Monday, January 26, 2009

What is Poetry?

"What is poetry? And if not what is poetry then what is prose?" That's probably the best general definition. Gertrude Stein.

Neil Simon came dangerously close when he had a character in the Sunshine Boys explain how some words are funny and others aren't:
Words with a 'k' in it are funny. Alkaseltzer is funny. Chicken is funny. Pickle is funny. All with a 'k'. 'L's are not funny. 'M's are not funny. Cupcake is funny. Tomatoes is not funny. Lettuce is not funny. Cucumber's funny. Cab is funny. Cockroach is funny -- not if you get 'em, only if you say 'em.
Poetry is a lot like that. Certain words have poetry and others don't. "Poetic" words, like "oft" or "plash" or "liminal" or "azure," etc. are definitely NOT poetry. Simple words can be poetry, but only when they fit together in exactly the right way.

I wish I had a big old hog
And corn to feed him on
And Shady Grove to stay at home
And feed him when I'm gone.

That's not only poetry, it's great poetry. It's also economics. In fact it's a perfect demonstration of how poetry and economics are fundamentally the same. Notice, by the way, that money is never mentioned. All that's needed is the hog, the corn, the worker -- and unfortunately, the boss (actually the boss isn't really needed -- that's poetic license).

"Let me not to the marriage of true minds admit impediments." That's NOT poetry. "Ding dong bell." That's poetry.

Swift's epitaph is poetry:
Hic depositum est Corpus
Huyus Ecclesiæ Cathedralis
Ubi sæva Indignatio
Cor lacerare nequit,
Abi Viator
Et imitare, si poteris,
Strenuum pro virili
Libertatis Vindicatorem.
Here lies the body of
Jonathan Swift,
Dean of this Cathedral,
Where savage indignation
Cannot lacerate his heart anymore.

Go, traveler,
And imitate, if you can,
One who to the utmost
Strenuously championed
Human liberty.
So, as we can see, poetry is also politics.

Probably the greatest poetic couplet ever written is from "Rising Sun Blues," as performed by Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee:
Whichaway whichaway, does that blood Red River run
From my back window, straight to thee rising sun.

Which brings me to the destructive power of poetry. Great poetry can literally blow you away. Which is why it can be so powerful. And so important a tool, if we want to change the world.

Ultimately there is only one great poem and it goes like this:


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