Welcome to poetry and poetics
This subject is possibly unique in Australia at first year level.
An attempt to base literary studies at this institution in what is arguably the first literary form, poetry.
Rather than ghettoiseing poetry as some advanced subject speciality, we have placed it as a foundation course for your studies in literature. Hopefully the insights you get from this subject will help guide you through the rest of your literary studies here and elsewhere.
Go through the hand out
What is Poetry?
In thinking this through we often hold it up in comparison to or contrast with prose
Tom Leonard, '100 Differences Between Poetry and Prose'
While I think this poem gives a humorous angle on some of the differences between forms, I don't think it defines them particularly exactly.
Here's are some examples of people trying to define poetry and also not really getting anywhere that feels definite. Oftentimes they are contradictory:
Here's another that I like but I'm not sure it's all that helpful either.
This poem by Billy Collins points to the enigma that is poetry. The act of definition can be destructive.
So how do we respond to this. Just accept the mystery of poetry and be done with it. Or can we be more academic about things? Maybe we should try a different angle?
Perhaps if we looked at some poems we might be able to move on.
Each of them contains examples of what we look for in poetic language and structure:
Use of techniques like:
Click here for a glossary of poetic terms http://web.cn.edu/kwheeler/lit_terms.html
Perhaps we are well on our way to defining poetry then: the kind of writing that displays these kind of characteristics.
Problem: only two of those poems were actually poems.
Many forms of writing and discourse which are not poetry have exactly the same kind of chracteristics:
As Terry Eagleton suggests in Literary Theory: An Introduction
Perhaps we are in error then if we are to try to define poetry in terms of the characteristics of the object, the poem in itself.
Perhaps it is more fruitful to see things in terms of the subject of perception, the reader, or the ways in which things get read.
Perhaps the poetic is a characteristic of the person reading a piece of writing which leads the person to adjudge a piece of writing poetry.
As a result, poetry is only poetry once it has been given the stamp of approval by someone qualified to make a judgement – like an editor or a publisher or a literary critic.
And while this seems a crude notion. This is what actually happens in Australia and elsewhere. There is a literary system which decides what is poetry and what isn’t. Poets send their poetry to magazines and publishers who in turn sometimes make judgements: this is not poetry! This is doggerell!
Poetry vs not poetry
No matter that you thought you were writing poetry – writing that contained many of the characteristics outlined above – it might well be decided that this is not poetry.
Even if it is allowed that 'OK, you have written poetry' the decision can still be made that you have written bad poetry.
Good poetry vs bad poetry
So who gets to decide what is poetry or what is good poetry and what is bad poetry?
Who gets to be in these positions of poetic power?
It's important to remember that these decisions and evaluations are not just random subjective notions argued out by cultured poetic individuals. There is a whole structure of interested parties who get to shape these questions.
Yet we are all judges of poetry. We have each had the opportunity to use words and phrases like ‘poetry in motion’ or describe something we hear or see as poetic. It's just that some of our judgements fail to influence whereas those of others do.
Poetry is a term we give to a form of writing and reading and thinking about language use that is a publicly negotiated form.