It is absurd to offer any defence of poetry without first being clear about what it is. Most people, I am sure, would claim that the nature of poetry is common knowledge, but its forms are so varied and variable that it is impossible to include them all in any simple and precise definition, and any innovation would render such a definition obsolete. Instead, some accept that each person has their own personal definition (Chisholm 28; Faber); others offer a selection of alternatives proposed by authorities (Poetry School); while others again offer from their experience key elements of a great poem (Walrath); and finally there are others who define poetry by its use of rhyme and rhythm or even its appearance on the page (Curtis 3). This list is not complete, but it serves to provide four different approaches, all of which seem reasonable, but none of which are of any practical use.
I will take them in order. If everyone has their own definition, there is no definition, any more than a coin would have value if everyone could determine its value for themselves. We could limit the values to those proposed by authorities, and accept these as different currencies, but that still leaves us with the issue of the basis of their authority and the relative value of each definition. Reliance on key elements can lead to contradictions, so that Walrath’s primacy of a great opening line conflicts with her insistence on a ‘turn’. The point of the ‘turn’ is to change our perspective, and since the first line belongs to the original perspective, the ‘turn’ will negate its value – it may be golden, but the ‘turn’ drops the bottom out of the gold market. Finally, rhyme, rhythm and appearance may be easy guides, but they are of the least use of all. None of these formal methods is valued in all cultural traditions: many cultures do not use rhyme; much free verse fails to have rhythm, even when the author reads it; and poetry predated writing, so it originally had no visual appearance. The value of a currency is not defined by the style of its coins, since these are merely tokens or expressions of an agreed underlying value.
The question of the underlying value of poetry, and whether it can be defined, was one I confronted as a teenager, concerned about how I could write better poems without knowing what a poem was. The definition I developed is as follows:
‘A poem is a verbal form in which the words interact more than syntactically to produce a memorable and coherent statement. The more the words interact, and the more memorable and coherent the statement, so the better the poem.’ (‘Lines on Lines’ 28)
It was published in Orbis in 1984 and again in 1992, with a fuller explanation of its use. Later on I developed it into a definition of art, which is published here for the first time, because the definition of poetry is really a shorthand version of this general definition:
Art is the use of a medium to give concrete form to a memorable and coherent pattern of ideas about the world, such that the medium reinforces the pattern, clarifies it and makes it more easily transmitted to others, thus assisting them to come to a better understanding of the world around them. The more coherent the pattern of ideas and the more accurately and richly it reflects the relevant understanding of the world, and the more fully, clearly and memorably expressed this pattern is, so the more successful the concrete form will be in communicating, and the better a work of art.
Human beings have always needed to record and transmit their understanding of the world from person to person and from generation to generation, and this is the role art plays in society, but as our understanding of the world became more complex, poetry became the most powerful and portable form. As Iona and Peter Opie have shown in The Lore and Language of Schoolchildren, verse has been an extraordinarily resilient transmitter of culture, because its use of rhyme, rhythm and repetition make it more memorable. The metre and stock phrases in Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey are examples of this on the adult scale, enabling an oral culture to survive and become a foundation stone for a culture in the age of writing. Thus the value of poetry in education, a key aspect for Sir Philip Sydney (17), is obvious.
Shelley had no problem with the concept of poetry embodying a pattern of ideas about the world, noting that poets’ ‘language is vitally metaphorical; that is, it marks the before unapprehended relations of things, and perpetuates their apprehension’ (512). But this concept is often reduced to the idea of poems having a trite ‘message’, and Cleanth Brooks and Robert Penn Warren point out that:
‘we miss the value of poetry if we think of its characteristic knowledge as consisting of “messages,” statements, snippets of doctrine. The knowledge that poetry yields is available to us only if we submit ourselves to the massive, and subtle, impact of the poem as a whole.’ (Brooks xiii)
The reason for this lies in the two-fold origins of a poem.
When we catch a ball, we perform all the necessary calculations of its speed and trajectory and of the required position our body entirely unconsciously, and there simply is not the time to do it as a conscious process. Learning to catch involves keeping our eye on the ball – training our unconscious and allowing our conscious mind to use the result. The neurologist Oliver Sacks remarks in The Man Who Mistook his Wife for a Hat, that:
‘We surmise that our patient (like everybody) is stacked with an almost infinite number of “dormant” memory-traces, some of which can be reactivated under exceptional conditions.’ (160)
It is the unconscious integration of this vast pool of information which produces the demanding need to express a pattern of ideas. The role of the conscious mind, incapable of managing such a body of source material, is to become aware of the concrete form which best embodies that pattern of ideas and the complex relationships of its sources. As a result, the poem will be both superficially clear and profoundly complex. When Shelley said ‘A man cannot say “I will compose poetry”’ (531), he is referring to the vain attempt to create a poem entirely consciously.
