poetry: An inexplicable (though not incomprehensible) event in language; an experience through words. Jorge Luis Borges believed that “poetry is something that cannot be defined without oversimplifying it. It would be like attempting to define the color yellow, love, the fall of leaves in autumn.” Even Samuel Johnson maintained, “To circumscribe poetry by a definition will only show the narrowness of the definer.”
Poetry is a human fundamental, like music. It predates literacy and precedes prose in all literatures. There has probably never been a culture without it, yet no one knows precisely what it is. The word poesie entered the English language in the fourteenth century and begat poesy (as in Sidney’s “The Defence of Poesy,” ca. 1582) and posy, a motto in verse. Poetrie (from the Latin poetria) entered fourteenth-century English vocabulary and evolved into our poetry. The Greek word poiesis means “making.” The fact that the oldest term for the poet means “maker” suggests that a poem is constructed.
Poets (and others) have made many attempts over the centuries to account for poetry, an ancient and necessary instrument of our humanity:
Dante’s treatise on vernacular poetry, De vulgari eloquentia, suggests that around 1300, poetry was typically conceived of as a species of eloquence.
Sir Philip Sidney (1554–1586) said that poetry is “a representing, counterfetting, a figuring foorth: to speak metaphorically: a speaking picture: with this end, to teach and delight.”
Ben Jonson (1572–1637) referred to the art of poetry as “the craft of making.”
The baroque Jesuit poet Tomasso Ceva (1649–1737) said, “Poetry is a dream dreamed in the presence of reason.”
Coleridge (1772–1834) claimed that poetry equals “the best words in the best order.” He characterized it as “that synthetic and magical power, to which we have exclusively appropriated the name of imagination.”
Wordsworth (1771–1850) famously called poetry “the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings . . . recollected in tranquility.”
John Stuart Mill (1806–1873) followed up Wordsworth’s emphasis on overflowing emotion when he wrote that poetry is “feeling confessing itself to itself in moments of solitude.”
Shelley (1792–1822) joyfully called poetry “the record of the best and happiest moments of the happiest and best minds.” He said that poetry “redeems from decay the visitations of the divinity in man.”
Matthew Arnold (1822–1888) narrowed the definition to “a criticism of life.”
Ezra Pound (1885–1972) later countered, “Poetry is about as much a ‘criticism of life’ as red-hot iron is a criticism of fire.”
Gerard Manley Hopkins (1844–1889) characterized it as “speech framed . . . to be heard for its own sake and interest even over and above its interest of meaning.”
W. B. Yeats (1865–1939) loved Gavin Douglas’s 1553 definition of poetry as “pleasance and half wonder.”
George Santayana (1863–1952) said that “poetry is speech in which the instrument counts as well as the meaning.” But he also thought of it as something beyond “verbal expression,” as “that subtle fire and inward light which seems at times to shine through the world and to touch the images in our minds with ineffable beauty.”
Wallace Stevens (1879–1955) characterized poetry as “a revelation of words by means of the words.”
Tolstoy (1828–1910) noted in his diary, “Poetry is verse: prose is not verse. Or else poetry is everything with the exception of business documents and school books.” Years later, Marianne Moore (1887–1972) responded “[N]or is it valid / to discriminate against ‘business documents and // school books.’” Instead, she called poems “imaginary gardens with real toads in them.”
Gertrude Stein (1874–1946) decided, “Poetry is doing nothing but using losing refusing and pleasing and betraying and caressing nouns.”
Robert Frost (1874–1963) said wryly, “Poetry provides the one permissible way of saying one thing and meaning another.”
Robert Graves (1895–1985) thought of it as a form of “stored magic,” Andre Breton (1896–1966) as a “room of marvels.”
Howard Nemerov (1920–1991) said that poetry is simply “getting something right in language.”
Poetry seems at core a verbal transaction. In its oral form, it establishes a relationship between a speaker and a listener; in its written form, it establishes a relationship between a writer and a reader. Yet at times that relationship seems to go beyond words. John Keats (1795–1821) felt that “Poetry should . . . strike the Reader as a wording of his own highest thoughts, and appear almost a Remembrance.” The Australian poet Les Murray (b. 1938) argues that “poetry exists to provide the poetic experience.” That experience is “a temporary possession.” We know it by contact, since it has an intensity that cannot be denied.
Emily Dickinson (1830–1886) wrote in an 1870 letter:
If I read a book [and] it makes my whole body so cold no fire can ever warm me I know that is poetry. If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know that is poetry. These are the only ways I know it. Is there any other way?
A. E. Housman wrote in The Name and Nature of Poetry (1933):
A year or two ago, in common with others, I received from America a request that I would define poetry. I replied that I could no more define poetry than a terrier can define a rat, but that I thought we both recognized the object by the symptoms which it provokes in us. One of these symptoms was described in connection with another object by Eliphaz the Termanite: 'A spirit passed before my face: the hair of my flesh stood up.' Experience has taught me, when I am shaving of a morning, to keep watch over my thoughts, because, if a line of poetry strays into my memory, my skin bristles so that the razor ceases to act. This particular symptom is accompanied by a shiver down the spine; there is another which consists in a constriction of the throat and a precipitation of water in the eyes; and there is a third which I can only describe by borrowing a phrase from one of Keats’ last letters, where he says, speaking of Fanny Brawne, 'everything that reminds me of her goes through me like a spear.'
Excerpted from A Poet's Glossary by Edward Hirsch. Copyright © 2014 by Edward Hirsch. Used by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. All rights reserved.