Youmans (pronounced like 'yeoman' with an 's' added) is the best-kept secret
among contemporary American writers. --John Wilson, editor, Books and Culture Marly Youmans is a novelist and poet out of sync with the times
but in tune with the ages. --First Things

Monday, February 17, 2014

Define "poem"--

Image courtesy of sxc.hu and Ann-Kathrin Rehse of Germany.

Like a piece of ice on a hot stove the poem must ride on its own melting. -Frost

Thanks to various friends in various places online who have expressed interest in the memory palace posts. Perhaps I'll do a few more... This little post is in response to a comment, and is a 5-minute stab at defining the word poem. (It might have been longer, but I have only just now decided not to expire from my hideous cold, and don't expect to process thought for longer than five minutes at a go.) Feel free to invent your own definition and leave in the post comments (preferably before you read mine), or to argue with mine (after you read it, that is!) I don't imagine that my quick definition is anything like the last word, given how tricky the job is.
Made by its maker, a poet, out of syllables and pauses, a poem is a vessel that: contains language that to some degree (more or less) approaches music via play with pause and the sounds of vowels and consonants (and may include rhyme, meter, and rhetorical figures of sound) and yet is not music; pours out the truth while insisting on retaining mystery and strangeness; depends on lineation and insists that every element of the poem (line break and end words, stanza break, alliteration, word choice, punctuation, etc.) must express the will of the poem. If it does not do these things, the vessel will not hold water.

The poem also has a duty not to bore the reader. It achieves that aim by surprising the writer.
Admission: The above definition does leave out some artifacts that are commonly called poems. It is in direct opposition to certain Duchampian creations and plagiarisms of texts that are called poems, for example.

Second admission: The above post is entirely too parenthetical. (Sorry!)

Third admission: I am well aware that I left out feeling. Still thinking about that one, and how it functions with certain poets not much read now like Pope and Johnson.

41 comments:

  1. Quite a lot to think about here, Marly.
    I think the first thing that hits me is that poetry is also the illumination of concepts. Through the use of metaphor and simile, yes, but also the juggling of ideas (in themselves) relative to one another to come up with something completely new.
    I think the strongest poems create ideas that words can barely address full on, perhaps?
    Joy or sadness or reflection - these things (amongst others) are painted into poetry in ways that often 'unspoken' but more hinted at?

    I wonder what you make of that.
    I think poetry is less… linear.

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    1. Paul,

      With "lineation," I am not thinking of poetry being linear, but that you have something else entirely, not poetry, when you abolish the line. The wholeness and yet ongoing quality of the line, the importance of start and end words in a line: all these things and more are part of lineation.

      That said, poetry gathers many threads and may weave them in an entirely unexpected order or new way.

      "Hinted at" - Yes, that is part of the mystery of a poem for me.

      "That words can barely address" - That's also mystery.

      I don't particularly think that ideas are essential; there are many more efficient ways of conveying ideas. But I think you mean something closer to the concept that poetry can arouse and awaken emotion. And it is often very good at doing that, though other forms can do it as well or better. I'm still thinking about emotion and how it belongs in a definition.

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  2. Ah . . . another brave attempt to define that which cannot be defined. I prefer a definition that is a bit of wretched syntax in that it merely lists the commonly understood elements of poetry (included in any introduction to literature text glossary) -- and then complicate list by saying not all elements are used at all times. But, having said that, the fact remains: I like your definition very much.

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    1. Yes, that is another good way, if you can come to an agreement with the poems about what they are and contain!

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  3. Marly, Just because other media can evoke emotions as well or better than poetry is no reason to overlook it! But the problem is that there are so many different kinds of poem... some are juicy and full of feeling and others are highly intellectual and rather dry. And both are still poetry. So I see why you might have left out feeling after all...
    Also, breath. It isn't just pauses, but breath, being the negative space in which poems subsist.

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  4. Typo. That should say "overlook THEM."

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  5. Well, I'm not permanently leaving out feeling. I just haven't decided what I want to say about it!

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  6. Ah, feeling, schmeeling. Over-rated. Abstract. Subjective. Irrevelant. And not really either an ingredient or a goal of quality literature. You want feeling? Read a Danielle Steele novel. You want feeling? Read 19th century sentimental fiction. Uncle Tom's Cabin ought to be a good start.

    Too harsh? Too cynical? Perhaps. But that is me.