The role of poetry in areas such as mental health or criminal rehabilitation can now be explained. Those who are mentally or socially cut off from themselves or society may have much which they know and understand unconsciously, but have trouble expressing. Poetry enables them to express this indirectly through the conjunction of words which communicates a pattern of ideas to others and to their own conscious minds. Those who have become disconnected are able to start re-connecting and to communicate profoundly with the world around them. This therapeutic use of poetry is simply a particular expression of the nature and necessary social purpose of poetry (and other art forms).
The distinction between the conscious and unconscious aspects of a poem might appear to justify Matthew Zapruder’s comment that ‘in school we are taught that poetry is inherently “difficult,” and that by its very nature it somehow makes meaning by hiding meaning’. But the definition is explicit in requiring the statement to be memorable and coherent. Good, and especially great, poetry is inherently rich with meaning and difficult to write, but the key ideas expressed are absolutely clear and engaging, with the complexity or ‘difficulty’ lying in the layers which inform that clarity and which develop the engagement further. Communication of a pattern of ideas about the world is vital to the nature of poetry, and if it fails, the poem has failed. When Jacob Polley, winner of the 2016 TS Eliot poetry prize and one of the judges in the Proms poetry competition in 2017, said of a winning poem that ‘I wouldn’t hazard to guess what it’s about’ (BBC, 2017), he was actually stating that the poem which had just won was a failure as a poem.
At the same time, the definition offers an extraordinary freedom for innovation in poetic style. For example, traditional styles using rhythm or rhyme, such as Sophocles’ Oedipus Tyrannos or Shelley’s Masque of Anarchy, conform to the definition, but so do free verse poems, such as Ted Hughes’s ‘The Thought Fox’ or Eavan Boland’s ‘The War Horse’, and even more surprisingly, concrete or visual poetry, such as Edwin Morgan’s ‘Message Clear’ or my own ‘Abstraction in the Style of Mondrian’. The form is irrelevant to the nature of poetry, other than that its use of words differentiates poetry from other art-forms, and there is no binary division between prose and poetry. Instead, there is a scale, which uses the same factors to assess the degree to which a verbal form is a poem and to establish the greatness of that poem, so that two examples can be placed at different positions on the scale relative to each other, and defended by fairly objective argument.
Since poetry is about communicating ideas about the world, it can have a role in changing the existing ideas, and so it is inherently political. As Karl Marx pointed out, ‘the ruling ideas of each age have ever been the ideas of its ruling class’ (Marx 33), but poets can profoundly criticise those ideas, and present new patterns of ideas even before they are formulated in political polemic. Shelley’s Queen Mab was circulated among the working class in at least a dozen pirated editions from 1821 onwards (Mulhallen 130), and Edward and Eleanor Marx-Aveling showed that Shelley was promoting the ideas of socialists before socialists had systematically formulated those ideas. Having been a political activist for many years, in 2017 I started work on a ‘Masque of Anarchy’ for the 21st century, May Days, and two days later the Grenfell Tower fire happened and became the Peterloo for the poem. Completed in a month, it was immediately published in the online political journal, Counterfire – their first ever poem – and in 2018 volunteer actors with a volunteer director performed May Days at a donated theatre space near the site of the fire to mark the anniversary (Lynx). Throughout, the main audience for this work was not poets, but a wider public (Alexander; Panting; WriteOutLoud).
When poetry has such power to communicate, why does it enter periods when it is not respected? In 2014, The Guardian reported that Jeremy Paxman, then Chair of the judges of the Forward Prize for Poetry, had said that ‘[poetry] has “connived at its own irrelevance”, as he believes that poets today have stopped talking to the public and are only addressing each other’ (Flood). At a time when the teaching of poetry is booming, with a wide distribution of degree, post-graduate and ad hoc courses, one might expect the standard of poetry to be rising and its reach to be growing, but Paxman maintained that this is not the case, and others suspect he is right (Hutson). This suggests a problem with the teaching, but also a wider problem with the judgement of the quality of a poem.
The almost universal professional reaction to a poem, whether from judges, editors, reviewers or other poets, is along the lines of “I like it” or “I don’t like it”, often with a focus on a single line or image. Ian McMillan (poet and The Verb presenter), said that when judging competitions he found that ‘I think – and perhaps wrongly – I have to be excited by the first two or three lines’ (BBC, 2017), and has even asked competitors to ‘give us a good title which will startle a jaded judge’ (BBC, 2016), as if the merit of a poem (other than a haiku) is to be found in the title and first three lines. Michael Schmidt, editor of the long-established Poetry Nation Review, can propose drastic changes to a poem not on the grounds that its meaning is unclear, but because one line ‘is such a good opening, whereas [another] is not’. Among teachers of poetry-writing there seems to be no problem with acknowledging ignorance of what poetry actually is (Faber; Poetry School; Maris).
