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Redroom Discussion: What is Poetry?

I have a burning question: What is poetry?

I see the stars are again in alignment. We have Matthew Biberman, Evie Shockley, Cheryl Snell, Marilyn Kallet, Jessica Barksdale Inclan, Susan Browne, and many others whose passion, interest and careers lie in poetry. I am not a poet but read and study it with fervor.

Matthew Biberman said in an email he was open to a Redroom discussion of free verse vs. "traditional" meter and form.

What is poetry? Free verse is a reaction again the structure of tradition, but you have to have a structure to rebel, rub, fight against in order to spark the frisson.

I have two copies of Paul Fussell's "Poetic Meter and Poetic Form." The first edition lacks a chapter on free verse; the revised edition contains a very short chapter on the subject. When I read this chapter, it's as if Fussell is barely able to disguise his disinterest in the prevalent fashion. (If you wish to learn more about meter and form, Fussell's book is howlingly excellent.)

Lotus in Rain by Belle, gouache

I am a painter and I can best use the language of art to compare and discuss poetry. I am NOT a fan of Abstract art (or Realism). The perfect place for me is Expressionism. In Expressionism, you have the powerful play of imagination and reality. For me, Expressionism equals poetry. The form is still apparent, even as the artist exaggerates and distorts her view of the concrete world, filtering it through her eyes and sensibilities. If she doesn't have structure and form to play off of--to distort, expand, twist, bend, there is no frisson.

What makes poetry? What separates free verse from mere typography?

Today, just about everyone dabbles in poetry as vehicle for self-expression. Parents and teachers cheer school children as small geniuses when they write a few lines of mediocrity.

I ordered Evie Shockley's new poetry, "A Half-Red Sea," a few days ago after I listened to her podcast and was attracted to the hypnotic sense of rhythm. She tells me:

It's not necessarily conservative poetry, in subject matter or form -- though you will find more than a couple sonnets in the collection! -- but it is poetry that cares deeply about the music that can be wrung out of this all-too-Germanic language we call English. My recommendation: any poem that seems to stop you in your tracks should be read aloud. In fact, all of them should be read aloud!

Our heartbeats, ocean waves, the cycle of the moon indicate rhythm and patterns. We look for patterns when we stare at the linoleum on the bathroom floor, the pattern of raindrops on the surface of a lotus pond. We swim in rhythm, meter, beat and patterns.

Lotus in Rain, oil, by Belle

Many older, traditional poet cared more for the joy of creating meter (and to surprise by stepping away momentarily from the expected meter) than the subject of the poem itself. I can understand this: I love to sketch a landscape, not for the buildings or the mountains but the fine patterns of hatches, dots, squiggles I can make on the paper. I love drawing pine needles on a forest floor for the beautiful patterns and rhythm of lines I can make.

Patterns, patterns, patterns. I want to be patterned.

I would like to fall in love with free verse, but so far it has not really drawn me in. I would love to learn more about free verse and so I am humblely open to your instructions and voices.

Poets and lovers of poetry, can we open up a discussion? What is poetry? Please snswer in your own posts or as comments below.



Belle Yang's Youtube video of "Forget Sorrow," a graphic novel-in-progress



16 Comment count
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Poetry points no fingers

I always say.

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What is poetry?

Hi Belle,

For me, poetry is painting with words. The images, and the unity of the images, convey the essence of what the poem represents. The style the poet chooses may be as diverse as the methods of visual art, and, like paintings, they affect us differently as individuals. And like visual art, it's not as much the intention and technique of the creator, but rather how each of us receives it, that is the real message.

Best regards,

Corinne Copnick 

P.S. I love your paintings, and, by the way, all my poems are written in free verse. I consider the visual aspect of the way my poems appear on the page as a form of art.

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Thank you, Corinne

So you care less about your intentions and more about how it's received by the hearer/reader? And is this one aspect of free verse? Bear with me, y'all, I'd like to be the gadfly and ask questions.

Corinne, you have short stories on your Author Page. Would you be willing to share your poetry with us in your own post?

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Often plagued by the same question, Belle

It seems to me that poetry is, arguably, the purest form of communication.

At its best, it requires no medium or intermediary for translation. It passes straight from one heart into another. The rhythm itself, even in prose poetry, creates the whole dynamic and drives memorable imagistic language.

It 'rings true'.