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    1. Tim, both ideas and feeling can be thought about in that way--that is, that there are better vehicles for producing each... And there are some wonderful poems that are not concerned with feeling...

      Must think about it some more. When I stop sneezing so dratted hard.

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  7. For me, a poem tells a story lyrically, rhythmically, or both. (There's a brief and likely very insufficient definition!)

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    1. I like narrative poetry. In fact, I write a good deal of it. But that does leave out other things that I would say are poems...

      Why are we people with horrible colds awake and frittering the day on the internet, Julie?

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    2. p. s. "Lyrically" and "rhythmically" fall into the "approaches music" part of my definition.

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  8. I'm viewing "story" pretty broadly here: it could be the story of an emotion, what it feels like to be in a particular set of circumstances. I wrote a poem once about doing some incidental late-winter gardening on an unseasonably warm day and anticipating the summer--not really a story but more of a happening. A poem is a happening? told lyrically, etc. :D

    Okay, I shouldn't try to write about this stuff with a cold. You are my hero--your brain cells deflect the Little Green Men far better than mine do!

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    1. Aw, thanks! I don't think I'm doing such a great job today, but yesterday was good... The Little Green Men shall not overcome! Courage! (And down the hatch with whatever evil-tasting remedy you find semi-helpful.)

      I'm good with calling a poem an "experience." That works for me and is a little more inclusive than "happening," maybe.

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  9. "Experience"! Yes! Thank you.

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  10. Poems?

    A string of words that paint the atmosphere, mood, and convey the authors feelings without revealing their foibles. It contains the most subtle nuances of their background, but may reveal faults and complaints they may hold dear. Rhyming is optional but helps.

    (I am not a real writer but will take a look at it.)

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    1. Well, I am sure you are a real something, Anonymous! Probably a real reader, as you're here...

      Okay, that's a new element... some sort of confessionalism or expression of the author's background or beliefs. Another one to think about some more.

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  11. Looking through G. Spencer-Brown's Laws of Form this morning, it occurred to me that some of his prefatory statements about mathematical approach could likewise apply to poetry:

    "…the idea that [in a poem] we can find a reality which is independent of how the universe actually appears…."

    "[A poem], in common with other art forms, can lead us beyond ordinary existence, and can show us something of the structure in which all creation hangs together…."

    "Unlike more superficial forms…[a poem] is a way of saying less and less about more and more. [A poem] is thus not an end in itself, but a key to a world beyond the compass of ordinary description….."

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    1. Oh, I saw that you were keeping that book (and getting rid of 2200 others!)

      And I do like those substitutions. They are evocative and resonant and suggest interesting things about creation and sub-creation (aka art.) "Key to a world beyond the compass of ordinary description..." They also retain mystery...

      Glad you kept that one, DZ.

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    2. Yes, I have to keep Laws of Form. It does exactly what those quotes describe — as do many of your poems, by the way, and no doubt your longer works, as well (which I plan to read after the Great Shift).

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    3. I'm not sure I have the right brain for "Laws of Form," but you make it sound wonderful. Glad you think the poems so. And so glad you are jettisoning so many books to make room for mine! (Hah. Still. I am very glad you want to take a peep at them.)

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  12. I like your definition *MUCH* better than Shklovsky's: "Tortured speech." :-)

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    1. Hello, Curtis Sheidler--

      I'm glad you liked it. I'm not sure I am so far away from Shlovsky in some things--as, his idea of revitalizing the world through estrangement. That's not so far from an insistence on truth and mystery at once.

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    2. @Curtis Sheidler: Viktor Shklovsky defined poetry as "tortured speech"? I'm not (necessarily) disputing it, but where or when did he say or write that?

      @marly youmans: I'm sort of allergic to truth, but I do require honesty in a poem. And why the poet isn't doing something other than writing poetry usually provides enough mystery for me. ;) But I have no idea how any poem can be a considered a good poem if it lacks Shklovskyite estrangement.

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    3. DeathZen,

      You know, "honesty" is probably a better choice. "Truth" is a slippery substance and perhaps seems a little over-wrought and bombastic in that context. I think I'd buy that. Okay, shall incorporate!

      Yes, I value what he calls estrangement. That's definitely part of what I meant by "retaining mystery and strangeness."

      Hah, very funny. "Other than writing poetry!"

