The reason poetry is so hard to define is because it becomes the term for anything that isn’t prose.
Poems have rhythm, sound and occasionally rhyme, but this is not what makes them poems. I think they’re meant to mean something. George Barker pointed out that even in ‘a society possessing no faults to which one could rationally object, it would still be the job of the poet to object’ and there’s some truth in this. Poetry isn’t all about anarchy and cynicism, but the belief of a better world is part of it. Even in the most depressing poems you can pick out undertones of optimism so fierce it becomes foolish.
There’s more to a poem than that though, isn’t there? It’s not just how it fits on the page, and what the poet is trying to say, but the words. Poetry is ‘the best words in the best order’ (as Samuel Taylor Coleridge put it), and such a huge chunk of poem rests on the shoulders of how good the words are. Poems are stitched of words that slip from the tongue, one crystalline syllable following another. Serendipity. Demure. Ebullience. Lilt. Moiety. Woebegone. Ripple. The way a word feels in your mouth is just as important as what it means. Poetry is a compromise of the two.
A moody teenager scrawls something that looks like song lyrics on her wall. An old man ponders the flowers outside his window with a notebook and chewed biro. A well-established poet produces yet another sparkling collection. Are all these outcomes poems? I strongly believe that whilst you can identify components of a poem – tone, concept, lyricism – a definitive explanation would be impossible. A poem is defined by its interpretation. And a good poet will notice the poetry in everything.
by Flo Ward