We reach and strain with our thoughts, trying to grasp what poetry is, trying to somehow distinguish it from all that is not poetry, but without success.  Then we come across something as simple as this statement by A. E. Housman:

Poetry is not the thing said, but a way of saying it.”

And it is as though the sun has risen, dispelling the darkness; because that is exactly what poetry is.  It does not lie in the thing said, however significant it may be.  It lies, rather, in how that thing is said.

All of the traditional paraphernalia of poetry, whether rhyme, rhythm, alliteration or assonance, are merely means to this end — saying the thing in a way that makes it poetry.  Their use, of course, is no guarantee at all that the result will be poetry, but we know that they are used with poetry as the goal.

Prose, we may say then, is the reverse; it is not so much how a thing is said as what is said.  It is meaning that is important and the key element.

We should not misunderstand this and think that poetry has no meaning, but rather that what meaning it carries is molded to the manner in which it is presented, however important the meaning may be — if it is to be poetry.

We may separate the meaning from the poem by explaining it in ordinary, everyday English, but by doing so we cause the meaning to lose its poetry.  If that were not so, we would all constantly be speaking poetry.

 So poetry is a way of saying something, a special way, and there are various tools and manners that may be used in so speaking — again like rhyme and measure and rhythm, alliteration (repetition of consonant sounds) and assonance (repetition of vowel sounds), but not all of these tools are essential for writing a poem.  It all comes back to a way of saying something.

We may go on to remark that obviously, then, poetry is not ordinary, everyday speech, which concentrates more on just saying a thing than on how that thing is said.  Poetry is the changing of one’s common speech pattern to say a thing in a way that makes it more pleasing or interesting or effective, or all three combined.

Sometimes the line between poetry and ordinary speech may seem blurred at first, but with a little reflection it is recognized nonetheless.  When W. H. Auden wrote his poem September 1, 1939, he was talking about the outbreak of World War II, the invasion of Poland by German forces — and he was seemingly conversational in doing so; we see, however, that this would not have been his everyday speech — not the way he ordered a meal, nor the way he talked to a friend.  And it is that little change that makes all the difference in transforming something from prose to poetry:

I sit in one of the dives
On Fifty-second Street
Uncertain and afraid
As the clever hopes expire
Of a low dishonest decade;
Waves of anger and fear
Circulate over the bright
And darkened lands of the earth,
Obsessing our private lives;
The unmentionable odour of death
Offends the September night

 We find the end rhymes — dives / lives, bright / night, afraid /decade.  And we find “odd” ways of saying things, such as

Waves of anger and fear
Circulate over the bright
And darkened lands of the earth…

Eliminate the rhyme, however, say instead that people all over the world are angry and afraid, and the poetry dissolves — vanishes into prose.  

We tend to think that poetry is cut up into lines (and it usually is), while prose is divided into paragraphs.  But actually poetry and prose are somewhat like human gender behavior, which shades from one extreme to the other.  Some men are very stereotypically masculine; others are very stereotypically feminine; but between the two poles are found all the people who fall somewhere between.  In the change from prose to poetry, as in human gender roles, we find a graduated scale.  Some poets border on prose, but never fall completely into it, or they would not be poets.  There is still something to their way of saying the thing that is recognizable as poetry.

But the matter is a little more complex.  Even in prose, people often do not write as they commonly speak.  They leave little things out; they use “big” Latin or Greek-based words, instead of plain and simple Anglo-Saxon; they say things more concisely, and perhaps more effectively.  There is a vast difference in even so small a matter as an invitation to dinner:

1.  Do you wanna have dinner with me tomorrow?
2.  Your presence is requested at a dinner honoring the accomplishments of H. N. Featherwood.

And then there is poetry:

Let us go then, you and I,
When the evening is spread out against the sky
Like a patient etherised upon a table; 

One comes to recognize and to distinguish poetry from the other two kinds of speech, the ordinary and the formal.  What one must be wary of is prose that is disguised as poetry by being divided into lines in imitation of poetry.  Some people who write this way think they are writing poetry, and some critics are deceived into thinking the same.  But those who realize that poetry is not just dividing prose into lines on a page, but rather is a way of saying something that is different both from ordinary and formal speech, will not be fooled.

Some would-be poems include the bare minimum of the special way of saying something that is poetry, and sometimes not even that.  We should not confuse that kind of writing with the “conversational” yet quite poetic manner of Walt Whitman in his Shut Not Your Doors:

Shut not your doors to me proud libraries,
For that which was lacking on all your well-fill’d shelves
       yet needed most, I bring,
Forth from the war emerging, a book I have made,
The words of my book nothing, the drift of it every thing,
A book separate, not link’d with the rest nor felt by the intellect,
But you ye untold latencies will thrill to every page. 

