Find Enlightenment

What is Poetry?
by Tom Radcliffe

Date: 2001-01-27
Forum: Enlightenment
Copyright: Tom Radcliffe


Based on a Lockean conceptual analysis, I show that the defining characteristic of poetry is rhythmical structure. I also discuss what poetry is good for, arguing it has a role both as a source of sensual pleasure and as a medium particularly well suited for capturing moments of time.

To What In Reality Does POETRY Refer?

Consider the following examples of increasingly poetic speech. In each case, the same thought is expressed several different, increasingly poetic, ways:

In each case, the final instance is from an actual poem (William Ashbless' The Twelve Hours of the Night, my own In the Mist and Eliot's The Waste Land) while the preceding two are increasingly poetic prose translations of the poem's content.

There are three things that we can observe as the lines become more poetic. The speech becomes more rhythmic, more evocative, and more concrete or immediate. Of these three features, rhythmicity is essential to poetry, as we can see from consideration of other examples, such as this from Lewis Carol's The Mad Gardener's Song:

He thought he saw a Rattlesnake
That questioned him in Greek:
He looked again, and found it was
The Middle of Next Week.
'The one thing I regret,' he said,
'Is that it cannot speak!'
One could hardly find a more abstract notion than "the middle of next week", and part of the fun in Carol's nonsense is that he is playing off our expectation that poetry is concrete, because it usually is. But it doesn't have to be.

The existence of nonsense poetry and abstract poetry demonstrates that neither concreteness nor evocativeness is required for speech to be poetic, although I will argue that most good poetry is both concrete and evocative.

So the concept POETRY refers to rhythmic speech, or at least has something to do with rhythmicity. To get a more precise idea of what it is about rhythmicity that makes speech poetic, we need to look more closely at how rhythmicity can be achieved. Before doing so, a few words about the genus, and what it is we are differentiating poetry from.

Speech and Prose

I've taken the genus of poetry to be SPEECH rather than TEXT or LANGUAGE. The reason for this is that the effectiveness of the rhythms of poetry are intimately tied to the natural rhythms of spoken language. Neither text nor mental language have any natural rhythms associated with them, because they are not mediated by anything that imposes rhythmicity the way our vocal apparatus does.

Given that poetry is a kind of speech, the kind of speech we are distinguishing it from is prose. Prose is speech that is dominated grammatical structure; poetry is speech that is dominated by rhythmical rather than grammatical structure. All speech has both rhythmical and grammatical structure, and the difference between poetry and prose is in the preponderance of one or the other. To understand what this means, an understanding of rhythmicity is required.

Levels of Rhythm

Speech has rhythmical structure at many levels or scales. The smallest scale normally recognized in English poetry is the metrical "foot" of the poem--the pattern of repeated stresses such as the unstressed/stressed pattern of the iamb. The following table shows some of the more important scales on which speech can have rhythmical structure:
Rhythmical Scales
footpattern of stresses
meternumber of feet per line
rhymerepeated sounds of words
wordsrepeated words
metrical schemevariation of meter across lines
linesrepeated lines (as in a villanelle)
stanzarepeated metrical scheme
narrativeconceptual patterns within the poem

This table has many fine distinctions--one could argue, for instance, that repeated words are merely a special case of rhyme, but because words name concepts the repetition of a word brings added emphasis to the concept it names, which is not the case with repeated sounds, whose significance is primarily sensual.

The first few entries in the table should be fairly familiar. There are many different kinds of metrical foot: the iamb is the most common English poetry. Some other common ones are listed below:

Common Metrical Feet
iambdi DA
trocheeDA di
anapestdi di DA
dactylDA di di
spondeeDA DA

It's worth noting that in different languages, the same rhythmical effect is achieved in different ways. In ancient Greek poetry, for instance, syllable length rather than stress was the medium of the meter.

The foot is the smallest scale of rhythm in poetry, mechanically linked to the rhythms of the tongue and mouth of the speaker. Free verse has no feet, no regular pattern of stresses, but depends instead for its rhythmical structure on variation in cadence and tone.

