In high school, I was an introspective, pensive person and a bit of a loner. I remember one day being in the school library. I pulled a volume of Robert Frost off of the shelf and started paging through it. I had never read him before, but now I couldn’t put it down. I planted myself in the middle of the isle, between the rows of book shelves, and read. I missed my last class while I was transported back to New England. I climbed birches and chopped wood; I went out into the meadow to bring in the cows and I cried over the death of the hired hand. It was that day that I learned the power of words to move people; not only emotionally, but to move them in their imaginations to other places and times…into experiences that were new and exciting. From that day forward, it was impossible for me not to be a poet.
Language is said to be arbitrary. That is, there is no natural relationship between words and the concepts that they represent. So any discussion about poetry must first start with a definition of what we mean when we talk about poems and poetry. Poetry seems to have about as many different definitions as there are poets. Kahlil Gibran said, “Poetry is a deal of joy and pain and wonder, with a dash of the dictionary.” Percy Shelley said, “Poetry is a mirror which makes beautiful that which is distorted.” And my favorite poet, Robert Frost, had this to say about poetry, “Poetry is when an emotion has found its thought and the thought has found words.”
Poetry is a lot of things to a lot of people, and trying to answer the question, “What is poetry?” is like trying to answer the broader question, “What is art?” We know it when we see it…when it comes shooting out of the gate; but it is kind of hard for us to toss a loop around it so we can wrestle it to the ground.
I remember seeing a photograph once of people in an art gallery staring intently at a painting that hung on the wall in front of them. The “painting” was nothing more than a blank canvas. There was no way of telling from the photograph just what all of those people thought about that “painting”, but I know what I would have thought. I will be the first to admit to a level of unsophistication equaled by none – except perhaps Larry the cable guy - but I just don’t get it! I feel that way when I read some poems too. I just don’t get them! But that’s ok. Even Carl Sandburg said, “I've written some poetry I don't understand myself.”
So what exactly is poetry? As they say, "If it walks like a duck, quacks like a duck and looks like a duck, it must be a duck.” What “they” don’t tell you is that there are between 150 and 200 different species of “ducks” in the world. Some of them look nothing like others of them. The same is true of poetry. There are numerous different poetic forms: sonnet, acrostic, blank verse, ballad, haiku, limericks and on and on… A sonnet looks nothing like a limerick which looks nothing like blank verse.
You should begin to see the difficulty in coming to a concise definition of “poetry”.
One way to define poetry is along the lines of its technical characteristics. That said, a definition I like to use is, “words arranged in a rhythmic pattern with regular accents (like beats in music), words which are carefully selected for sound, accent and meaning to express imaginatively ideas and emotions.”
But why do we write poetry? And what does poetry have to do with the one whom Robert Browning called “the perfect poet,” our heavenly father? For that discussion, come back Thursday to read part two - Why I Write Poetry.