Follow Harriet on Twitter
Poetry in Notion: What Does That Word Mean Anyway?
In last week’s “Ideas” section of the Boston Globe (a section which, btw, is alone worth the price of that excellent newspaper), I came across two references to poetry. One, not surprisingly, had absolutely nothing to do with poetry. It appeared in a review of a biography of novelist Don Barthelme, whom I recall playing in the creative writing band when I was a grad student at U of Houston. The headline dubbed Don a “poet” (“new biography shows Barthelme as prankster, poet, pioneer”) though there was not a single word in the review about him ever writing poetry.
Though the difference between this sort of generalized reference to the art to which I have devoted my life and my own extremely specific idea of what poetry is perpetually astonishes me, I wasn’t too surprised to see it there.
Clearly, the word here was being used, as it has so often been used in the nearly thirty years since I began collecting and stashing away examples (in a dog-eared file called “poetry-anthropology”), to refer in a general way to lyricism, imagination, and creativity. For some reason, poetry seems to have become the stand-in for any kind of pure aesthetic drive in our culture. Poetry in Motion, poetic dancing, poetic architecture, poetic cooking, poetic painting, poetic fashions in clothing, poetic music . . .I’m sure you have seen these uses of the word numerous times.
But what was even more surprising was another review in the same issue, this time of a children’s book written in free verse. The reviewer did something I’ve never seen done before: she quoted a passage of this poetry that was several lines long, with line breaks and all, preceded by a complimentary remark along the lines of, “X’s prose is beautiful and striking.” Why wouldn’t this reviewer use the word “poetry” or “verse” to refer to this poetry?
Clearly neither of these people is thinking of the word poetry in the sense that I, and presumably most readers of Harriet, use it. What do you make of this? Have you also noticed this phenomenon? Do you think it reveals anything about the current state of poetry? It is a cause for concern or no big deal? Does it have anything to do with the matter of audience which has come up in other places on this site?
I’m interested to know what y’all think.
PS It’s now February 2010, and I’ve just heard from Lewis Turco, who points out that I misquoted him in one of my responses to comments on this thread. I apologize for that; Turco is one of the only people I know who has directly addressed the issue of the common confusion between verse and poetry. Not only do I appreciate that he did so; I like how he did so, and I don’t want to misrepresent him. So, for the record, I quote here in full the distinction he made in his email to me, and which he says is the same distinction he has been making for decades:
“VERSE IS METERED LANGUAGE, AND PROSE IS UNMETERED LANGUAGE. ANY OF THE GENRES (POETRY, FICTION, DRAMA, AND NONFICTION) MAY BE WRITTEN IN EITHER OF THE MODES. Thus, there may be VERSE POETRY or PROSE POETRY; VERSE FICTION (epics) or PROSE FICTION (novels); VERSE DRAMA or PROSE DRAMA; VERSE NONFICTION or PROSE NONFICTION.”