Meter is the number of feet per line--the most common form of English poetry is iambic pentameter, consisting of five iambic feet per line. Variations from monometer to ten or twelve feet per line are not impossible, although most poems cluster in the range from four to eight feet per line. The line length of iambic pentameter is closely matched with the rhythm of breathing--the time it takes to speak a line of iambic pentameter is the time it takes to exhale:

Like as the waves make toward the pebbled shore
So do our minutes hasten to their end;
Each changing place with that which goes before
In sequent toil all forwards to contend
Each line from this opening quatrain of Shakespeare's Sonnet LX is the length of a single inhalation or exhalation, making the poet's words flow easily and naturally through the lips of the speaker.

Rhyme is often given great pride of place as a defining characteristic of poetry. It should be clear from this discussion that I consider it just one element amongst many that give a poem rhythmical structure, and it is entirely dispensible. While rhyme certainly has a large role to play in much good poetry, it is easily subject to abuse. Robert Frost reputedly likened writing free verse to playing tennis without a net; rhymed poetry can at it's worst be reduced to playing tennis against a backboard, bouncing a ball off of a regular, reliable surface that has simple properties and is always sure to bounce the ball back at you just as you expect, with no top-spin and no harder than you like.

Rhymed poetry at it's best is profoundly beautiful, and it's possible to achieve effects that can't be had any other way, but to make rhyme the defining element of poetry would be to miss out on nine tenths of the kinds of rhythm that make poetry such a beautiful, sensuous experience.

That said, the primary role of rhyme is to give structure to the poem across lines. Repeated sounds can link together lines on quite large scales, running throughout the whole length of the poem. Rhyme is a rich technical subject within poetry that it would be unprofitable to go into here--like most technical subjects poetry is full of special terminology designed, apparently, to scare off neophytes. While it has its uses, such a detailed technical knowledge is rarely required to appreciate or understand a poem. One of the odder bits of technical terminology is the "feminine rhyme", which is a rhyme that covers the last two syllables of a word, rather than just the last syllable. Ordinary, one-syllable rhymes, being "masculine", apparently don't need to be identified as such, masculinity being the universal norm.

End-rhymes are the most common, but rhymes between words in other parts of the line can be used with effect as well:

There is no end to the world
No stopping point where all grows cold
Or hot or dead or old and dry as dust
No place where lust for life and fire
Wither on the dying vines while angels
Pine for bright ambition's passing time
The world goes on
In this example, picking up the sound from the end of the previous line adds a kind of rhythmicity that draws the voice on, giving it no pause. This also illustrates an important use of poetry, of why rhythmicity matters: it allows the structure of the poem to reflect it's conceptual content, providing an immediate, concrete representation or reflection of that content.

The larger scale rhythmical structures--the metrical scheme, stanzas and narrative structure--are a large topic in themselves. There are many defined poetic forms that name variations on these. The Shakespearean sonnet, for example, consists of fourteen lines of iambic pentameter consisting of four quatrains with an ABAB end-rhyme scheme and a final end-rhymed couplet. The total number of named forms runs into the dozens at least, and any discussion of them here would be unprofitable, particularly as they are more closely linked to the conceptual content of the poem, and so have less visceral impact than the rhythms at smaller scales, which are more closely linked to the mechanics of speech.

The larger-scale structures of poems, being linked to the conceptual content, are closer to the structures of prose. Lines and stanzas, like sentences and paragraphs, should have an internal unity and be in some sense complete, even though their meaning or beauty won't necessarily be apparent if taken out of context.

Definition of Poetry

Having described what I mean by rhythmical structure in the foregoing, and presuming that everyone knows what grammatical structure is, I can offer the following definition of poetry, and a corresponding definition of prose:
Speech that is dominated by its rhythmical rather than it's grammatical structure
Speech that is dominated by its grammatical rather than it's rhythmical structure
Having defined poetry, it becomes interesting to ask: what's it good for, and why would anyone want to read or write it? Part of the answer to these questions can be found in looking at what rhythmicity brings to speech.

Roles of Rhythm

As mentioned above, the power of rhythmicity arises first and foremost out of its reflection of the natural rhythms of speech. If we were creatures who communicated via long ululating howls, it is unlikely that we would be poets. Human speech is richly punctuated, and poetry is parasitic on the natural rhythms of that punctuation: the motions of the tongue, the pauses of the breath, the opening and closing of the lips and the trachea.

