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Saturday, February 11, 2017

What is Poetry?

I've come up with some ideas about poetry, over the years.

*A defense against mediocrity.

*It kicks you in the ass with its transformative power.

*One of the supreme exercises of the human intelligence.

*The conquest of imaginative freedom.

I'm assuming, in these definitions, that we know that it does all this through language.  There are other defenses against mediocrity, other ways of exercising the human intelligence or conquering the freedom of the imagination, that do not use this particular medium.  There are forms of literature in which the language used seems secondary, rather than poetic. There is even poetry that puts language in a secondary plain, though I tend to not think of that as poetry at all.  Those literary forms might also do some of what poetry does through language.

The other objection is that a lot of poetry is mediocre, or unimaginative or unintelligent. It is hard to say that it is a defense against mediocrity, then.


Thomas said...

To your last point: a definition of poetry just needs to provides criteria on which to fail. To mediocre poetry is just failed poetry. That's not a problem for the definition as far as I'm concerned.

Let me stress that I don't mean that in a trivial sense. Not all mediocrity is failure. Most relevantly here: prose isn't a defense against mediocrity. Prose is a way of leveraging mediocrity to worthy, even great, ends. Prose doesn't fail simply because it is mediocre. Poetry, however, does.

You've also said that "kicking our ass" means "rewriting our subjectivity". Lisa Robertson beautifully defined a poem as "a shapely urgency that innovates the receiver".

Finally, your point about language is important. I'm not yet sure whether poetry is a defense against linguistic mediocrity or a linguistic defense against mediocrity. For me, it's sufficient that poetry makes language great again (if I may). Pound said, "Good writers are those who keep the language efficient." Poets, as Tony Tost used to say, are trying to be outright brilliant.

Jonathan said...

Say the purpose of deodorant is to mask or eliminate body odor, so a deodorant that already smelled like b.o. would go against that purpose.