What Is It About Poetry?

Shamatha asks:

What is it about poetry that makes it in the minds of people the highest form of literate expression?

What I mean is, why is poetry often used as a metaphor or adjective, while say, novel writing, or even songwriting, never or rarely is?

(A sunset is poetic. Muhammed Ali was ‘poetry in motion.’ Why not a novelistic sunset? Why was Ali not ‘prose in motion?’

Poets are often described as seers or prophets, while prose writers rarely are, which would imply that the poet is closer to God.

What moves existential lovestruck teen-agers to write existential, lovestruck poetry to express their feelings, rather than existential, lovestruck short stories?

The first forms of story-telling were in the form of verse; Gilgamesh, the Iliad and Odyssey, the Vedas or Upanishads. Novel writing developed much later. Why?

You can get on an open mike and read your spoken word poem, but try getting up there to read your short story.

What the heck is it about poetry?

36 Responses

  1. What the Heck?I guess people
    What the Heck?

    I guess people are more into poetry because it’s usually shorter, sweeter, and more accesible. True, most people I know don’t sit aorund and write novels. But many, many people write poems.

    Short attention spans. Many people have them. Many would prefer a subject condensed down to two pages, and while you’re at it, can you make it rhyme? Ah, that’s cool. And easier to remember.

    Now, me, personally, I would prefer to read a novel over a book of poems any day. About twice a year though I read one of those new poetry anthologies, and I feel extra smart when I do. What is it about poetry that can make you feel smarter than having read a book?

    Poetry is considered romantic. I don’t know why. Consider which is more romantic: A dude standing benaeth a damsel’s window one night-

    “Hey! I am here to read a short, sappy poem!”
    “Hey, I am here to read ten pages of my hip novella…wait hold up, please don’t close that window!”

    But the real question is novels vs. poetry, who would win in a ring fight?


  2. What’s Going OnThe space
    What’s Going On

    The space between thought and word is what counts.

    Those who get it down clean and honest are the shamans of the printed medium.

    Why poetry? Why not prose? Why not prose? Who said not prose?

    Who wouldn’t wanna listen to a chunk of On the Road read by Kerouac? It’s honesty that draws crowds – rhythm and bursting heart patterns within the phrases

    Do it anyway you can Who cares whatcha call it?

    Not me.

    Labels are meant for bean counters

    The experience happens in the meeting of creator and receiver – call the form what you like.

    When it happens, I wanna be there.

  3. Excellent QuestionThat’s a
    Excellent Question

    That’s a really good question and I’ll have to think a while before coming up with a complete answer, but I believe it has something to do with humans trying to replicate patterns in nature.

  4. Creativity Can Come from
    Creativity Can Come from Confinement

    judih nails it with, ” The space between thought and word is what counts.” But I’d like to expand on that: when we look at it, don’t we usually honor craft that is easy to see? Is skill in prose as easy to identify?

    For an explanation I look to the demanding laws of poetry. Not only does one tell a story, but one uses challenging structures: iambic pentameter, haiku, even applying new lyrics to holiday carols. Can someone create a new world within the stylings of “Up on the Housetop” or “Here We Come A-Wassailing”? It is possible. It is exercise. It is … action.

    Maybe I’m full of hooey. Maybe the oral history of poetry is where the real honor lies. The original story tellers must have seemed like seers to the rest of the people huddled by the fire.

  5. true the structure is a
    true the structure is a given, but what is structure?
    often it’s the pattern of breathing that governs line length or syllable percussion.

    This goes for story telling, or pure introspective prose. There’s a structure governed by the shape of the mouth, the tongue, the language.

    The structure must work with the audience – attention span, drama and vibe all count.

    Why poetry?
    Because the poet cleans away all debris and gets to the point
    (or no point). The sound, tone and infra beat are placed on the line (or not on the line) within a certain space and then it’s over.

    Spoken word gives you the chance to watch the poet present the piece while sound plays your brain to the tune of imagery.

