Thursday, June 01, 2006

What poetry is and what a poem is.

Let me not dare, here or anywhere, for my own purposes, or any purposes, to attempt the definition of Poetry, nor answer the question what it is. Like Religion, Love, Nature, while those terms are indispensable, and we all give a sufficiently accurate meaning to them, in my opinion no definition that has ever been made sufficiently encloses the name Poetry; nor can any rule of convention ever so absolutely obtain but some great exception may arise and disregard and overturn it. --Walt Whitman

In saner moments, I would not attempt what I am about to do. I want to look at what poetry is, not in some learned fashion, but in the late night way, when the mind should be with sleep. I am not as qualified for the well-schooled discussion. My BA is in Psychology, and AS in Applied Mathematics. High schooling led to a GED at 19. Nothing poetic. But even more than this, I suffer from severe sleep apnea. This, then, will be my major qualification to take up the subject. I have not had a good night sleep in years, and I am up way past my bed time.

There is a Godawful machine upstairs waiting for me. I cannot think right now what it is called. That may be because I have an aversion to it. It may be because I am so over tired my brain will not go there and retrieve the information. You might say the machine is a godsend. But, I am just one of the sufferers who have not yet placed it in the driveway behind the rear wheel, and forgotten it was there. I cannot get a good night sleep with the mask on. Impossible. There is scant REM without it, as each time I fall off to sleep, I need to reawaken to restart breathing before two minutes are achieved.

To further my qualifications for this late-night rumination, let me add before we get into Poetry, that I worked 13 hours today, and have to get up in the morning early to get to work again. There is stress, then, with the tiredness. And this after working the previous day on a project that took me from 6:00am until after midnight. So I am eager and happy to take up this discussion topic with more confidence than Walt Whitman the day he wrote the above statement.

Is what I have written thus far poetry?

I want to broaden how we usually think of poetry to be inclusive of as much of all it is as we can make it. But my answer has to be "no." This has not, and will not be poetry, and, therefore, will not be a poem. There are times, however, when I get mystical senses, and I think of how this poem wants to record and communicate a fullness in life for all its worth, to take the reader to a heightened experience, or to unlock a type of superconsciousness:

by Gerard Manley Hopkins

Pied Beauty

Glory be to God for dappled things--
For skies of couple-colour as a brinded cow;
For rose-moles all in stipple upon trout that swim;
Fresh-firecoal chestnut-falls; finches’ wings;
Landscape plotted and pieced--fold, fallow, and plough;
And all trades, their gear and tackle and trim.

All things counter, original, spare, strange;
Whatever is fickle, freckled (who knows how?)
With swift, slow; sweet, sour; adazzle, dim;
He fathers-forth whose beauty is past change:
Praise him.

Does poetry, though, have to be something like this, something lending itself to the superexperiential or extraordinary moment. Not necessarily. Let's say, though that we have an important category. So now, when David Ortiz of the Red Sox hit his clutch home runs against the Yankees a couple years ago, some would say his performances were poetry, his swings were poetry in motion. And what of architects, who think of the poetry in their buildings. Can this be? Should we be including events and works outside the written and spoken word, poetry? The word "poetry" includes these connotations. Yes. However, David Ortiz's home run swings were not poems.

We might want to say, then, that poems are poetry put into words, whereas great painting and sculpture are poems cast into those forms. But, what of the poem that is not written down, never spoken even in part, the one that never got thought through. The "poet" never got to a pad and pencil. The poem was "there." I am talking about it. It was and still is a poem. And here we also have the concept of incredibly gifted poets who never wrote anything, just had musings knock them over their heads.

Some readers by now are already objecting, which brings to mind disagreements in other studies, like the psychology I have studied. Many disagreements can be thought of as coming from different modes of thought, different models of psychology clashing. The biological model, the most prevalent today, says that if you are depressed or psychotic, you can go to a physician, a psychiatrist, and get medicine. Your biological system is messed up. The behavioral model, says that all behavior is learned. The reason we feel and act the way we do, is that we have been conditioned to. I'll give you this nice juicy cheeseburger if you get your depressed fanny out of bed. Or would you rather strawberry shortcake?

