What is poetry?

Somerset Maugham called poetry “the crown of literature.” “The writer of prose.” he said, “can only step aside when the poet passes.” I can argue with many other things he said. He didn’t grow old gracefully. In fact, he turned sour and evil-tempered. But I agree with those particular sentiments one hundred percent.

It’s surprising how many people have tried to say what poetry is. I was going to copy a host of quotations onto this post, but it was too difficult to decide which. Sometimes their sentiments are almost too apparent. We would mostly agree with a fellow named Robert Fitzgerald that “Poetry is at least an elegance and at most a revelation.” Or enthusiastically with Christopher Fry that “Poetry is the language in which man explores his own amazement…. says heaven and earth in one word… speaks of himself and his predicament as though for the first time.”

Other times, the descriptions themselves are like poems. Mary Oliver, for example, said “Poetry isn’t a profession, it’s a way of life. It’s an empty basket; you put your life into it and make something out of that.” I like that. Thinking about it could take months.

Or what about Emily Dickinson: “If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know that is poetry.”

I’ve never liked any of my own attempts to write poetry. I regret them the way I regret my inability to draw or to compose music, and usually blame them on a lack of genius for the art. I did take some poetry classes in college, and had a few famous names as teachers. One of the best known was Muriel Rukeyser, a large sweaty woman with dark hair and smoldering eyes who chain-smoked Parliaments while she lectured.

Rukeyser said that “Poetry is, above all, an approach to the truth of feeling . . .. A fine poem will seize your imagination intellectually – that is, when you reach it, you will reach it intellectually too – but the way is through emotion, through what we call feeling.”

That sounds like what I think she was trying to say. But I was callow and a little afraid of her: she taught at a women’s college and we were a mixed bunch of students. I think she was pleased at last to have boys in her class, and had little patience with the distaff rest of us. I didn’t come away from the experience buoyed with confidence.

And then there was Leonard Woolf whose daughter recently wrote a book about him. He almost gave me a D (I’d never had one of those before!) because I simply could not get the hang of writing poems that were also assignments.

I also experienced some well-known poets in seminars and workshops, and one or two in living rooms. Stephen Spender was like a shy blond animal, perhaps a deer or something even larger. Too big for a living room.

George Barker (better known way back then, perhaps) complained that Wallace Stevens’ poetry  was like cake or candy. He didn’t mean it kindly, and since I loved Wallace Stevens I stopped liking George Barker. I never met Stevens: in his working life he was an insurance executive from Connecticut and I don’t think he would have impressed me. But oh, his words!!!

I think perhaps the best thing I learned from the people who tried to tell me something about poetry, for example Marianne Moore, was that it wasn’t necessary to understand something to love it. It wasn’t even necessary to write it. It was, however, very important to read it.

Two more quotations. Stephen Mallarmé said, “It is the job of poetry to clean up our word-clogged reality by creating silences around things.” Sometimes, I think that should be the job of all good writing, and if we haven’t accomplished it, perhaps it’s time to be silent.

There’s one last quote that I couldn’t help but love. Said G. K. Chesterton, “Poets have been mysteriously silent on the subject of cheese.”

I want to end this post with the remainder of Sally Levy’s

Roonbook of Wild Stuffs, and one more fact about cheese.  Enjoy!

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One thought on “What is poetry?

  1. I have a couple of quotes on poetry for you.

    “There is no money in poetry; but then there is no poetry in money, either.” – Robert Graves

    “Poetry is like fish: if it’s fresh, it’s good; if it’s stale, it’s bad; and if you’re not certain, try it on the cat.” – Osbert Sitwell

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