Some weeks ago, members of the Karmiel Women’s Writers’ Group in Western Galilee, Israel decided to debate ‘What is a Poem?’
I so much enjoyed mulling over the question and researching material to help answer it, that I joined several Facebook poetry groups and even penned a doggerelised pastiche of my own.
I’ve never considered myself to be a ‘natural’ poet although several of my stories may be viewed as would-be prose-poems. But it was positive feedback at the group meeting that caused me to launch this blog.
I hope to examine many forms of verse from all traditions and will publish them in their original languages if English translations are available. I also welcome contributions from fellow writers as I am only too aware that we need to encourage and support each other.
Scholars say the word ‘poem’ was originally Greek, coming from the verb “to make; to create”, causing the poet to be the creator and the language employed, his or her material.
But this doesn’t explain a poem’s nature any more than simply describing its structure as comprising metre, rhyme and metaphor. Just as people are more than their body-parts and intelligence, a poem has a soul – a divine spark - like the individual who composes it.
Am I being mischievous when I suggest that the concept behind the word ‘poem’ is as Jewish as it is Greek because it recalls the notion of the yetzer hara – evil inclination - which when channelled wisely may encourage people to build rather than to destroy?
Meanwhile, a completed poem may be prayerful (’Hear O Israel’); psalmic (‘The Lord is my shepherd’); a song (‘If music be the food of love, play on;’); tell a story (like the Old English epic tale, Beowulf); express love (“Shall I compare thee to a summer's day”?); follow a pattern like a Japanese-style Haiku; be written in a shape across the page (like a snake) to illustrate what it is about; or be formed as an acrostic like biblical Psalm 119, whose 176 verses are divided into 22 stanzas, one stanza for each letter of the Hebrew alphabet, each of which then has eight verses (when written in Hebrew) beginning with the appropriate letter.
So, because dictionary definitions may describe a poem’s physicality but don’t grasp its essence, I asked for the thoughts of the Facebook poetry reading and writing public.
Here are some responses from the ‘I Am Poetry’ Facebook Page:
1. Poetry is a written self-expression of imagery.
2. A piece of writing that partakes of the nature of both speech and song that is nearly always rhythmical, usually metaphorical, and often exhibits such formal elements as metre, rhyme and stanzaic structure.
3. Something that arouses strong emotions because of its beauty.
4. A poem is a literary work in which special intensity is given to the expression of feelings and ideas by the use of distinctive style and rhythm; poems collectively or as a genre of literature. This is a broad definition of poetry.
5. A poem is a single work of art crafted from the poet's vast imagination, his very heart and soul reflecting his or her feelings in rhythmic verse using words as paint on his or her perceptive canvass and interpretation of life.
6. A poem is a literary work in which special intensity is given to the expression of feelings and ideas by the use of distinctive style and rhythm; poems collectively or as a genre of literature. This is a broad definition of poetry. If you write poetry, in whatever form, then you are a poet and should not feel shy to call yourself one.
7. Write what your heart and head speaks.
Next, let’s hear from two famous professionals. First, the Welsh wizard, Dylan Thomas:
"A good poem is a contribution to reality. The world is never the same once a good poem has been added to it. A good poem helps to change the shape of the universe, helps to extend everyone's knowledge of himself and the world around him”.
Or how about a more modern Irish poet, Philip Casey, when interviewed by Mark Ulyseas, editor of Live Encounters, the magazine to which I contribute:
“... reading and dreaming
Are significant parts of being a writer
– maybe even more so for a poet.
The peculiar thing about poetry is that a lifetime’s experience can be distilled into a few lines...”
It is obvious that the respondents – whether great or less significant - ponder proportionately little on the tools, style and content, preferring to emphasise the spirit behind a work.
For me then, a poem remains indefinable but may be best described as the concentrated essence of writing that captures our imagination so we live at one and at peace with the rhythm of life.
Works like Matthew Arnold’s Dover Beach (‘The sea is calm to-night’.) and Percy Bysshe Shelley’s Ode to the West Wind (‘O wild West Wind; thou breath of Autumn’s being’) typify my view and this is why, I’m sure, the form is as ancient as music and explains its enduring popularity.
Finally, I want to recommend a superb feature in The Atlantic, whose author most conveniently asks “What Is a Poem?” Mark Yakich is a poet who teaches creative writing at Loyola University, New Orleans and edits New Orleans Review. Curiously enough, he also ends on a Jewish note. But I’ll leave you to find out why.
“Some Say Life
“Some say life is continuing in the face of the alternative;
some say – conquest; some stretch an equals sign
between life and its absence; and some say that life
was given us to serve those whose lives
are not a life. I say: you.
And this is easily explained: once again night envelops
what can be seen. At home lamps are lit. And in the light there’s no glance
except the one from the mirror, nothing except what sees me
seeing it; and it brings not release but longing, not death
but life. And I remove my gaze from the warm and the cold – night envelops everything –
and I long for the one who sees me through touching,
and I don’t remember a thing. Only this”.
© Natalie Wood (20 April 2014)