Elisa Gabbert Gives Us the Poneme
Elisa Gabbert, over at Lemon Hound, offers her theory on what, exactly, the most basic unit of poetry is.
What is the unit of poetry? If the basic unit of prose is the sentence, the analog for poetry would seem to be the line. Sentences constitute paragraphs, and lines constitute stanzas. The only problem is that it doesn’t work for prose poetry, visual poetry, and conceptual forms that don’t have easily identifiable “lines.” (The foot causes even more problems, since so much of poetry is not metrical in a traditionally scannable way.)
And, then, defines the poneme:
Many disciplines, in both art and science, have their own specialized units. So why not poetry? In linguistics, the smallest unit of sound is called a phoneme – for example, the k sound – while a morpheme is the smallest unit of semantically meaningful language (the word “dog,” the plural “s”). Richard Dawkins defines the gene as the unit of natural selection – a bit of DNA that translates into some potentially useful or harmful trait (such as blue eyes or sharp teeth), and which is therefore more or less likely to be replicated and passed on to other organisms.
These concepts are especially applicable to the problem of units in poetry – the gene is not defined by size or shape but instead by meaning and use value. This is the type of flexible unit that is needed in poetry. And so I propose the poneme: the unit of poetic meaning. The poneme is the smallest unit able to trigger delight, surprise, recognition, or whatever intellectual frisson is the reason that we go to a poem. It could be as small as a symbol or a sequence of letters – Aram Saroyan’s triple-humped “m” or the “ghgh” in “lighght” – or a cluster of words, or it could extend over multiple lines. But whatever its size, it’s the extractable thing that draws us in and brings us back to the poem. A line may be a poneme, but (have you noticed?) what we quote from a poem is rarely a single “line.”
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