June 22, 2022

What is poetry? Perhaps the Answer is What Poetry is Not.


Sara M. Robinson

Inspired by a recent essay asking this same question, I started thinking more about all that I have written about poetry, as well as the poems I have composed. After all, what is this genre we are writing? I guess we could ask the other long questions, too. Why? How? When, and Where might be a little obscure as to poetry, but back to the first question: What is poetry?

Is poetry prose, simply written differently? Some poetry critics say that poetry is simply prose broken up into short lines. Really? That’s an over simplification of the most amazing literary genre that the human brain has created. There is method to poetry and the first step is compaction: every word must serve a purpose. Even prose poetry (to further confuse matters) has specific tasks, such as creative visuals. Poetry also relies on a peculiar kind of rhythm to state its case for being poetry. The rhythm or cadence can seem musical, or it can match the rhythm of human speech. Poetry does not have to have rhyming lines, but the language must be true.

Writing of true, I emphasize that language must be true in that it represents a keen interest and application of words. This is not the same as truth. My mantra is: Poetry can always be fiction, but the words must reveal great truths. By means of example, Alexis de Tocqueville wrote in his seminal Democracy in America, “…men in democracies, whose concerns are in general so paltry, call upon their poets for conceptions so vast and descriptions so unlimited.” These authors undertake such grand requests and respond with the gigantic to reach the multitudes. The risk is that poets get so lofty that they simply float away.

Poetry is the relevant genre of our times as well. We see in currently published works the anxieties, horror and redemptions that mankind faces. The world is brought closer to us, and our own local geography is put right in front of us. Poetry is a mirror. Its reflections are created by words that make us either think, cringe, laugh or cry. At its best, poetry is a call to action. How?

Remember Amanda Gorman and her poem, “The Hill We Climb”?

Poetry is the all-inclusive “WE” for this planet. Poetry is more than a tie that binds, it is the rope of salvation. A rescue ship whose constant search is for more of us to save.

What is poetry? Perhaps the answer is what poetry is not.

Keep writing…

Sara M. Robinson, founder of the Lonesome Mountain Pro(s)e Writers’ Workshop, and former Instructor of a course on Contemporary American Poets at UVA-OLLI, was poetry columnist for Southern Writers Magazine and inagural poetry editor for Virginia Literary Journal. She has served as guest lecturer at UVA’s College at Wise, Wise, VA. Her poetry has appeared in various anthologies, including We Grew Wings and Flew (2014), Scratching Against the Fabric (2015), Virginia Writer’s Club Centennial Anthology (2017), Blue Ridge Anthologies and Mizmor Anthology (2018). Journals include: Loch Raven Review, The Virginia Literary Journal, vox poetica, Jimson Weed, Whisky Advocate, and Poetica. She is poet and author of Love Always, Hobby and Jessie (2009), Two Little Girls in a Wading Pool (2012), A Cruise in Rare Waters (2013 Stones for Words (2014), Sometimes the Little Town (2016), a finalist for the Poetry Society of Virginia’s 2017 Book Award. In 2019, Needville, her poetry about effects of coal mining on SW Virginia was released and in 2020 debuted as play in Charlottesville. Her most recent publication is Simple River (2020, Cyberwit).

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