    It’s a cool media, but certainly not for everyone. Language has its boundaries. Pure poetry without costume, music and lighting asks a lot of an audience member

    Are people really prepared to exercise their brains? Would that they were!

    And let’s find out at every opportunity.

  6. I Wonder Iffirst preserved
    I Wonder If

    first preserved literature was poetry because of the oral tradition. Rhyme and meter makes commiting something to memory easier. Since these epics were passed along by various story tellers, I have to think that poetry helped them in exactly duplicating their recitations. Of course this logic is flawed, since, the new performance might just possibly get embellished or improved upon by each speaker. But that’s one thought.

    And Ali… come on now? Poetry in motion, well the guy was fast. I think he would have finished his job and cleaned the place up before a short story could be uttered. “Float like a butterfly/sting like a bee” baby.

  7. Come on now Shammy”Try
    Come on now Shammy

    “Try getting up to an open mike and read your prose” you say?

    Ok. How about Chuck Dickens? He gave sell-out performances in England and the U.S. People lined up around the block to hear the guy read. People were so in awe of his readings that they fainted in the auditoriums.

    How about Twain? He traveled the country reading his short stories. People went nuts.

    How about Chuck Palahniuk? (You knew I couldn’t resist, Jamelah.) The guy travels the country reading short stories, people pack the places where he reads.

    And when I read the Sunday Chicago Tribune, I see pages devoted to authors performing readings. Nary a poet among the novelists.

    And if poetry is “the shit” as you claim, how come no one buys poetry books? I heard a publisher say that if you don’t want to make any money selling books — sell poetry books.

    Heh. Yeah.

  8. j8, I agree with that last
    j8, I agree with that last sentence, “The original story tellers must have seemed like seers to the rest of the people huddled by the fire.”

    And to take it a step further, let’s assume that after many years, story tellers weren’t so scarce any more. Then one day someone accidentally rhymed. It made people smile. Or raise their eyebrows. Or pay closer attention. “Do that again!” someone might have said. Storytellers who really stood out were the ones who began using patterns. In sound, in cadence, in syllables, whatever.

    The Caveman Chief’s right-hand-man eyed the stranger suspiciously. “Give us one reason why we should let you join our tribe!”

    “I’m hungry and cold
    And I found this gold.”

    “PFFFF! AHHH,hahahaha…say that again. Wait, let me bring the Chief out here. CHIEF!”

    The old Chief emerges from the mammoth skin tent, “This better be good,” he says.

    The Chief’s right-hand-man turns to the stranger.

    “Tell the Chief what you just told me.”

    “Uh…I got some gold?”

    “Not like that. Like you did before!”

    The Chief is impatient. “We got plenty of gold,” he grunts. “What do we need with his measly nuggets?”

    “No, Chief, you gotta hear this, really,” says the right-hand-man. “Tell the chief like you told it to me!”

    The stranger begins hesitantly, “I’m…uh…Oh, yeah – I’m hungry and cold and I’ve got some gold!”

    “AHHHHH, HAAHAHAHA!” the Chief and his man roll. They can’t get enough. “Bring that talk-talking son-of-a-bitch into the tent and give him a cooked bison leg! Does he say anything else like that?”

  9. Some of my favorite
    Some of my favorite recordings of all time are William S. Burroughs reading excerpts from his novels in front of audiences.

  10. ….you do be the jammer j
    ….you do be the jammer j ….sending out lines that prime the flow, that cause the “GO”…Jack sat at the six gallery reading and just kept chanting…GO…GO….GO…GO….

  11. …the nature of beings…
    …the nature of beings… the nature of being…. the essence…
    any medium …… the sublime… the chance to dine…. the word….