      I do think there are orders of achievement, and that the lowest order might be something like a lyrical description, and that might be pleasant enough. For some, that would be the highest mark. For others, a step on the way. But, yes, "good poem" calls for more.

      That last comment clearly ignores the avant-garde world.

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    4. @DeathZen I can't recall the exact piece. (It *MAY* have been "Art as Technique," but don't quote me on that.) His overall point--the idea of defamiliarization--is actually very well-taken and one of the things I've found most helpful since my grad school days.

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    5. @marly youmans: I probably phrased that badly. I should have written, "...why most poets aren't doing something other than writing poetry usually provides enough mystery for me."

      Oh yes, there definitely are orders of achievement, and that's fine. But I'm stingy with my attention (my only capital), and having been stranded here long enough to be able to recognize which orders of achievement are which, and why, I don't squander my capital on lesser orders.

      Is there an avant-garde any more? I haven't noticed one since the L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poets were assimilated in the mid-'70s or so.

      @LanternBright: Thanks! Shklovsky does define poetic speech in "Art as Technique":

      In the light of these developments we can define poetry as attenuated, tortuous speech. Poetic speech is formed speech. Prose is ordinary speech - economical, easy, proper, the goddess of prose [dea prosae] is a goddess of the accurate, facile type, of the "direct" expression of a child.

      Tortuous speech is indirect, not straightforward. "Tortured speech" is...well, something else altogether. ;)

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    6. I knew what you meant... And was amused by the madness of being the thing that writes poetry anyway!

      The entity that calls itself avant-garde thinks there is an avant-garde... But I'm not so interested in flarf, say, or in Duchampian games (isn't that old hat, even translated into words?)

      from the Poetry Foundation: In his writing, Goldsmith takes an unusual approach. Fidget is a chronicle of every movement of his body over a thirteen-hour period on Bloomsday, June 16, 1997, and serves as an homage to the work of Irish writer James Joyce, specifically to Joyce's Ulysses. A contributor for Publishers Weekly called it an "important book from Goldsmith, pointing the way to a rapproachment between poetry and conceptual and performance art—avant-gardists and art lovers of all stripes will want to experience its near-hypnotic pleasures." With Soliloquy, Goldsmith records his every word over a period of a week, everything from ordering food at a deli to a conversation with a cab driver. His side only is included, making for a puzzle effect. In a review for Publishers Weekly, a contributor remarked that the book "leaves the reader with a convinced sense that language, no matter how un-artful, does the heavy lifting in our lives, and has encoded the entire registry our being." [sic]

      Get that? Language "does the heavy lifting in our lives, and has encoded the entire registry [of] our being."

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  13. No, no, Marly...you're not "most poets"!

    Regarding "the entity that calls itself avant-garde," declaring oneself avant-garde is irrefutable proof of the contrary.

    As for Kenneth Goldsmith, he must realize he's among the arrière-garde when he keeps repeating all those really stale tricks of nearly a century ago. Really, what could ever be considered innovative, daring, or radical dans l'âge de Internet? We've had snuff films, suicide videos, nuclear meltdowns, family porn, planes flying into skyscrapers, BDSM picnics, and hordes of self-proclaimed "artists" hurling their products at us 24/7. Whoever originally typed that Publisher's Weekly blurb should have their hands cut off and auctioned to the highest bidder on eBay after the video is posted on YouTube.

    This ain't no party, this ain't no disco, this ain't no fooling around….

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    1. That was scathing and packed a lot of tinder into one explosive bundle! You know, I have written about some of these things (the poetry side, not the suicide porn side!) for Makoto Fujimura, but I don't know exactly what he's going to do with the pieces as yet.

      DeathZen, I wish you weren't quite so far away... We could sit on tuffets and have tea. I'm sure I'd be smarter afterward.

      And thank you for what I think is a compliment.

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  14. Oh, I really didn't mean to be scathing or explosive. That's just the way we Chicago-spawn tend to express ourselves — at least those of us who were socialized by humans rather than televisions or, God forbid, iPads — in order exercise our street cred. That was too forceful, eh? I usually advise new correspondents who've never met me to liberally punctuate my writing with sardonic smirks and snarkitudinal snorts. Otherwise, they'll think I'm on a tear and get scared. ;)

    Ohhh, Makoto Fujimura. Now there's a definitely-no-quotes artist whose work is consistently and persuasively beautiful. I admire him very much. How did you come to write things for him?

