Sunday, December 2, 2012

What Is Poetry?

By Alex Raley

Often people, even in our writer’s group, say they don’t understand poetry, or they know nothing about poetry. How can that be? Recently, I took the time to read definitions of “poetry” from different dictionaries. They were remarkably similar. They included such things as words, sounds, meter and verses, but none of them defined poetry as rhymed verses. Perhaps that is because up-to-date dictionaries tend to define words the way they are currently used.

I particularly like a definition of poetry from Merriam-Webster: “. . . writing that formulates a concentrated imaginative awareness of experience in language chosen and arranged to create a specific emotional response through meaning, sound, and rhythm.”

Edward Hirsch, in his introduction to Contemporary Poetry, says “Poetry is a stubborn art, and the poet is one who will not by (sic) reconciled. Who refuses to vanish – to let others vanish – without leaving a verbal record.”

Think about that for a moment. Isn’t that what we do when we set about to write fiction or non-fiction? We may not be looking for rhythm, but we search for the words to describe the exact experience we have in mind whether that experience is from our lives or from an explosion in our imagination. How often do we write and rewrite to assure that the experience will not vanish but will live in words we have chosen? How often is our fiction filled with unintended poetry?

As Hirsch said, writing poetry is not easy. Don Marguis said, “Writing a book of poetry is like dropping a rose petal down the Grand Canyon and waiting for the echo.”
Nevertheless, we keep turning experiences into words, either as poetry or as fiction and non-fiction.

Several writings read in our group are filled with poetry. One with a mother, who will not give up her long wait for her son, expresses her hopes by talking about her grandson. I have taken the liberty of putting it in verse form:

     That darling boy is my grandson
     And a godsend.
     And when my boy Dobey shows up here,
     That child is gonna pull him back
     Into the real world
     In a heartbeat.                                                    

Another writer ends her book about a female who finally escapes from her island of despair:

    In the expanse of water,
    The air seemed easier to breathe,
    Above them the moon was ending its journey.
    Stars seemed to fade away.
    . . .
    The island gradually disappeared
    And with it, Master Goodwin.

As to meaning in poetry, I think that is the rose petal we keeping waiting to hear echo in the canyon of our minds. I heard a lecture/reading by the well-known poet Galway Kinnell. He said that he is often asked to reveal the meaning of a poem. His stock reply is, “. . .shall I read it again?”

I challenge you to drop rose petals as you write. You might just hear an echo even in your fiction.

1 comment:

WritePersona said...

What an apt image - the echo of a rose petal. I like your conclusion that we look for meaning in poetry. So much contemporary poetry is aimed at "sharing experience," but I'd rather watch TV for that.