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!

Left Brain, Right Brain, and the Power of Poetry

It’s unfortunate but true, and probably due to our tech-driven, scientifically orientated world, that when I tell people I write poetry for a living, I’m likely to hear the question, “But what’s it for? What does it do?” And that’s a puzzler when it comes to literature and poetry. To those of us who love it, it’s perfectly obvious what it’s “for.”But just in case you’re asked that question about poetry any time soon, and you want to have something to say without spluttering in indignation, I thought I’d throw together a few little-know facts about the effect poetry has on children’s brains (and ours, for that matter).Left brain, right brain… Uh, what?We’ve all heard this division-of-the-brain theory many times. Personally, I can never remember which way around it goes, but then that probably means I’m a bit of a right-brainer! It all has to do with the way our brains process information, and which tasks get assigned to which parts of the brain, with the right brain supposedly being more ‘artistic,’ and the left being more of a computer.Neuroscientists are now learning that, although some things can be fairly well localized, like motor function, our intellectual abilities are quite a bit more complex. For instance, did you know that your ability to speak is stored somewhere completely different from your ability to sing? There are documented cases of people who have become aphasic (unable to speak at all) but who can communicate well if they just SING the words out!Our memories, our verbal skills and our understanding of meaning are spread through different areas of our brains, a complex network that we draw on without even – well – thinking! And this is where poetry finds a remarkable niche. Why do children memorize far more easily when they are given information in rhyme? Why do YOU still remember songs and poems that you learned when you were small? You probably even still use some of those mnemonics, and you’re definitely passing them on to your own children, helping them to learn nursery rhymes and the letters of the alphabet that way.And beyond the obvious aid to memory, poetry also offers an enhanced understanding of language. It forces our brains to think laterally, to join together different sensory impressions and associations. That kind of layered thinking has been shown, in live MRI tests, to wake up multiple areas of the brain at once. For kids who struggle with language skills, poetry offers an engaging, memorable stealth technology, a way of getting past the brain’s standard verbal filters to a deeper language network.It would seem that our brains have been programmed for this kind of thinking since before anyone even thought of writing anything down. After all, how are you going to pass down the tribe’s history to the next generation, unless you turn it into an epic song or poem that people can remember, one verse at a time? Entire moral codes and genealogies were passed on in this manner until came up with the written word, and though we can now access all kinds of words on the internet with a flick of a mouse button, our brains still crave the stimulus that poetry gives, especially when it’s spoken out loud.Those who are ‘left-brainers’ can definitely use the relaxation that the rhythmic word can bring, and use it to unlock lateral thinking. And ‘right-brainers’ can harness the power of rhyme to trick their brains into remembering all kinds of things that they shy away from, like the periodic table, or the names of dead presidents. Our two brains WANT to work together, and poetry is the perfect bridge to make that possible.