One time in class, I was spouting out about how behavior modification was so superior to psychoanalysis (the assignment was to do this, take some hard position), and I spouted out a Freudian slip while doing so, something about guilt. The thing about the models is that these and the others have their places. They all work. They can all be refuted. Not one is the end-all. I believe in all the models, to their degrees. In a sense, this is a meta-model, and can sound superior. In another sense, it throws out the deep-seated meanings each one brings to bear on the philosophies of our very existence.

Let's return to our category of poetry, the superexperiential. Where does this comes from? What's your model? Hopkins says "Glory be to God," a religious model. Let's be general and say that one model is that some god being greater than can be expected from having arisen from our world, has been the reason for the mystical experience, and here we can call it the religious experience. The poet has been inspired to write a poem (or take a photo, or paint, as it were). Indeed, maybe what separates people from the other animals, is that we can wax poetic, and even communicate poetry. In other words, an ant may be able to communicate to another ant where the crumb is, or maybe the crumb does (somehow they get all organized). But, they probably, say, cannot have the poetic experience.

Or maybe the poetic experience is rooted in the world. Maybe the ants have their own version of poetry. How great it must be to be peaking out experientially to a crumb? All ants do, all anteaters do. All amphibians and dinosaurs waxed poetic in their own ways. Poetry is the great reinforcer of life, the great cheeseburger, or the metaphor we all live with that allows us to get to the great cheeseburger, the meaning our lives are given so that we keep living with all odds against us.

So is there a Gestalt model of poetry, a scientific, a humanistic? Sure. And while we are talking categories, psychology (originally the study of the psyche) spun off from philosophy, and I dare say philosophy spun off from poetry. Poetry can be experienced by anyone, maybe even ants. To philosophize, it takes the teenager's new formal operational thinking, one reason they wax philosophic about everything, and scribble poems in notebooks, kings and queens of late-night ruminations.

This need for such thinking, however, does not place philosophy above poetry. Plato, the great poet, knew this. He as a poet, wrote his dialogues, and used philosophical backdrop and theme as device. It became clear that as advanced a culture as Athens was, poets always took heat. This becomes true in our own world. We can see the poets imprisoned around the world, because their writings were read to be against the powers that be. We see this in China, Syria now, Cuba, and many more places. Poets are a danger to the rulers. But this is the case in America too. A poet can be hounded by the government, or by the news media, shamed, imprisoned. This can and does take place everywhere. Poets are necessarily a danger to whatever conceivable government or social order is in power. Plato was illustrating in his poem The Republic, that this is so.

One point for us is that there are works that are poems, that if not read as poems, will be misunderstood as something else. In this case, as mere dialogue albeit with poetics. This essay that I am writing, is not a poem. Some dialogues are not poems. But if they are, we should not miss the point. Another reason to be inclusive.

Another point is that we do not have, in The Republic, a superexperiential poem as such. In reading Plato, even in translation, one is bound to have these experiences, as he seemed to live so much in them. But the poetry is more rooted in the wisdom of life, versus the mysticism. This wisdom category covers knowledge poems as well. And both come under the heightening. We can put elegant mathematical musing and formulae as poetry of this sort. Great discoveries and inventions have this poetry about them.

Let's return, to language. There is poetry that is rooted in language as such, the words and meanings of words. Poems can be crafted, not to communicate some extrasensation or superthought, but simply to twist language expectations. Nonsense verse, for instance. Computer-generated poems. Rhymes that poke fun. True experiments. And so forth. In these cases much of the poetry comes from the reader, and so in order for there to be poetry, there needs to be a reader who will make it so in his or her approach. But this is the case with so much poetry. If a reader does not get it, or maybe cannot stand it, the poetry is lost.

