On Defining Poetry

When I was a teenager, I lived in a little cockroach infested drug hovel in Seattle. The tenants were impoverished and violent, but the night manager was one of the kindest and wisest mentors I’ve ever known. His name was Jim. Jim had a bushy white beard, big red cheeks, long hair, and thick glasses. He resembled an elderly Jerry Garcia. Jim spent most of his time laying around in bed watching television or reading, but from time to time he would come out of his room to cook delicious dinners for the tenants in the building’s only kitchen.Jim was very bright. He loved intellectual conversation, which may be the reason he took an interest in me. I was quite ignorant, but I enjoyed discussing subjects that many of the people in Jim’s life couldn’t or didn’t. Jim gave me my first copies of Plato, Aristotle, and Rousseau. He also gave me some of my earliest lessons in poetry. I lacked experience in reading poetry at that time, so I can’t really say now how good Jim really was, but I do remember that I had a very hard time understanding most of the poems he let me look at.Jim gave me a definition of poetry that has always remained with me. He said, “Poetry is the art of cramming as much meaning into as few words as possible.” At the time, this definition meant very little to me, but over the years, as I’ve read and written poems, I’ve pondered it, and I believe it is a good critical standard for judging both poetry and prose. I feel it falls short of defining poetry. Definitions should encompass all particular examples of the thing to be defined in one general statement. Jim only gave a particular example of a rule a poet might impose on himself.Poetry is any writing that deliberately obeys rules other than the rules of prose. Prose does not require rhyme, meter, a certain number of syllables, a certain order of accents, or a specific pattern. Poetry may require none, some, or all of the examples I just listed. A poet may impose haphazardness on himself. He I may I require I that I every I other I word I must I be I. I included the word ‘deliberately’ in the definition to exclude writing done according to rules which the author mistakes as the rules of prose.My definition may be accused of being too general. What about the rules of text messaging? What about the 140 character requirement of tweets? Are texts and tweets to be considered poetry? I acknowledge this problem, as well as some others, but I wonder if accepting tweets and texts as poetry would be a minor evil when one considers that the definition I offer comes about as close as possible to including such disparate works as The Narrow Road to the Deep North, The Canterbury Tales, Paradise Lost, The Waste Land, r-p-o-p-h-e-s-s-a-g-r, and I Used to Love H.E.R.I’ll close this post with a poem. It obeys the 17 syllable rule of Haiku. It attempts to cram ideas taken from the fourth book of Virgil’s Georgics, the story of Jacob and Esau, some passages from Bertrand Russell’s The History of Western Philosophy, and the usual themes of my poetry into as few words as possible. I hope you enjoy it.I turn Orphic eyes
Upon a mess of pottage–
Eurydice lost!