  12. I like SonnetsThis isn’t
    I like Sonnets

    This isn’t necessarily a defense of poetry as having more universal aesthetic appeal than fiction, though I may believe it to have just that, but is instead, if we take poetry, on speculation, to be a more thorough approach to the beauty of the world, a defense of good poetry against the weakening assault of bad. Poetry is preferred, though not in these times, because it is precise; it wastes none of our time with thought or enounciation, but instead delivers a sharp and lasting pain that reminds us of what it is to be alive. It isn’t that it is short, but that it is exact.

    Harold Bloom said, in his new book, that what makes one poem more memorable than another “must be that the memorable poem, the poem that has more meaning, or starts more meaning going, is the poem that gives (or commemorates) more pain.”

    and also:

    “Strong poetry is difficult, and its memorability is the consequence of a difficult pleasure, and a difficult enough pleasure is a kind of pain.”

    from Harold Bloom’s Where Shall Wisdom Be Found?

  13. Poetry vs. Prose: The Cage
    Poetry vs. Prose: The Cage Match

    Poetry arrives at the arena late, redfaced and drunk on pinot noir, mumbling about his soul. Prose has been waiting for a half an hour, leaning against the wall, smoking hand-rolled cigarettes and wondering if he forgot to turn the iron off, before remembering that he does not, in fact, own an iron.

    As the two contestants step into the cage, it’s clear that Poetry is at a physical disadvantage. Sure, he’d beefed up in the past with epic tomes like the Aeneid, but that was hundreds of years ago, and he never even read it all the way to the end, anyway. But although Prose is bigger and younger, he’s a
    little bit tired from sitting up all night drinking, so it’s not easy to say from the beginning who will come out victorious in today’s fight.

    Both sides have their resentment, and it’s clear as they begin to fight that they’ve been harboring anger toward each other for quite some time. “Gimme a sonnet about this bitch!” Prose yells, hitting Poetry with the full force of Ulysses. In response, Poetry cuts Prose with the stunning simplicity of a haiku.

    This fight has gotten dirty fast, folks. But let’s be honest — it’s to be expected.

    The cut isn’t slowing Prose down! No, Prose has got Poetry in a headlock and and is shouting the opening paragraph of Lolita, while Poetry tries to wriggle free. It looks like this one might be over for Poetry, but wait — wait —

    Poetry breaks free and starts yelling, “APRIL! IS! THE! CRUELEST! MONTH!” He’s going after Prose with a vengeance now, and Prose is having a hard time fighting against the crushing pretentiousness of Eliot’s most-puzzled-over poem.

    Today’s battle is quite a bruiser.

    Poetry moves in for the kill, and Prose, who has been backed into a corner, says, “Fine, nobody reads you anyway.”

    Poetry, who entirely consists of fragile ego, shatters into a million pieces, leaving Prose the champion of this battle of literary forms.

  14. I’m not really arguing that
    I’m not really arguing that poetry is ‘the shit.’

    More like, I wonder why poetry has more cache among the literary asthetes than prose, despite the fact that nobody really reads poetry.

    I mean, the U.S, and most states have a poet laureate, but not a prose laureate, as far as I know.

    And again, why is ‘poetic’ often used as the highest form of compliment for a work of art that is not poetry? Like saying a movie has poetic cinematography, or a painting has an almost poetic quality to the brush strokes. I mean, even novels are often described as having a poetic quality to the writing, as if that is what should be aspired to.

    And when litkicks has their periodic gathering, sure you would probably be welcome to get up their and read your short (short) story, but poetry has center stage. I mean, look at the name of the first litkicks book.

    I don’t write poetry. I just wonder why we prose writers get the short shrift.

  15. I got what Shamatha was
    I got what Shamatha was getting at (which he explains very well in his response here). It’s not that many people really like poetry better than prose. Prose is much more popular. But for some strange reason poetry gets star billing in literary circles. Poetry always has special status: either it’s a hothouse flower, or it’s a tunnel into the subconscious, or it’s a symbol of freedom for the downtrodden. Nobody invests prose with similar magical meaning.

    When my family makes fun of me, they call me a poet, not a fiction writer. That proves something.

