Sunday, October 29, 2006


This might be a dangerous precedent for me. But since I've been so neglectful of my site of late and since this is related to something on another gaming blog (Raph's), I'm going to write about something not directly game-related. So...

Poetry: what is it?

Poetry must have at least one pattern which distinguishes it from prose. Typical patterns are meter, rhyme, rhythm, or divisions of line which reflect semantic movements. Sorry, but simply cutting your prose into lines of roughly equal length does not make it poetry, nor does speaking of something transcendental or using a lot of imagery.

"But it's beautiful, alluring language." Yeah, and prose can be that too.
"But it looks like poetry." Yeah, but it's an impostor. The best way to detect poetry is to speak it aloud.

Why? Well, let's look beyond our own convoluted culture and back to poetry's history. Through the vast majority of human history, going back thousands of years, poetry was expected to have patterns. Aside from playing with the music in and of language, those patterns aid memorization. They're mnemonics. Most of those really long poems you were probably exposed to in school were made up entirely in someone's head (or multiple heads) and recited orally before eventually making their way into print. Through all this time, poetry was intended to be spoken and heard, not read. It is only with the availability of printing and better writing materials that it became common for people to imagine poetry without any such pattern(s), because patterns were no longer needed for memory.

Poetry without pattern is only imagined. It's an illusion. It doesn't really exist. Such a mirage has become increasingly the dominant preference among university professors and literati over the past four centuries, but it is still just a mirage. I've taken numerous university courses concerning poetry to a greater or lesser extent, and the only one of my professors (a Creative Writing -Poetry class) who dared address the question "what is poetry" directly could only retreat to the bland assertion that poetry defies definition. The truth is that he was willfully clinging to a modernist view which can only say the sky is blue while staring at the ground.

Poetry has definition, and it's rooted in patterns. Note that this isn't just an easy way to clearly separate the categories of poetry and prose. Some prose is very poetic, like the "I have a dream..." speech of Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., which uses repetition of that phrase to great effect and employs many other musical patterns, including the intonation of its delivery. But, once again, we see memorization and oration playing a role...public addresses tend to be more poetic than other prose.

The point of defining poetry is not to keep it safeguarded from "corruption" by prose, or vice versa. It is not necessary to quarrantine the two; on the contrary, blending has presented us with some of the finest literature and rhetoric available; and some degree of blending is perhaps unavoidable. Personally, I believe Western cultures have long done themselves a disservice by obsessive separation of categories.

The reason we define things is to better understand them. You appreciate better what things are by learning what they are not. Absorbing prose as if it were poetry is to miss the beauty particular to poetry, the beauty of patterns. It's the same tragedy as mistaking noise for music, scribbles for art, or chaos for design. In the modern quest to dissociate objects from definite forms, many have chosen to devour an illusion which will ultimately leave them hungry and unnourished.

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