    I, too, wish we could sit on tuffets and have tea, Marly. I doubt that you'd come away any smarter, but I guarantee that we'd laugh a lot! And I bet you'd enjoy the pu'erhs and gaoshan oolongs I'd brew for you gongfu-style.

    Why you spend time writing anything is no mystery at all: you're very, very good at it! So yes, my assertion that you're not "most poets" ought to be taken as a compliment, I'm sure.

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    1. Oh, no, I quite enjoyed your spark!

      I've known Mako for quite a few years. We were the two "arts" people on a national working group with Miroslav Volf at Yale Divinity for three years a while back. And we did a story-and-image show and chat at a conference together. We'd like to do it as a little book, too, if we found the right place. What else? He commissioned a poem for "The Curator." And now two essays... He's a very interesting man and artist, no doubt there, and also very involved in the idea that worthy culture can be made by people aspiring together. He starts things! International Arts Movement! Fujimura Institute. And I know he was a church planter in Chelsea--an arts-friendly church--long ago. He thinks big. He organizes. All that is impressive to me. Children and books are about all I can manage.

      Ah. Thanks!

      My then-pre-teen Rebecca went with my husband when he went to Hawaii, but maybe some day he'll have a meeting there again! And I can tag along and paddle out to your secret island and have that tea.

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  15. Very cool re Fujimura. You know and work with some outstanding artists, but that's not at all surprising. Yes, do come for tea!

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    1. For some reason I've always had friends in visual arts... And right now I'm meeting twice a month with two painter friends, as we all felt a little off track. We're setting goals, talking about what we've done, plan to do, and discussing ideas. (And we eat lunch and make merry.) So far we've met three times.

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  16. Actually, it's the track that's off, not you. Glad you have talented, like-minded, goal-setting, merry-making friends nearby!

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    1. Me too... It's jolly, and for a long time I didn't know many people in the area who were in the arts as more than hobbyists, so it's good for me.

      The track... I know what you mean, and I know that I don't always fit the system, and that indeed something is wrong with the system... Though I was just thinking that I had gotten jogged out of my usual steady groove by too many events and duties and endlessly on. I just felt askew from my usual, and I had a lot of manuscripts piled up in an "almost done" state for a long time. I was more disorganized that was good.

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  17. "Not to bore" and "surprise" reminds me of a line I read a little while ago in Walter Pater's The Renaissance: "A certain strangeness, something of the blossoming of the aloe, is indeed an element in all true works of art; that they shall excite or surprise us is indispensable. But that they shall give pleasure and exert a charm over us is indispensable too; and this strangeness must be sweet also -- a lovely strangeness. "

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  18. Oh, that is good--and I have read Pater, many years ago. In fact, it was so very long ago that I doubt I can claim to have remembered "The Renaissance" at all except in a friendly that-was-good sort of way. But I feel very sympathetic to those lines, and to "the blossoming of the aloe."

    You have a lot of blogs! I peeped about but will have to come back after I hit my deadlines. And maybe I need to reread some Pater. And Hazlitt?

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    1. Only Pykk really -- the rest are just notes to myself, and one was an attempt at something that failed. I'm tickled that you checked though. Ruskin might be the other man to go to for 19th century British aesthetic-essays, more so than Hazlitt, if you're thinking of aesthetics, specifically. "Charm" seems to be a large component of Pater's idea about the arts. The Renaissance is peppered with the word "charm:" "the freshness which belongs to all periods of growth in art, the charm of ascesis," "the charm we receive from ancient literature," "a real, direct, aesthetic charm," "the natural charm of pagan story," "people have begun to find out the charm of Botticelli's work," etc. A sort of intrinsic unpushy magical effect, this charm.

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    2. I have read all three, but so long ago! I don't think anything much remains but some trace of glitter in the mind. Perhaps that is all that remains of the charm of each--the residue of a spell. But spells can be renewed, it's said.

      And I shall take a look at Pykk when I get to a stopping point!

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Alas, I must once again remind large numbers of Chinese salesmen and other worldwide peddlers that if they fall into the Gulf of Spam, they will be eaten by roaming Balrogs. The rest of you, lovers of grace, poetry, and horses (nod to Yeats--you do not have to be fond of horses), feel free to leave fascinating missives and curious arguments.