Poetry courses which do not address already written work, are frequently based on setting a topic, and then working with the writer on what they produce, and such courses may be advertised as ‘suitable for any level of experience’ (Burge), although one would never find a course for plumbers or electricians – or even for singers or musicians – being advertised as suitable for both the experienced and beginners. With even experienced writers, like Penelope Shuttle attending such courses (Shuttle 5), there is a worrying implication that either all poets are beginners, or that they all struggle to find something to write about, no matter what their level of experience. Either way, what all poetry courses, university or otherwise, seem to focus on is teaching the process of writing poetry, while leaving the purpose of poetry to one side.
This approach is crystallised in Alison Chisholm’s A Practical Poetry Course, a book aimed at ‘all those poets wishing to improve their existing skills – and acquire new ones’ (cover). Exercises to develop one’s writing skills, like practising scales to improve one’s piano-playing, are very important, but they are performed to enable one to find the right words and form – the right notes – quickly and without conscious thought. Far too much poetry today is simply the formulaic production of a type of poem – the list poem, the formal poem, the poem about a set topic, and so on – with a superficial seasoning of clever phrases. Poetic depth – the deep coherence of ideas connecting the elements of the poem – is replaced by superficial connections (if any) between pyrotechnical images presented in irrelevant forms. The goal of poetry-writing is not to produce a text, but to communicate a pattern of ideas to the audience, and poetry which does not do this, no matter how clever it may seem, is indefensible. After all, who wants to listen to a person who likes the sound of their own voice, but has nothing to say? What poetry needs defending from is the plethora of cheap imitations, the vanity of Sydney’s ‘Poet-apes’ (78) or Byron’s ‘second-hand school of poetry’ (601), and the praise given to them. To do so we need a clear, precise and practical means of assessing the quality of poems. I submit that the definition presented in this essay is the means to do this. When we know what we are doing and what we are supposed to do, when we aspire to genuine poetic greatness, poetry will again speak to the wider audience and be recognised as probably the greatest of the arts.
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Alderson, William. ‘May Days’. Counterfire, 24 July 2017. www.counterfire.org/articles/opinion/19120-may-days-poem. Accessed 13.4.2021.
Alexander, Dominic. ‘A Moment of Disbelief: Poems on War, Terrorism, and Refugees – book review’. Counterfire, 16 November 2017. www.counterfire.org/articles/book-reviews/19321-a-moment-of-disbelief-poems-on-war-terrorism-and-refugees-book-review. Accessed 13.4.2021.
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Flood, Alison. ‘Jeremy Paxman says poets must start engaging with ordinary people’. The Guardian, 1 June 2014. www.theguardian.com/media/2014/jun/01/jeremy-paxman-poets-engage-ordinary-people-forward-prize. Accessed 13.4.2021.
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Panting, Cameron. ‘May Days review – a fitting tribute to Grenfell and a society fighting back’. Counterfire, 23 June 2018. www.counterfire.org/arts-review/19717-may-days-review-a-fitting-tribute-to-grenfell-and-a-society-fighting-back. Accessed 13.4.2021.
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Shuttle, Penelope. ‘A Note on the Writing of Lyonesse’. Poetry Salzburg Review, 35 (2020) pp.5-6.
Sydney, Sir Philip. ‘An Apologie for Poetrie’, in The Prelude to Poetry; The English Poets in Defence and Praise of their own Art. JM Dent and Sons, 1927, pp.9-60.
Walrath, Holly Lyn. ‘How poetry is different from other genres’. Medium, 8 October 2020 medium.com/write-wild/how-poetry-is-different-from-other-genres-374895183d42. Accessed 13.4.2021.
WriteOutLoud. ‘May Days inspired by Shelley’s Masque of Anarchy’ www.writeoutloud.net/public/blogentry.php?blogentryid=79194. Accessed 13.4.2021.
Zapruder, Matthew. ‘Understanding Poetry Is More Straightforward Than You Think’. The New York Times, 10 July 2017. www.nytimes.com/2017/07/10/books/review/understanding-poetry-is-more-straightforward-than-you-think.html. Accessed 13.4.2021.
William Alderson’s poetry has been published in over 20 magazines and anthologies. In 2016 he won a commission to write Somewhere Else, a 15-minute verse drama for two voices which was then performed by Eastern Angles theatre company. In 2017 he wrote the long poem May Days, which was published by counterfire.org and Chandler Press, and in 2018 Lynx Theatre and Poetry performed it with five actors to mark the anniversary of the Grenfell Tower fire. Also in 2017 Poetry Salzburg published his collection A Moment of Disbelief; Poems on War, Terrorism and Refugees. William is also a letterpress printer, producing work for, among others, the Bodleian Library, BBC Radio 4, Seven Stories and the Council for the Care of Churches. He is currently designing and printing a growing range of poem cards. He worked in BBC television news for nearly 25 years, mostly as a video editor. Co-founder of Lynx Theatre and Poetry in 1987, he has variously worked as a director, designer, technician, tour manager, photographer, administrator and artistic director. In 2005 he qualified as a homeopath, and subsequently co-founded Homeopathy: Medicine for the 21st century, for which he has written many tightly argued analyses, including Halloween Science. His website is at http://williamalderson.wix.com/williamalderson.