  16. Shamatha, they may try to
    Shamatha, they may try to tell you it’s about mysticism or prestige or rhythm or tunneling through someone else’s brain or whatever. But the simple truth is this: poetry attains a cult status in the realm of literature and hipster legend because, let’s face it, the word ‘prose’ sucks. It’s ugly and falls flat and no one wants to sit around and talk about ‘prose’ or describe things as ‘prose’ because the word itself is simply uninspired and uninspiring. But the word ‘poetry’… well, man… that’s poetry.

  17. I think this is true.
    I think this is true. “Poetry” is a great word. It flows, and it even contains the name of Poe, the man who wrote about ‘the silken sad uncertain rustling of the purple curtain” among many other memorable phrases. “Prose” is just lumplike. And can you imagine a book called “Action Fiction”? Sounds like a friend of Encyclopedia Brown’s.

  18. yeah, yeah, yeahtill
    yeah, yeah, yeah
    till e.e.cummings shows up
    graffiti’s the hall
    and leaves the audience to turn itself inside out
    trying to prove how clear it all is

  19. Why Ask Why?I think it’s
    Why Ask Why?

    I think it’s because, while not all writers are poets, if you’re searching for the reason why we write, you’ll find it in poetry.

  20. I love it! Talk about a slam!
    I love it! Talk about a slam! Especially, “APRIL! IS! THE!….”
    I want a rematch!

  21. Rematch. Okay, Bill… how
    Rematch. Okay, Bill… how about this one? Hemingway vs. Pound. Who would win that one?

  22. It’s All in a WordThe
    It’s All in a Word

    The literary elite considers poetry the higher art because of its precision.

    Poets express meaning in a half dozen words that prose writers take entire chapters, if not novels themselves, to express.

    Poetry is a Randy Johnson fastball. Prose is playing catch in the backyard, where sometimes you have to chase the ball under the bushes. Both are beautiful and necessary, but you know how the elite like to be all fucking smug and shit. They think they’re cool because they know a word in the OED that they could substitute for that entire paragraph you just wrote.

    Considering the attention span of the masses, it’s surprising that poetry isn’t cool yet. The reason is likely because the poetry elite has turned it into something that 10th graders despise, and seeing everything we know we learned in the 10th grade, this is poetically tragic. Slam poets are cool. The literary elite tries to pretend that Eminem isnt poetry, so there is more of a separation than necessary. The tragedy would be for the cherry of Randy Johnson cash to be removed from its rightful place in prose and placed in poetry, which would make the parallel complete but also render my dreams impossible. Since I’m more important than any theory, I hope this never happens.

  23. Actually, the oral tradition
    Actually, the oral tradition explanation makes a lot of sense. It reminds me of a story my Greek history professor told us in college.

    He said that in the mountains of Bohemia, (possibly) there were still village poets of the oral epic poetry tradition. Since the form was set, their wasn’t a lot of room for embellishment. There were set lines or phrases for describing certain things that they had come to rely upon, (set pieces, essentially) because they worked in the format. And you could mix and match a bit, but you had to conform to the metre, so only so much. He said you could sit there and listen to these guys recite the story of say, WWI, but since they relied on memorized set lines, they told the story, basically accurately, but instead of tanks and men with machine guns fighting, it was men on horses and men with muskets, because those were the set pieces they had access to for telling the story.

    Now my memory cannot vouch that this professor was speaking from personal experience or if this was something he had read, but still, kind of interesting.

  24. Ezra Pound vs. Ernest
    Ezra Pound vs. Ernest Hemingway
    The Cage Match

    We’ll see if Ezra Pound’s neck injury, which he suffered in prison, has any effect on his fighting ability. One thing is certain – he’s had plenty of time to train in St. Elizabeth’s Hospital. Crazy like a fox!

    Ernie Hemingway is a rough & tumble guy, but rumor has it he’s a bit dissipated. His trainer, Max Perkins, is no doubt hoping that the feasting and drinking hasn’t overshadowed Ernie’s fighting, hunting, and other rugged adventures.

