On the definition of poetry

I generally don’t even try to define poetry, ever, but in the editorial of a magazine that plopped through the letterbox last week there was an attempt to do just that.

It consisted of a prosaic list of essential qualities of poetry. As far as it went, it was reasonable enough. I was able to nod along with most of it, thinking aloud that I might change the emphasis between different elements here and there. However, I felt it didn’t really explain anything.

What do we think of the following, then?

‘Poetry is the art of substantiating shadows, and of lending existence to nothing’

‘A poem is a naked person’

‘it is that which is lost out of both prose and verse in translation’

‘If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know that is poetry’

That would be Edmund Burke, Bob Dylan, Robert Frost and Emily Dickinson talking. Personally I think each of these different statements does a better job of defining poetry than any checklist of its nuts and bolts.

Notice anything? They are all metaphors. The thing is, it turns out that the best definitions of poetry are more poetry. There is something of an infinite self-referential loop here, an internal metaphor of itself. Actually:

‘Poetry is a metaphor of itself’

That one would be Paul Vaughan, c. August 2016.


‘Poetry is the skilled breath teasing notes of clarity from the mouths of the filthiest bottles’

That would be me too. Feel free to come up with your own in the comments.


2 thoughts on “On the definition of poetry

  1. Well said, all around! I would add “poetry is the starkness of emotion set to the tempo of life, sometimes racing recklessly through forbidden territory, sometimes sitting patiently in pain and pleasure, but always honest, always real, in a way that daily speech cannot capture…”

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I like the ‘skilled breath… filthiest bottles’ take on the form… It feels like a modern definition for real life poetry :). I’m not a great fan of checklists for art forms… but I believe all great poems contain the following… Beauty… Magic… Truth…

    Liked by 1 person

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