But, you may say, no one talks like that!  And I reply that you have grasped the point.  No one talks as Walt Whitman wrote in poetry.  You may think they do for a few words or a line, but the poetry will out.

The same may be said for Robert Frost, another sometimes even more “conversational” poet.  Look at the beginning of his Birches, where he fools us into thinking that we are just listening to the rambling conversation of some New England ruralite, and it is only gradually as we read on, and feel the rhythm, and begin to sense his increasingly revealing way of speaking, that we become aware that what seemed to begin as conversation was actually just the path into poetry:

When I see birches bend to left and right
Across the lines of straighter darker trees,
I like to think some boy’s been swinging them.
But swinging doesn’t bend them down to stay.
Ice-storms do that.  Often you must have seen them
Loaded with ice a sunny winter morning
After a rain.  They click upon themselves
As the breeze rises, and turn many-colored
As the stir cracks and crazes their enamel.
Soon the sun’s warmth makes them shed crystal shells
Shattering and avalanching on the snow-crust —
Such heaps of broken glass to sweep away
You’d think the inner dome of heaven had fallen. 

When reading Frost, one often has the feeling of being tricked into submitting to some sort of peculiar farmer’s incantation, because what seems ordinary speech at first increasingly weaves a charm of words, as though Frost were a kind of New England shaman chanting away, putting a folksy spell upon us, as in his After Apple-Picking:

My long two-pointed ladder’s sticking through a tree
Toward heaven still,
And there’s a barrel that I didn’t fill
Beside it, and there may be two or three
Apples I didn’t pick upon some bough.
But I am done with apple-picking now.
Essence of winter sleep is on the night
The scent of apples: I am drowsing off. 

This incantatory nature of his writing is one of the most pleasing things about Frost.  And again, it is a way of saying it; it is poetry.

So we know, in theory, what poetry is and what it is not.  But that does not mean we have defined poetry.  We must still be able to distinguish between poetry and mere verse — between what is genuinely poetic and what just uses some of the tools of poetry but does not succeed in being poetic.  For that we can only return to another statement of Housman: that poetry is known by its effect on us.  But here we are back again at the beginning, reduced to saying that “good” poetry is a matter of opinion and taste formed by education and experience.




When it comes to the evaluation and criticism of poetry, all is opinion and personal taste.  Taste, it is true, can be developed, but who can say that a man’s liking for a painting of waterlilies by Monet is any more sincere than the liking of some people for plastic or silk flowers?

I have always had a great deal of difficulty in trying to initiate people into the appreciation of the hokku as opposed to modern haiku, precisely because of that difference in taste.  To me the preference for modern haiku is akin to those who are still on the plastic flowers level, but in spite of that one must recognize that people will like what they will like, and even the old Latin saying tells us that there is no arguing about taste.

Nonetheless, people will argue.  And of course people will criticize, whether the work in dispute is a painting or a poem.

No one, to my knowledge, has ever successfully and adequately defined poetry.  Alfred Edward Housman made a useful distinction between poetry and verse:  he said that the former is literature, the latter is not.  So William Blake may present us with poetry, while Hallmark is likely to give us only verse.

As for the nature of poetry, Housman fell back upon his version of the common saying of the uneducated buyer of antiques:  “I don’t know anything about it, but I know what I like.”  Housman, however, put it this way when asked for a definition:

I replied that I could no more define poetry than a terrier can define a rat, but that I thought we both recognized the object by the symptoms which it provokes in us.”

And that is indeed how most of us recognize what we call poetry — because of its effects on us.  Yet that leaves us back where we started:  individual ability to recognize poetry is a matter of education and taste.  Generations were moved by Trees, written by Joyce Kilmer, verse that to me is unquestionably on the “plastic flowers” level, and unbearable to read.

So there are differences in taste, and these differences are largely a matter of personal preference and education.  An unsophisticated taste in verse will leave one liking Trees.  An educated taste will find it appalling.  That is just one of the realities of life.  We may say that one who dislikes Trees has good taste while one who likes it has bad, yet that again is just a matter of personal taste and personal opinion.  It simply means that to us, “good” taste means educated and experienced taste, while “bad” taste means uneducated and inexperienced.

That is why I look on the bulk of modern haiku as simply bad taste.  I have had the benefit of knowing what hokku once was, and can recognize that modern haiku is just a mutated offshoot, the distorted creation, largely, of mid-20th century would-be poets who misperceived and misunderstood the nature of the hokku, and so created the “haiku” according to their own misconceptions.  If I had not had that education and experience, however, I might likely hold a different and less “advanced” view.

Housman tells us that poetry is not dependent upon meaning; that in fact there is much writing that is poetic yet devoid of real meaning.  And indeed, he tells us, some of the most poetic writers — among them William Blake — were actually mad to a greater or lesser degree.