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Hi, Rosy

That's beautifully said. I feel as if I am off on an adventure. I know poetry will be one of the few things that will matter to me as my close my eyes. I'm so happy to see that Redroom has a member from Sussex.

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Coleridge's Old Saw

(and I'm not talking about the one in the barn) is that poetry is:  "the best words in the best order."

And there is so much else to say about poetry, but when you read a poem that completely words, that just sits there like a diamond on the page, that's the best order.  And then there is the flow.  The poem sits there perfectly, but inside its little shape there is a movement that is profound and full of feeling, so much so that when you are done, you feel like Emily Dickinson who imagined that physically the top of her head were taken off after reading a a great poem.

You know and feel and have something that almost quite literally blows your mind.

I have had five "perfect" poems delivered to me by the poem goddesses.  These poems came down to me and on the page as they exist now, but  there rest of the time, I've slogged through  all the same kind of revision that I go through generally plus some. 

I've never been a fixed form person, though I've given my heart over to a sestina, sonnet, and villanelle, and quite frankly, I suck at all.


Jessica Barksdale Inclan www.jessicabarksdaleinclan.com

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Do you think you could share a piece with us? This is not an idle request.

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Here's a URL

to the online magazine The Smoking Poet (represented on redroom, of course!), which graciously published two of my poems for the summer edition:


Scroll down a little and they are there.

This is assuming you wanted my work!  I also have a couple of poems on my author page here.  This one is about my youngest when he was little.


I have to think about what my favorite poem is in general, though.  There are so many to choose from.  Let me think about it some more.


Jessica Barksdale Inclan www.jessicabarksdaleinclan.com

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Here's one definition:

Language distilled into its most powerful form.

Our new poet laureate is a master of this. She writes concise, short pieces, and hides the rhyme in places other than the end of the line.

More on this subject at my blog, where I can take up some major space, guilt-free...

Cheryl Snell www.shivasarms.blogspot.com

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What is poetry?

Poetry is the song, the full-throatedness of being.  It's a sound first, and then a pattern of sounds.   Poetry is the rhythmic life of things made verbal and accessible to us as thinking creatures.  American poetry is made fresh and lively by use of the "American Idiom,"--that is to say, the language we use every day, distilled.   William Carlos Williams opened the huge door.  Come on in!
I wrote an essay for my book, Sleeping With One Eye Open: Women Writers and the Art of Survival--called "Poetry Began Me."Indeed, poetry gave me a place to breathe, be myself, invent myself, to live less fearfully, more joyfully. 
Robert Hass's essay, "On Listening and Making," from Twentieth Century Pleasures, is still one of the best on the subject of writing and reading non-traditional poetry.   His essay on "Images" from that same book is a poem.
Poetry is a big tent.  Beware of anyone who tells you there is only one way to write or read it. 
Warmly, Marilyn Kallet 

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Poetry is your paintings of

Poetry is your paintings of rain on lily pads without the umbrella of separation.

Poetry is Li Po jumping into the moon's reflection in the pond and the moon getting anthologized in forever places and never being out of print.

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What is poetry? 

What is poetry?  Hmmmmmmmmmmm...someone once said that it is "all nouns and verbs."  To be honest, I suspect the real answer to this question is purely a subjective one.  But as the word "stanza" means "stopping place,"  I'll say for now that that is my meaning for verse.  Perhaps, though, Bella, a twist on your question could be:  What isn't poetry?  

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What is Poetry?

Belle -

          I would define true poetry as any expression of what it is to be human, in compressed form or language - nothing extraneous or superfluous, nothing for the sake of pure effect or adornment - kinda like Whitman's take on the whole thing. Oh, and it should astonish - or as Emily Dickinson said (or was that Jimi Hendrix?) "take off the top of your head". Sadly, that's an all too rare occurrence...

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Your paintings are gorgeous!

I too would like one in my office, to dispel any hint of institutionalnon-weather.   I am recommending your work in all its guises to other writers and painters here at the Virginia Center.   My camerachord is coming on Monday and I'll send a few shots to whet your appetite for this place.   Marilyn

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hard question!

But one I try to answer often. I've taken a preliminary stab at responding to your question, Belle, in my own blog. It's not a very poetic post, and it doesn't say a fourth of the things I would want to touch on (and hope to in future posts), but it's a start . . .

Thanks so much for taking a chance on my book! I hope it rewards you in expected and unexpected ways!

P.S. I especially love "Lotus in Rain."  If only I could hang it on my office wall and stare into it everytime I was trying to write!