo” words might be rhyming, meter, sonnet, and so on. I feel that poetry is a big game of Taboo because I cannot say a poem always rhymes, or has a strict form. While many do, many more do not. My description also cannot be too vague, because then no one will understand what I am trying to say. Poetry is not just any type of art, because then there would not be the word “poetry” in our vocabulary, it would just be “art.”
The definition of poetry has to be water; shifting shape over and over, but there has to be a way to explain poetry without giving up and saying, “It just is what it is.” After many hours, and perhaps years, of pondering and yearning for a simple answer, I finally reached a workable explanation, that by no means is perfect, but I feel I am the closes to the truth then I was this time last year as I tried to express what lyrical poetry is for another class. Poetry is the concise, intentional manipulation of figurative and imagery-centric language to express emotion for a personal experience.
Figurative Language is a universal quality of poetry. Poets such as Emily Dickinson, Shakespeare, Robert Frost and modern poet Sherman Alexie utilize metaphors, colors, and imagery to convey their messages. In Rainer Maria Rilke’s “Panther,” the image of a large, majestic beast, trapped behind unbreakable bars becomes Rilke’s metaphor for the human condition. He does not just write that humans are trapped in life. Instead Rilke uses an extended metaphor, “/It seems to him there are/ a thousand bars; and behind the bars, no world./” The entire essence of figurative language is to replace people, things, abstract ideas, and emotions in a way that emphasizes an authors point. Not only does figurative language highlight a message, but more often than not, the use of metaphors, simile, personification, calls upon the audience to visualize a poem.
Nearly every poet I read uses words to paint a picture on the canvas of imagination. Some poets, such as Sherman Alexie in his poem “One Stick Song” and Sylvia Plath in many of her poems including “Tulips” use colors to illustrate their poems. In “Tulips,” Plath focuses on the color red to connect to pain. With the line “/Their redness talks to my wounds, it corresponds./” a reader can picture vibrant flowers, gifts from the speakers family intended for good, conversing with the wounds of a miscarriage, thus adding to the speakers already anguished state. Sherman Alexie writes, “I will sing of my uncle/ and the vein that burst in his head// o, bright explosion, crimson and magenta/o, kind uncle, brown skin and white T-shirt/” in “One Stick Song.” The colors in his poem also hold meaning as well as a powerful image of a vein bursting in the head. The usage of “brown” in connection with a person wearing the color of innocence, “white” may also guide an audience to Alexie’s meaning. Unlike novels and other works, poetry’s figurative language is concise, even in what we consider longer pieces.
When language is used in poetry, it packs a punch with small fists. Some poets have the ability to divulge a tantalizing tale in a few lines whereas it might take novelist 40,000 words or more to say the same thing. Neither the poet nor the novelist lack in value, it is only their mode of communication that differs. “The Tyger” by William Blake is only 25 lines, but with the allusion to “the Lamb” in the “/Did he who made the Lamb make thee?” Blake creates a story of questioning God and his intentions. Are good and evil of the same creator? Even the prose poetry of Walt Whitman is concise in comparison to many other works. Whitman uses lines such as “/Unscrew the locks from the doors!// Unscrew the doors from themselves from their jambs!/” in part 24 of “Song of Myself” to express his feelings on free love and sexual freedom without writing an essay on it. Poetry, for the most part, does not use language in a way to be snobbish or elitist, but figurative language, imagery, and brevity all contribute to what I find to be the most important, and principal signature of poetry; emotion.
Over the course of my relationship with poetry, I never came across any poem not rooted in emotion. No matter the type of poetry be it political, love, confessional, inspirational, nature or what-have-you, it all connects to sensations, feelings, and passions. Sherman Alexie’s political poems are often brimming with anger stemming from his identify crises. In his “An American Artificial Limb Company,” he ends with the word “fuck” nine times in a row. Emily Dickinson’s intrapersonal poems range from sexual sentiments such as in “My life had stood—A Loaded Gun,” to depression in, “I felt a Funeral, in my Brain.” Even Robert Frost’s poetry lush with natural imagery, often contains observations of death and feelings of regret. In Frost’s, “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening,” frost uses the notion of a dark, peaceful, and snow-filled woods to explore the speaker’s relationship to death. The speaker assures himself at the end that he is not ready to die with the repetition of “/And miles to go before I sleep,/” Emotion, while not the only component of poetry, is the easiest to observe.
