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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.

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5 comments

1 MAS { 10.19.11 at 8:27 pm }

it’s all Aristotle’s fault.

2 Mike { 10.19.11 at 10:59 pm }

Bastard’s got a lot to answer for.

3 Titus { 11.04.11 at 12:24 am }

“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. ”

Truly an interesting topic you have brought up here, and in many ways, I suppose we can’t ignore what has been said in the above quote. But there’s just something in poetry which other forms of art cannot express.

Lol to the Aristotle comment though.

Titus

4 Jack { 03.03.12 at 5:29 am }

I have pondered this topic. Your conclusion is a very sensible one.

5 upinvermont { 07.07.12 at 8:20 am }

Hey Mike, it’s gotten so that defining anything whatsoever is an exercise in futility. You could be defining moss on a stone and there’s somebody going to insist that the moss is the stone and stone is the moss. To judge by Lehman’s “Best American Poetry Series”, I’m not so sure he has that much insight into “poetry”. (I’m also not a fan of his poetry.)

I read his introduction. He starts by asking “What makes a poem great?”, then spends the next 4359 words in sweeping generalities, equivocations and circumlocution, all ending with self-congratulatory pat on the back. He managed to say nothing at all.

I get so frustrated with pablum like this. I wrote a post about him called Vanity. If he didn’t style himself a judge of “The Best American Poetry”, he probably wouldn’t bother me so much.

About half way through his tour de jour, we get this: “To answer you need to make a list, and by the time you get to the third or fourth item you realize that no poem can do all the things people expect from poetry…”

And with that, Lehman throws up his hands and essentially applies internet rule #36 to poetry:

No matter what it is, it is somebody’s fetish. No exceptions.

My own opinion is that if you really want to know how to judge poetry, you don’t read a guy like Lehman. You read a William Logan.

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