What is poetry?

To the newly initiated, reading poetry is kind of like walking into an art gallery and seeing a million-dollar art piece with a single black dot on it. What the hell is a black dot supposed to mean, why the hell is it worth a million dollars, and why does everyone see the profundity in it except me?

"Black Circle" by Kazimir Malevich (1915). Oil on canvas.

“Black Circle” by Kazimir Malevich (1915). Oil on canvas.

In high school, I hated poetry and poetry analysis, just like every other teenager. Since high school, I’ve gotten (a little) older and wiser. A combination of course requirements and my own expanded open-mindedness got me to read more poetry, and I think I understand the gist of it. I’ve also experimented a lot more with writing poetry myself, which has helped me understand others’ poetry more than anything.

The way I understand it, poetry is made of two ways of approach or, two ways of thinking that set it aside from prose: 1) attention to structure and 2) suggestion over depiction. Because I think attention to structure is obvious (how a poem looks on a page will affect how you understand it), I’ll just discuss point (2) today. I will also tie in music (like I always seem to do!) because the phrase “suggestion over depiction”, as I remember it, was gleaned from my music history studying days.

Suggestion over Depiction

TS Eliot, one of my favourite poets. But only recently so.

TS Eliot, one of my favourite poets. But only recently so.

“Poems are about ideas,” my first-year writing professor said. And ideas are simple, and easy to say. If I want to tell you that I think love is great, I can say to you, “Love is great.” Perhaps, if I want to expound on that thought, I’d say: “Love is great because it brings people together to share experiences.” Sure, makes sense. But that’s kind of boring. Moreover, a statement like that doesn’t make people jump forward and want to hear more.

That’s what I think poetry is about. Poetry is about expressing ideas not through telling, but through suggesting. A poem about love won’t tell you love is great, but will put the idea in your head that love is great. And that’s what makes poetry so powerful: it’s about penetrating something deeper than the surface membrane of another person’s brain. It’s about planting an idea, through suggestion, in a person’s core and then letting it grow (think Inception!). And by suggesting rather than telling, the reader is open to debating or criticizing the idea. And that’s what the poet wants: for the reader to think about what they’re being told.

In case I sound too existentialist here, I’ll use music as an example. Listen to the following piece (just a few measures will do), and what does it make you feel? Better yet: what does it make you think of?

Music has no words. Music does not tell us anything. Yet, music has the magical power to make us feel things and think things. For me, the piece above inspires a sense of sorrow but also a sense of beauty in the yearning melody of the sonorous cello. This is the Sicilienne from Gabriel Fauré’s Pélleas et Mélisande, an orchestral suite based on the Symbolist play by Maeterlinck about forbidden lovers that, yes, ends in both lovers dying. (If you’re interested in nerdy things like Symbolist plays you check out the wiki article here.) If you enjoyed this Fauré piece, please check out the ekphrastic poem from yesterday.

So, I hope I’ve shed some additional light into what poetry is. Chances are, it’s still a big mystery to most of us, and honestly, maybe that’s what poetry is also supposed to be: a mystery.

I’ve discovered that the way to enjoy poetry is just not to think about it too much, to just let it guide you. Sometimes, I will read “Rhapsody on a Windy Night” (T.S. Eliot) right before going to bed, not because I understand it, but because it seems like something you read at night before you go to bed.


7 thoughts on “What is poetry?

  1. Pingback: Find inspiration by reading what you love | breakfast with words

  2. Pingback: Music Mondays: Classical Music and Poetry | breakfast with words

  3. Pingback: Music Mondays: Ravel, Pastoralism, and More Fantastic Ekphrastic(ness) | breakfast with words

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  6. delete my older comment = = What do you mean you can’t edit comments on wordpress = = I’m going to assume you have the power to do this, or you can enjoy my double commenting, defying all polite conventions of blogging. Also, great post. But, I can’t really add that comment without adding yet another post to my unfinished comment. = =


  7. Haha. The hollow men puts pictures in my mind before I go to sleep. Cool pictures. I should try rhapsody.
    I can’t believe you didn’t like poetry in high school. I loved it and was baffled why everyone else was groaning. It was shorter than a story and again those pictures. You probably just liked stories too much. 😉
    I like the idea of suggestion over depiction, although I feel that all literary writing does this-is there a different way poetry uses words to suggets? is that tied inexplicably to their structure?
    Also, paintings with one dot on them are like haikus to epics. Debate. 😉


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