As such, poetry lets us experience the act of speech itself in a special and particularly gratifying way. It emphasizes the sensual pleasure of speaking, and so reminds us of the profound joy we should take in being capable of speech, of being human. This I believe is the ultimate generative impulse behind poetry: the joy of speech. When the first creatures walked the earth who could communicate using sounds, some of them discovered that it was pleasurable to make those sounds in patterns, rhythmically, poetically. As such, poetry is possibly the first amongst the distinctly human sensual pleasures.

The rhythm of a poem can also carry with it a reflection of the content--the pounding of the spondic foot (DA DA) makes it suitable for Kipling's more marshal ballads, for example. Rhythm can be put to more subtle uses as well, as in Matthew Arnold's Dover Beach:

Listen! you hear the grating roar
Of pebbles which the waves draw back and fling
At their return up the high strand
Begin, and cease, and then again begin
With tremulous cadence show, and bring
The eternal note of sadness in
In the line "Begin, and cease, and then again begin" we can hear the rhythm of the waves on the shingle, as both the sounds and the rhythm of the line work to invoke them. With "Begin" a wave falls, "and cease" draws it hissing back into the foam, "and then again" gathers for the next "begin" when the wave breaks.

At the level of conceptual content rather than evocative imagery, repetition of key words, sounds or phrases can effectively emphasize them, building up their power to almost hypnotic force, as found in Dylan Thomas' repeated "And death shall have no dominion." Such repetition works as well in prose, of course, as in Marc Antony's eulogy for Caesar.

Finally, rhythmicity of all kinds is an aid to memorization, as knowing what the structure has to be gives us clues as to what the words have to be.

Rhythm and Structure

Rhythm is what gives a poem structure, in the same way that grammar gives prose structure. Unlike grammar, the essential nature of rhythm is repetition: the simplest rhythm is a steady, monotonous beat. And monotonous is what poetry rapidly becomes if there isn't some variation in it's rhythms. As in music, which is rhythmically structured tones, too much regularity leads rapidly to boredom. The ear--the mind--craves variation on a theme, and the structure of poetry should reflect this.

Rhythmicity does not therefore mean perfect regularity or banal repetition. These can be used to effect in rare cases, but most thoughts expressed in poetry require something more. One of the great benefits of modern poetry has been to create a more relaxed atmosphere about irregularity of rhythm, whereas in the preceding few hundred years saw an increasingly stuffy attitude toward the least irregularity, creating poetry that is often boring to the modern ear. Modern poetry, while notable for its excesses of irregularity, has given us the opportunity to explore the baroque delights of intermingled, complex and irregular rhythms, giving us richly structured and intertwined poetry.

T. S. Eliot was the master of this art. Consider the opening lines of The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock:

Let us go then, you and I,
When the evening is spread out against the sky
Like a patient etherized upon a table;
Let us go, through certain half-deserted streets
The muttering retreats
Of restless nights in one-night cheap hotels
And sawdust restaurants with oyster-shells
Streets that follow like a tedious argument
Of insidious intent
To lead you to an overwhelming question...
Oh, do not ask, "What is it?"
Let us go and make our visit

In the room the women come and go
Talking of Michelangelo

The rhythm flows and rolls from line to line, never repeating, yet never quite losing it's basic shape.

What's Poetry Good For?

Poetry is subversive. It involves us in its rhythms, slips past our defenses and touches us in intimate places, where we might not otherwise let ourselves be touched. For example, the words of James Joyce--one of the most deeply subversive poets of the past century--can slide smoothly past every defense of those of us who would rather not recall much of our childhoods:

Once upon a time and a very good time it was there was a moocow coming down along the road and this moocow that was down along the road met a nicens little boy named baby tuckoo....
A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man has been described as a poem in five acts, with considerable justification.

But poetry has a more important use than subversion. Poetry is the quantum of narrative art. It is the art of small things, of moments. Although sustained poetic narratives are possible and valuable, in a modern context we have many other forms capable of dealing with extended narratives, and nothing else able to capture moments: a quiet night; waking up beside a lover; the face of a dead child... Our lives are made up of moments, and our lives are valuable, and so it's important, sometimes, to be able to capture those moments as entities.

Poetry is the best instrument we have to capture those moments, to make them breathe with the living rhythms of our speech that reach down to touch the quiet depths of our soul.