Sentinel Poetry Magazine January 2003

Rob Godfrey

What Is Poetry..?


The hoary old question that's been asked a zillion times in the past, and will no doubt be asked a zillion times in the future: what makes a piece of writing a 'poem'?

Here's the Collins English Dictionary definition...


poem: a composition in verse, usually characterised by concentrated and heightened language in which words are chosen for their sound and suggestive power as well as for their sense, and using such techniques as metre, rhyme, and alliteration.

Dictionaries reflect the more traditional view of poetry, but there's also
modernist poetry (Yeats, Frost, Pound, Eliot, Stevens, etc) - which broadly
defines a poem as an autonomous object that may or may not represent the real world but is created in language made distinctive by its complex web of references - and postmodernist poetry (Prynne, Ashbery, Koch, Ginsberg, etc) - and a whole raft of fads in-between, such as Symbolism, Vorticism, Dadaism, Surrealism, Classicism, Neo-romanticism, proletarian writing, Postmodernism, magic realism, ad infinitum. There's also nonconformists, poets such as Hardy and
Hopkins, who didn't fit in with any of the literary movements of their time.

Which still leaves the question hanging in the air: what is poetry? Well, the truth of the matter is that no one really knows. For some of us, this is what makes
poetry such fun. There are no assured definitions of poetry, and there are no recipes for what makes a good poem, or any kind of agreement about excellence. It's all subjective, and largely comes down to aesthetics; and as the old saying goes, beauty is in the eye of the beholder.

So what about published poetry? I hear you ask. Well, perhaps one thing that can be agreed upon when it comes to poetry is that it's all about fashions and trends. Much of what is published today is marginal to the interests of the
informed reading public, drawing its approbation from one or other small clique of self-serving practitioners. In a general sense no one reads poetry, no one buys poetry and no one wants poetry. It's a very small market, fed mostly by the poets themselves and their family and friends. It is perhaps ironic that many modern poets whinge about the fact that they can't earn a living from their
poetry, yet at the same time they fight tooth and nail to keep their craft
exclusive by carving out intellectual ghettos for themselves.

Poetry. It's a funny old game, isn't it.

Rob Godfrey

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