What’s So Special About Poetry?
A bad song is still a song, and it’s also music, even if it’s not music to your ears or mine. A painting is a painting, no matter how poor a painting it is, and I think it more than likely there’s more than one stinker hung in the nearest art museum or gallery, wherever you are. The decorative arts are still called “arts,” even when they involve garden gnomes.
But poetry is somehow believed to be peculiarly different from the other arts. Here’s David Lehman, whose poetry and criticism I respect a great deal, in the first sentences of the Foreword to Best American Poetry 2011, presented by Poetry Daily:
What makes a poem great? What standards do we use for judging poetic excellence? To an extent, these are variants on an even more basic question. What is poetry? Poetry is, after all, not a neutral or merely descriptive term but one that implies value. What qualities in a piece of verse (or prose) raise it to the level of poetry?
He’s quite right about “poetry” implying value. Try googling “poetry in motion.” Try getting through a broadcast basketball tournament or a thoroughbred racing event without some TV/radio personality using that phrase. Try to remember how it was once applied to boxing.
It seems to me a category error based on historical accident: it just so happens that “poetry” is the name of a particular form (or group of forms) of verbal art, and is also, since poetry was once considered the highest art, a term of praise. But a bad poem is still a poem, and “poetry,” if it is to mean anything more than “stuff I like,” has got to mean, at a bare minimum, the deliberate arrangement of language, in a manner at least minimally informed by the poetic tradition, with the intention to in some way delight its maker’s audience. “Poetry” has to include Shakespeare and Millay and Silliman and the middle-school kid writing about his or her latest crush.