This looking at the sound and how poetry can effect us, brings us to a huge neighbor of language-oriented poetry, the music in language. And I want to turn less to the illustration of this point, as there is little need to illustrate the musicality of so many poems, but to the point of what music is. Music, some would say, is the one human experience, the one art form of greater value, or "higher" than poetry. There is a school of thought that the only thing a poem can be is musical language. Without music, no poetry. Not so.

If it is music, it is poetry, but not vice versa. We can read many poems for the effect of their meaningful messages more than their music. If we stretch the meaning of music, to include what we mean when we say something has been music to our ears, we do not intend for this to be anything other than a trope. We mean to say that just as music can have wondrous effect, the news brought by the words had the same or similar. A mother may have heard that her son has been found, and is okay. The message is like music.

This is illustrative of the fact that music can have great effect, even greater than poems in many circumstances. That's where music needs to have its due. American Idol used songs. If it had used poems, the show would have flopped.

Music allows us to understand poetry, because it is a great extension of it. Chopin's works allow us to feel and experience the Poland of his time. Eminem has given us the sense of adolescents of recent past, brought out their world, and change it in turn. This is superexperiential poetry. Elvis Presley, singing "How Great Thou Art," superexperiential poetry. These illustrate that this language is limited. Some poetic musings are for the music, some for the painting, some for the building. And there are hybrids, the greatest being the song, where both the music and the lyric need each other to complete the poetry. A poem needs the words, either primarily as in a song-poem or some of the visual and sonic poetry being written online, but especially only.


At 2:38 AM, Blogger jessica said...

liked your post.

if you were to choose, you would rather be:
a. a Mustang
b. a joker
c. pinoy
d. the da vinci code
e. a rumor
f. good food

At 8:55 AM, Blogger Carl Bryant said...

I greatly enjoyed the essay, Bud.

I'm inclined to view all (great) poetry as an indivisible gestalt. Poetic devices abound, but like yourself I see them as window dressing for the poem itself. That poem is often polemic, profane, or profound - but it exists in the appreciative mind of the reader.

Some readers abstract deeply and see the gestalt in everything. Some barely scratch the surface.

You, my friend, are using a steam shovel.

At 5:49 PM, Blogger Bud Bloom said...

Hi Jessica,

Thanks. Interesting set of links you have there. Have blogroll, will travel.



Hi Carl,

What if the musing was about the poetic devices? This is where I think Whitman comes in saying that there's always going to be an exception as soon as you button hole poetry.

That being so, however, Joseph Campbell was asked by Bill Moyers, who are the shamans in Western culture. His answer was, the poets. Ted Hughes "took a magical, shamanic view of poetry: it is 'a journey into the inner universe", "an exploration of the genuine self", "a way of making things happen the way you want them to happen'." (The Guardian)



Have steamshovel, will travel.

At 7:41 PM, Blogger Carl Bryant said...

If the musing was about the poetic devices - in my little neatly-tucked world - it wouldn't matter. One could muse about devices and use any, all, or none of those devices in the work itself. The successful poem would still stand. I don't view two words that rhyme as "making a poem" nor weird lineation as a sole qualifier. I'm a bit judgmental, I know.

Wasn't it Gibran who said poetry was a contemplation of the whole, and impossible to explain to those who comprehend only the part?

Whomever it was, I agree. I don't see it as "limiting" at all. The world can be shown in an examination of a shoe. Whether it walks with carefully metered steps or wanders out of bounds is immaterial (again in my neat little world.)


At 8:20 PM, Blogger Carl Bryant said...

Adding - If I'm the reader, I get to define my poetry... :)

I checked your site code (I noticed your format was broken.) It seems that you're importing a cascading style sheet from

That site has exceeded its bandwidth for the month and has been disabled, so your look won't be back until it's available.

At 12:15 AM, Blogger Bud Bloom said...

Hi Carl,

Thank you.

While the bandwidth was running out on my template of choice, Verizon was choosing to keep me offline. It was an anti-internet night. Here's a hopefully temporary greem one.



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