I have to say that Housman is correct.  There are some works that have the logic of bedlam, yet are very poetic, such as the lines from Xanadu,

And all should cry, Beware! Beware!
His flashing eyes, his floating hair!
Weave a circle round him thrice,
And close your eyes with holy dread,
For he on honey-dew hath fed,
And drunk the milk of Paradise.

We should not be surprised to learn that Xanadu is forever unfinished because Coleridge, while writing down the poem, which had come to him in an opium dream, was interrupted by the arrival of a visitor, and the remainder was forgotten.  It is mad poetry, but poetry nonetheless, and that is why it persists in finding a place in college anthologies.

Not all that appears in such anthologies is poetry, however.  Some of it is merely prose disguised as poetry, and that can be said of a good part of what has been written in the 20th century.  There is, for example, a good deal of attention given to the “rediscovered” verses of Lynette Roberts, but quite honestly I can find hardly more poetry in some of her writing than in a waiter’s description of the lunch menu, for example the beginning of her Poem from Llanybri:

If you come my way that is … 
Between now and then, I will offer you 
A fist full of rock cress fresh from the bank 
The valley tips of garlic red with dew 
Cooler than shallots, a breath you can swank 
In the village when you come. At noon-day 
I will offer you a choice bowl of cawl 
Served with a ‘lover’s’ spoon and a chopped spray 
Of leeks or savori fach, not used now,
In the old way you’ll understand…

Yes, it has some Welsh terms like cawl (a kind of Welsh version of Irish stew) and “savori fach” — her spelling of Welsh safri fach — “little savory,” which is the herb Satureja montana, Winter savory in English), and mention of the traditionally Welsh “lover’s spoon,” but in my view that hardly qualifies it for the acclaim it presently receives.  So even though I have a weakness for things Welsh, I cannot, using Housman’s criterion, recognize “Llanybri” as poetry because of the absence of symptoms evoked by it.  So for me, it is merely verse.  “Swank” by the way, is used here as a verb meaning to “ostentatiously display.”  Oddly enough, Roberts eventually gave up writing after converting to the fundamentalistic, mind-controlling sect called Jehovah’s Witnesses.

Much of what has been written as poetry in the 20th century onward remains for me merely verse.  It has become too intellectualized, too consciously clever, too conventionally “poetic” according to what fashion at present considers poetry to be.  And the real poetry has been lost in the process.

What passes for poetry these days is little advanced from what it was in Louis Macneice:  a kind of over-intellectualized verbal assembly that seems to come from too much association with other “poets,” who encourage each other unhealthily into more and more writing with less and less poetry in it, for example these lines from Snow by Macneice:

The room was suddenly rich and the great bay-window was
Spawning snow and pink roses against it
Soundlessly collateral and incompatible
World is suddener than we fancy it.

World is crazier and more of it than we think,
Incorrigibly plural.  I peel and portion
A tangerine and spit the pips and feel
The drunkenness of things being various.

All intellectualism, no poetry.  Macneice only talks about the “drunkenness of things,” but Coleridge, in Xanadu, gives it to us directly and unmediated.

All too often, modern would-be poets think that merely dividing prose into the lineation of poetry makes poetry.  It does not.  Yet this kind of pseudo-poetry, found often in the writings of Gary Snyder and many others, in my view, has even made its way into present-day college anthologies.  One can only hope that young poets will remain uninfluenced by their example, but so far that does not seem to be the case.  More and more genuine poetry has given way in English-language writing to mere lineated prose or  surrealistic constructions of words used in odd ways.

One may bemoan what has become of poetry, but then poetry has a very limited space in modern life.  It has become largely the province of those who want to think of themselves as poets or as poetic, a very ingrown little society that appears to be securely walled off from the rest of the world.  Would-be poets seem to write for, and be read by, other would-be poets.  That means a particular negative trend, if found in poetry journals and anthologies, can grow and overwhelm a period of writing like a tsunami.  It seems we are at present the victims of such a flood of bad taste in the “world of poetry,” and we can only hope that a recovery and reconstruction will come soon.

That, however, requires education.  It requires experience.  It requires stepping out of the limited and limiting circle of present-day poetry, so that the individual may rediscover what Housman found to be true –that poetry is recognized by its effect on us.  But there are effects and effects, and all too many people seem to have lost or forgotten the symptoms created by genuine poetry, and are settling for mere intellectualism and peer approval.  Both are death to poetry.

But again, that is personal taste and opinion.  So I encourage readers not to think they must like a poem simply because it is printed in a college anthology, or dislike a poem because it finds no place in such a work.  Educate your taste.  Experience poetry from all periods and of all kinds.  Do not rely merely on the opinions of “authorities” for your taste in poetry.  Take them into account if you will, but do not accept them uncritically.