ACL 1002
Studying Poetry and Poetics
Semester 2 2012

Footscray Park

Lecture 1

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

  • Unit outline
  • Teaching modes
  • Internet
  • Timetable – deal with problems – options for those with timetable difficulties
  • Set texts
  • Look at some weeks as examples of structure
  • assessment

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'

100 Differences Between Poetry and Prose

poetry stops before the end of the margin
you can talk about prose without mentioning school
you don't read poetry to get from Glasgow to Saltcoats without noticing

John Menzies doesn't stock poetry
whoever heard of war & peace having the line as a unit of semantic yield
you can call a poem what you want and say its poetic licence

poetry is the subliminal history of linguistic shape
poetry has four wheels, two wings and a pair of false teeth

poetry is the heart and the brain divided by the lungs
poetry is the world's oldest cock and fanny story

you don't get prose in anapaestic dimeters
nobody publishes their first slim volume of prose
aristotle never wrote The Proses

if you dribble past five defenders, it isn't called sheer prose
poets are the unacknowledged thingwaybobs

poetry is quintessentially contrapuntal
the square root of poetry is an ever-evolving quark
whenever Vergil looked in the mirror, he beheld an epic Latin poet

poetry is all the juicy bits in the juiciest order
poetry is jellied religion
pascal: if your labourers complain too much, try taking them to a poetry reading

prose goes scchhpludd
prose goes scchhpludd scchhpludd clomp clomp clomp
are you sitting comfortably

then I'll end

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.

Poetry is the achievement of art
through the use of language,
rhythm and form.

Poetry is the art of achievement
through the use of language,
rhythm and form.

This poem by Billy Collins points to the enigma that is poetry. The act of definition can be destructive.

"Introduction To Poetry"

I ask them to take a poem
and hold it up to the light
like a color slide

or press an ear against its hive.

I say drop a mouse into a poem
and watch him probe his way out,

or walk inside the poem's room
and feel the walls for a light switch.

I want them to waterski
across the surface of a poem
waving at the author's name on the shore.

But all they want to do
is tie the poem to a chair with rope
and torture a confession out of it.

They begin beating it with a hose
to find out what it really means.

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.

5 poems

Each of them contains examples of what we look for in poetic language and structure:

Use of techniques like:

  • Rhyme
  • Rhythm
  • Form or the suggestion of form
  • stanzaic
  • lineated
  • set structure; sonnet; ballad; blazon
  • Use of poetic devices like:
    • metaphor,
    • simile,
    • conceits
    • alliteration
    • assonance
    • repetition
    • onomatopoeia
    • enjambment
  • They each deal with a specific kind of issue, problem or image in a concentrated way

Click here for a glossary of poetic terms

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:

  • Advertising
  • Pop songs
  • Much fictional and non-fictional prose
  • sports commentary
  • Drunken pub conversations

As Terry Eagleton suggests in Literary Theory: An Introduction

Anyone who believes that 'literature' can be defined by such special uses of language has to face the fact that there is more metaphor in Manchester than there is in Marvell. There is no 'literary' device - metonymy, synecdoche, litotes, chiasmus and so on - which is not quite intensively used in daily discourse.

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?

  • University lecturers
  • Particular members of the poetry community
  • poetry editors
  • reviewers
  • prize committees
  • state bureaucrats
  • employees of multinational publishing companies

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.

  • industry
  • culture
  • politics

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.

  • Poetry doesn’t just exist alone
  • The Poetic reader is not unproblematic
  • Poetry ultimately names a field of writing and discussion that we hope to illuminate for you in the course of this unit.