What is a Poem?

I suppose it wasn't by accident that Rialto 37 began with four short free-verse poems about poetry and ended with a letter by Marcus Jones questioning whether most short free-verse poems deserve to be classed as poetry. We are invited to win a bottle of champagne by convincing Marcus that he is wrong.

No prize is offered for agreeing with him, so it's just as well that I'm not keen on champagne, because actually he's on to something - though I wish he hadn't muddied his argument with an irrelevant triple sneer at "leftist beatnik rap".

Some of what appears as poetry these days consists of little sprigs of thought that aren't substantial enough to make a story or essay, but may be applauded by gourmet critics when frugally chopped and laid out on the page like nouvelle cuisine.

My dictionary gives four definitions of poetry. The first, "literature in metrical form", is similar to those in Marcus's dictionaries. The second, "the art or craft of writing verse", is little more than self-referential. The third, "poetic qualities, spirit or feeling in anything", is the one that invites anyone with a few banal ruminations to claim to be a poet. The fourth, "anything resembling poetry in rhythm, beauty, etc.", lets in whatever hasn't already been covered. I love that "etc."

Most arguments over definition are futile. The real issue is not whether it is or isn't poetry but whether it is or isn't worth reading, and we all draw the line in different places. Edward Mackinnon's Addendum (page 5) is probably one that Marcus disapproves of, but for me its elegance and usefulness put it on the right side of the line. Being of more value than a blank sheet of paper, it passes its own test, unlike some of the others printed.

© Brian Fewster,
Summarised in Rialto 38, 1997

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