Emotion is not found just in published poetry, it is perhaps more apparent in community poetry. The Larimer County Detention Center’s “SpeakOut! Journal,” contains poem after poem from new poets using words and phrases such as “love,” “I feel,” “I regret,” “My heart bleeds,” all denoting strong feelings. “Beyond,” by Clair L. claims, “/I am formless/.” Vampyre expresses, “/Lost without my love/” in her poem “My Mind & Heart.” Sometimes, the emotion appears to originate from anger such as D’s poem “Learn from your Mistakes” beginning with “/I hate fake bitches/.” Although unrefined, poetry like Clair’s, D’s, Vampyre’s, and other poets in the journal show the core of poetry derives from emotion. Maybe poetry is purely a manifestation or emotion, but then again, a large part of poetry comes from the experience an individual has both writing it, and reading it.
Composing poetry is an enormously personal endeavor. Sylvia Plath was a well known confessional poet. Although she wrote for money, she also wrote for herself. Most of her work developed from her own life experiences and emotions. She often said that poetry allowed her to interpret and then manipulate her life on to paper. Her poem “Tulips” illustrates a troubling situation in which the speaker is dealing with possible infertility and motherhood. Although Sylvia was not hospitalized for her miscarriage, it can be argued that “Tulips” is a direct reflection on the impression such an event left. For Sylvia and many other poets such as Rainer Maria Rilke, who tended to lock himself up to write, poetry is not a group sport, and that is reflected in its creation. Poetry is also an individual experience on the side of the audience.
Poetry is unique as far as audience interpretation goes. Although anyone can sit in a class, in a poetry group, or among friends and discuss a poem, it is very unlikely that everyone will walk away with identical interpretations of the poem. Poetry is exclusive in a way other mediums of the written and spoken word cannot be, because poetry’s core is emotion. As varied as human phenotypes are, so are their relations to emotions. Sylvia Plath alludes to the Holocaust in a few of her poems in the collection Ariel, yet the take-away meaning of this usage is not set in stone. One reader might connect anger and hate while another may infer pain and despair. Poetry takes the place of beauty in the cliché line, “Beauty is in the eye of the beholder,” when it comes to interpretation.
As I mentioned before, poetry is like water, and although I have made a point thus far to illuminate a possible definition of it, poetry cannot be stuffed into a box. For every aspect describing what a poem is, there is a counter example. One could say that “all poetry strives to create meaning with their reader,” but someone could come back and point out that Dada Surrealist poets wrote poetry for art’s sake and not to declare anything. Another could claim that poetry has to be in a stanza-line form, but I would challenge them to consider Sherman Alexie’s “Warriors” or “The Unauthorized Autobiography of Me.” Poetry takes on the shape the creator chooses but quickly reforms for each person that takes the time to experience it. We can put all the words we want into a definition of poetry, but somehow, we will always find a problem with our definition.
Poetry posses an unnamable quality, or maybe just a mere feeling, that makes it “poetry.” Poets and audiences alike can attest to the way poetry “feels.” A poet recently told me that although she agrees that the essence of poetry derives from brilliant words, “Poetry is rooted in the human soul. It is something you recognize because it tickles the heart as it announces itself to the brain. Poetry is the human experience, experienced through life.” Even though her conclusion is a bit on the cheesy side, it strikes me as true. Most poetry guards DNA I do not know how to code just yet. Maybe the intent of poetry with the relation to villanelles or Patrician Sonnets was not the fluid characterization I see now, but I think that poetry is better off as a mystery; as something indefinable.
To date, I have participated in three poetry groups, taken three poetry classes, joined one poetry workshop group, and witnessed many poetry readings; I still cannot clearly define poetry. My inability to do so, does not lessen my enjoyment, but instead provokes my curiosity. I crave to read, hear, write, and discuss more poems and their poets to formulate a hypothesis. As of May 2012, my definition stands as “Poetry is the concise, intentional manipulation of figurative and imagery-centric language to express emotion for a personal experience.” I know the root of poetry is emotion, and I realize that all the poems I can remember used some form of figurative language. I am also fairly certain that poetry, both the process of writing and reading or hearing, is a personal and individual experience. Beyond that, I can only acknowledge that I do not know how to tell someone what poetry “is,” because practically all descriptions I can prescribe are canceled out by something I know is poetry. I also admit that poetry retains an attribute I do not know a word for.
If a stranger asks me tomorrow what poetry is, I will share with them one of my favorite definitions by poet Ezra Pound, “[poetry is] what poets write,” because trying to explore what poetry really is might just take a life time.