What Is Poetry?

31 07 2009


Bob Archambeau is having a little trouble over at the Samizdat blog, trying to figure out what poetry is and is not.

Here at Structure and Surprise, we don’t agonize over such questions–rather, we know: when you’re in the presence of an amazing turn, you’ve got poetry.

…Having a little fun here, of course.  I like a lot about Bob’s “Poetry/Not Poetry”–it’s a really smart post…one I don’t want to reply to so much as riff on.

I do think that consideration of the turn in the context of Bob’s post is appropriate.  Consider, for example, the poem that opens “Poetry/Not Poetry”: Howard Nemerov’s “Because You Asked about the Line between Prose and Poetry.”  According to Bob, Nemerov’s poem, which offers what he calls a “beautiful answer” to the question implied by the poem’s title, is “nice,” but ultimately “evasive, offering little more than the ‘I’ll know it when I see it’ argument that people used to evoke in the debates about pornography.”

I actually don’t think Nemerov’s poem is quite as evasive as Bob thinks it is: Nemerov’s poem says something very clear about what he thinks poems do: turn.  Nemerov’s poem not only turns, shifting its focus from the storm back to the sparrows and the drama of their flight, but is aware of its turning: as the poem states, “a freezing drizzle…turned into pieces of snow.”  Nemerov’s poem contains a self-reflexive turn.  And yet, as often is the case with turns, this vital aspect of poetry goes undiscussed.

But we should discuss the turn more–such discussion perhaps can offer us some new insights into old problems.

What’s the difference between prose and poetry?  Let me be clear: I’m not sure exactly what the difference is, but I know the turn in fact has nothing to do with it.  The turn is common to both poetry and prose.  Lots of poems turn, but so does lots of prose–stories, arguments, etc.  Indeed, as I argue in “The Structure-Form Distinction,” what’s exciting about the turn largely is the way the turn connects poetry and prose.

However, a great turn often is what (pardon me) turns prose into “Poetry,” that is, turns ordinary prose into great writing.  There is a turn, for example, in Obama’s speech accepting the nomination for Democratic presidential candidate that is sublime.  (You can find a link to it here.)  There are turns in Keat’s letters that are so amazing that some of the letters should be considered prose poems.  (Here is a link to one.)

The above use of the term “Poetry,” of course, is merely colloquial, but it shows how the turn is a unique link between poetry and prose.  Attention to the turn, a resource for both poetry and prose, emphasizes the overlap of poetry and prose.  Additionally, while great writing–poetry or prose–does not necessarily have to have a turn, writing that contains a great turn necessarily is great writing (or contains a core of greatness).  This is not the case with other aspects of poetry or prose, with, say, versification or character–one can easily imagine a poem that is technically formally flawless or a story that has great characters, but this wouldn’t be a guarantee that either is interesting writing–for example, there would be no guarantee that that poem or the story goes somewhere.

Now, the above is not exactly the “trans-historical, absolute” truth Bob mentions some are after when they seek the distinction between poetry and prose (or, as I think I’m trying to (a bit playfully) get at here: the distinction between poetry-and-prose and Poetry (that is, great poetry-and-prose)), but I think it is interesting: writers from many cultures and many different eras have been intrigued by and made great use of turns.  T. S. Eliot calls the turn “one of the most important means of poetic effect since Homer.”  Indeed, for all the upheavals Romanticism brought with it, the turn is still featured in a great deal of Romantic writing–I mean, Coleridge invented the descriptive-meditative structure.

And even lots of Elliptical poets make use of the turn.  In our chapter on “Substructure” in Structure & Surprise: Engaging Poetic Turns, Prageeta Sharma and I argue that the advice Stephen Burt gives in “Close Calls with Nonsense: How To Read, and Perhaps Enjoy, Very New Poetry” largely comes down to: “attend to turns.”  And check out Jorie Graham’s comments on the turn, and Hank Lazer’s comments on the turns in Rae Armantrout’s poems here.  Perhaps, by attending to turns, we can see that (post-)Romantic poetry and prose are not so different, after all…

Ultimately, though, I generally don’t care one jot if something is called poetry or prose–I care mostly if it has a great turn or turns at the heart of it.  You tell me that, and I know you’ve got an essay, or a story, or a poem I want to read.

Now, to figure out where the great turns are…