In this article you will learn the basic considerations in the study of poetry. Poetry, as we have indicated in the foregoing Unit, is considered the most ancient of the three major genres of literature. Accordingly, we have to begin by seeing it as a form of literary expression with all the defining qualities of literature such as 1) imagination 2) creativity 3) suggestiveness or indirection 4) as a mirror reflecting the individual’s perception of life experiences. Generally speaking, these qualities apply to both oral and written forms of poetry but the medium of expression and transmission are markedly different.
Nonetheless, both manifestations of poetry share identical content, form and effect. This is to say that irrespective of the obvious difference between these forms of poetry their sources and end-purpose are the emotions and imagination of the writer on the one hand and the reader or audience on the other; they convey significant truths about the human condition and they employ a language that is deliberately adorned by the use of figurative expressions. This will become clearer to you by the time we define poetry by way of setting it apart as a specific genres of literature.
The impulse responsible for man’s creation of poetry, whether oral or written, are as varied as there are individual differences and individual situations of life. However, three main motivations are generally discernible by critics, namely:
- Imitative (Mimetic): The innate human instinct to imitate things, which one can observe even in young children and monkeys.
- Aesthetic/Emotional: The natural pleasure of recognising good or effective mimicry. This is why Aristotle referred to poetry as “an imitative art”.
- Musical: The impulse or instinct for tune, music and rhythm as means of expressing and thus giving vent to emotions.
These motivations by and large would apply in the consideration of other literary and even plastic art forms but they assume greater significance in the study of poetry, the type we are undertaking in this course.
To illustrate the workings of these impulses, let us consider the following scenario, which encapsulates the three principles listed above, that must be familiar to you: For most of you, your first experience of poetry, when you began to recognise sounds and notes, must have been the imitative sounds contained in the lullabies to which your mother or elder siblings treated you.
While you definitely could not have understood a word of the sing songs, the occasional incorporation or introduction of common sounds of birds and other animals as well as appropriately paced repetition of words and sounds must equally have had some calming effect on you. As you grew up you must have applied this same method to achieve the same ends in your relation with your younger ones; the imitative content and their pleasing effects on both you and your younger ones as you grew are rudiments of the poetic instinct that we carry along with us into adulthood.
In the lullabies, you have inherent imitation, music and beauty/emotions. The lullabies and such other utilitarian songs and practices show that poetry has been and is always with us as human beings.
Nonetheless, this course is specifically designed to focus attention on written poetry, which means that we shall define poetry as a written form, but which by reason of common origins, share similar properties with its oral antecedent.
What is Poetry?
Since poetry means different things to different people, we shall not answer this question by providing a single definition until we have considered a good number of available definitions. The implication of this statement is that there is no one standard definition of poetry that can satisfy all possible shades of opinions; rather an aggregate(d) definition that contains aspects of some popular views or definitions representative of various critical approaches to literature might just be the most sensible way to take. These latter views take cognisance of basic concepts and words such as composition, words and their arrangement, expression, emotion/feeling/passion, perception, thought, rhythm, imagination, etc.
Definitions of Poetry
The following are well-known definitions of poetry which illustrate the varied view of this genre:
- Poetry is the language that tells us, through a more or less emotional reaction, something that cannot be said. All poetry, great or small, does this. – Edwin Arlington Robinson.
- I would define poetry of words as the rhythmical creation of beauty. Its sole arbiter is taste. With the intellect or with the conscience it has only collateral relations. Unless incidentally, it has no concern whatever either with duty or with truth. – Edgar Allan Poe
- Poetry is the imaginative expression of strong feeling, usually rhythmical…the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings recollected in tranquillity. – William Wordsworth
- The proper and immediate object of Science is the acquirement or communication of truth; the proper and immediate object of Poetry is the communication of pleasure. – Samuel Taylor Coleridge
- Poetry is the record of the best and happiest moments of the best and happiest minds. – Percy Bysshe Shelley
- An actual poem is the succession of experiences – sounds, images, thoughts, emotions – through which we pass when we are reading as poetically as we can. – Andrew Bradley
- …the rhythmic, inevitably narrative, movement from an overclothed blindness to a naked vision. – Dylan Thomas
- If I read a book and it makes my whole body so cold that no fire can ever warm me, I know that it is poetry. If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know that it is poetry. – Emily Dickinson
From the above definitions or explanations of what poetry is, it is clear as we have said earlier on that there cannot be a single definition that will be comprehensive enough to accommodate the various shades of opinions and schools of thought regarding the exact nature of the genre. While one cannot correctly adjudge one definition as superior, better or more comprehensive than another, it is true that each of them has its point of emphasis which in turn places it in one or the other of the great literary/creative debate over content, style and effect.
It is thus clear that Edgar Allan Poe’s conception of poetry as expressed above emphasises style or form over content and effect while, on the other hand, both William Wordsworth and Edwin Arlington Robinson focus more attention on content and effect in their definitions to reflect their English and American Romantic pedigrees respectively. In this regard, you should take particular note of Emily Dickinson’s own idea of poetry whose essential criterion is the effect it has on her and is capable of having on a reader. In a final analysis, one cannot fault any one of these definitions given the special interests and period fascinations that shape them.
Besides the individual emphases noted in the definitions we have used as samples above, we should take note of the occurrence of some common words and phrases such as emotions/feelings, rhythm/rhythmical, truth, pleasure, imaginative expression, language, etc which underscore the protean nature of poetry and which make it susceptible to being conceived of variously by definers the way the proverbial blind men saw and defined the elephant.
Finally, we may attempt a definition that strives to distil the various elements of the explanations we have made so far as follows: Poetry is a form of composition in verse form especially one expressing deep feelings or noble thought in a rhythmic and generally beautiful or embellished language written with the aim of communicating an experience. This definition contains the grains of the essential elements of the genre of poetry (imagery, rhythm, sound and diction) to which we will turn our attention in the next unit of this course material.
Poetry is the oldest of the major literary genres that has been part of the traditions of man through the ages; it has manifested in most human ritual activities as well as served as a ready means of entertainment in raditional festivals. Yet, in spite of its long history and perennial occurrence and employment in important human activities, it has defied common definition because it seems to strike different people differently.
In this article you have learnt several definitions and explanations of poetry as a literary genre. While a common definition has not been found and this is exemplified by the multiplicity of samples of definitions examined, we have provided a definition that has incorporated the major strands of the various explanations common to different traditions and periods of literary history.