The universe is not only strange but stranger than we can imagine

But is it poetry? Part 1

Longhi, Pietro; 'A Poet Declaiming His Verses'; Lady Lever Art Gallery;

Poetry slams in the good old days. Notice the dog and the angel waiting to share their verses.

“Stephanie was drawn to poetry when she discovered the first rule of poetry: there are no rules!”

I received this gem of insight via email recently from an on-line poetry site. Of course, such sites are more about generating clicks than promoting great literature. Even so, the sentiment seems to be a common one. Let me confess up front.  I am one of those disagreeable dinosaurs (a Versoraptor?) who believe there actually are rules, however ill-defined, that poetry is a recognizable entity.

While the definition of a poem may be as vague and shifting as morning fog or the average politician’s most sincere promises, I suggest that a poem is not simply a set of pedestrian thoughts or observations, written in prose and chopped into arbitrary lines. Surely poetry must have some element other than line length which differentiates it from prose? Let’s try an experiment to illustrate the point. Here’s a fragment of prose:

It was a beautiful day today, The sun shone, the lake sparkled and  geese flew overhead on their way south. Fall is coming and life is good!

Fair enough, right? You might jot something like this in your journal or on a postcard to Aunt Sally. Now put it through the line-mincing machine and you get:

It was a
today, The sun shone, the
lake sparkled and
flew overhead on
their way
south. Fall
is coming and
life is good!

Is this really poetry? Have I magically created a poem by pressing the enter key a few times? I would say, no — but seems like a lot of would-be poets and editors out there might say “yes.” Am I being unfair? Is there really a lot of prose masquerading as poetry out there in today’s literary carnival? Here (in prose format) are the opening lines of a recent winner of a poetry contest.

How do you explain a laugh? How do you explain a sigh? How do you explain something that is just a part, a part of what makes you you?

And again, when suitably chopped:

How do you explain a laugh?
How do you explain a sigh?
How do you explain something that is just a part,
A part of what makes you

So I asks again, “is this really poetry?”

“I have my doubts,” says you.

I am not making these examples up, as a few minutes spent reviewing the content of “poetry” sites will prove. Of course, there is some excellent stuff out there as well, some works that I would without hesitation call poetry — but how discouraging for those who really work at their craft,  to find their efforts get no more recognition than those who write banal prose and put it through the line-mincer. They must ask themselves, why do the homework or study for the test when everyone gets an A?

The good news is that people — lots of people — still care about trying to write poetry, to create written works that express their innermost feelings, their most precious perceptions. The bad news is that mediocre or outright awful works often seem to receive the same kudos as excellent ones. Seems like there’s a sort of literary Marxism involved, a politically correct mode of thought which insists that all written works must be equal.  The reality is, to misquote Orwell, all poems may be equal, but some poems are more equal than others.

Coming soon — Part two. What in the heck does that mean? (If anything.)



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