    Hemingway laughs at Pound’s arsenal of picturesque oriental poetry, not realize that Pound has modified and translated the symbols for his lean, mean, American Zine. Pound hits Hemingway with a volley of free verse, knocking the novelist on his ass.

    Ernie jumps up and…what is he doing?…standing there with his arms out wide open? He’s not even trying to protect himself! What gives? Ezra lunges at Ernie, who stands motionless.

    Ernie side-steps gracefully like a matador, fanning his quickly discarded hunting vest into the space where he had been standing. Ezra Pound can’t stop in time, charges like a bull through the billowing vest, stumbles, turns around to face Hemingway again. Ernie teases Pound with the vest again and again.

    Maybe to be continued…anyone care to add more?

  25. Yeah, that’s true. Poetry
    Yeah, that’s true. Poetry contains all the passion, anger, and anguish. Novels contain that too, but it just takes longer to get it all out, or, it takes at least 200 more pages.

  26. But there are bridgesbetween
    But there are bridges

    between prose and poetry — and I think they converge in ‘quality’ and the touch of their message (see how Baudelaire’s ‘prose poems’ fit the intention).

    Regina Weinreich wrote about the ‘spontaneous poetics of Jack Kerouac’, and like Burroughs You can hear him singing his prose like a poem (On the Road as well as The Sea is my Brother), and I was amazed by the similarity when I listened to the audiobook of Joyce’s Finnegans Wake: the sound in first place, melody and rhythm of the associating waves (see Kerouac’s Good Blonde and Others about that).

    Yes, You can read write enjoy prose like a poem. Singlemalt (and the following comments) said it all (and then there’s Lou Reed and hip-hop, rap … from Morrison’s Celebration of the Lizard).

    The history, the role of the song, for expression, the word: we had the discussion in the Boards of Old, and Pinsky wrote something about that.

  27. Wireman, every time you write
    Wireman, every time you write something, even when it’s abstract, I know exactly what you mean.

  28. Why argue and “fight” over
    Why argue and “fight” over which is better than the other? Poetry and Prose both have their respective places in literature. I’m going to leave it right there.

  29. The Myth of Universal Ability
    The Myth of Universal Ability And…

    I think there’s something to be said for the fact that most people probably think they could sit down and write a snappy poem, even people who couldn’t care less about the art of this or the cultural value of that. Writing a novel or a short story is a much more involved venture. I mean, let’s face it, any schmo can write a bad poem — it’s not hard at all. But if I write a crappy novel, I may be untalented, but you know I’ve got a lot of motivation.

    As for the difference between the lure of performed poetry and the lure of performed prose — that’s obvious, I think. poetry is generally short, easy to listen to, and more directly impactful when spoken aloud than prose. As for the novelists mentioned in someone’s posting about performed writing, those people went to see Charles Dickens and Mark Twain because Dickens and Twain were larger-than-life characters. The draw of a charismatic, entertaining performer is what counts there. I’m sure I could find some academic who could read Huck Finn to a crowd just as effectively, but who cares? It’s like Fiddler on the Roof — it’s great when Zero Mostel is involved, but when Topol is Tevye, who really gives a shit?

  30. Getting closer…Someone
    Getting closer…

    Someone noted the phonetic viscosity of the word ‘Poetic;’ It just rolls off the tongue a lot better. It’s a delightfully recursive onomatopoetic phenomenon, I think. It’s all in the art of the metaphor. “Hotel California”? Eagles’ screed.

    Poetry is perhaps a ‘pure form.’ What is pure form? I dunno — I didn’t go to school and I doubt it’s a real term — but poetry is certainly an aspect of a greater mechanism when used in prose. Poetry is in the WAY the prose is written. Its influence lies in between the cracks of language. Removed, it’s its own identity. If prose were a disease, poetry would be its fever.

    Q: If you were to smash the amalgam of prose what other ‘pure forms’ would you get?

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