Trying to define poetry is almost a crime. One of its enduring appeals is that it defies definition, overturns convention, and reinvents words themselves to create meaning out of chaos. Ironically, the best poetry also exemplifies convention, submitting to forms and styles to evoke whatever it is poetry is supposed to evoke.
Pascal spoke of "reasons of which the reason knows nothing," and while he was describing his Christian faith, the statement almost perfectly describes good poetry. Bad poetry is just the opposite: it tells the reader too much, it's ungainly and unmusical, it broods in the corner or waves its arms around for attention. Good poetry communicates directly with the soul, whether or not the mind comprehends.
That's not to say poetry should be meaningless. A lot of contemporary "poets" string words together and call it art, but it's really just pretension, or (worse) obscenity. Some have gone so far as to write anti-poetry, a form specifically devoted to creating "poems" that are inherently unpoetic. None of this is poetry—call it self-aggrandizement, pseudo-intellectualism, or just dumb, if it doesn't look, sound or act like a poem, it probably isn't.
On the other hand, not all poems should look or sound the same. Opponents of free verse need to understand that the language grows and changes, and that free form poems don't abandon, they just reinterpret rhythm and cadence....just as free verse practitioners need to recognize the beauty and requisite skill displayed in more structured forms like sonnets and villanelles.
Typically, a poem uses the natural rhythms of language to conjure meaningful images for the reader. While poets in every age have been attracted to its form as a tool for intellectual or philosophical rhetoric, a truly great poem is one that imparts to individuals an attitude, emotion or idea without seeming to do so. More than writers in any other genre, poets must interest their audience if they're to impact them.
This isn't to suggest a poem means whatever any reader wants it to mean, or that it should merely delight. Far from it: without a definite (or at least, apprehendable) idea in mind, the poet ends up communicating nothing, just as he does if he simply intends to entertain.
What it does mean is that a poem should be universal to the extent that anyone can read it and get something out of it. Obviously, identifiying and understanding allusions, analogies and metaphors will heighten understanding (and enjoyment), but if an initial encounter ends void, the poet has failed to do what he or she set out to do.
Many of the world's greatest writers have been poets. The opportunity for a clever or brilliant turn of phrase in a poem is much higher than in a novel or treatise; poets often sweat for days over a single word, intent on using the language to its absolute potential. This is the paradox of poetry—even in its most primordial form, whispering to our deepest selves, poetry-making requires an active and agile mind.
But don't come to any poem primarily to learn in a cognitive sense; come first to enjoy, and then to learn what it means to love, to be human, to value and respect beauty, even to fear and mourn. Any novel can tell you how other people think, but few of them can unite all readers the way a poem can, to tear down barriers and speak where language is only a vague notion, and words are much more than their definitions.
Review by C. Hollis Crossman
C. Hollis Crossman used to be a child. Now he is a husband and father, teaches adult Sunday school in his Presbyterian congregation, and likes weird stuff. He might be a mythical creature, but he's definitely not a centaur. Read more of his reviews here.
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