Response to Madonna’s thoughts about poetry

December 5, 2010

When we had our discussion a few weeks ago about what the definition of poetry should be, I became a little bit frustrated. I don’t think I necessarily have the words to describe, without leaving loopholes, what poetry is, but I balk at the idea of attempting that kind of summary, simply because people tend to poke holes in things with unsound definitions and reasoning. When I heard what Madonna had to say in class/read what she wrote on the blog, it seemed to me that she felt similarly: poetry is not something that really has a definition. She goes further and says that poetry is all around us, and even attempting to put all this gloriousness into words is useless because we don’t ever quite capture what life itself has already done.

But, when I think about it, I don’t like that idea at all. It is vague and abstract, and I’m frustrated by that. To say that poetry is an “elusive thing” is avoiding the question of what poetry is, and saying that people can’t write poetry is patently untrue. Great writers create work that resonates with us, and we have read plenty of it in Contemporary Poetry this semester. Certainly, poetry can’t completely capture sunsets, or a really brilliant view, or the concept of loss,  but nothing does. Looking at a sunset or mountains makes us feel a certain way, as does losing something or someone. We use language to gesture toward these experiences, not to recreate them in totality. The distance between what the poet sees/experiences and the reader is bridged by the poem itself when the reader interprets it. We bring our own thoughts and feelings to bear on a work and go from there. Some poems won’t mean anything to you, but others will be special because those poems say things that you truly understand, not just in an, “Oh, I get that” kind of way. There is a wildly famous and over-quoted part of the play The History Boys by Alan Bennett where the teacher, Hector, explains that “The best moments in reading are when you come across something – a thought, a feeling, a way of looking at things – that you’d thought special, particular to you. And here it is, set down by someone else, a person you’ve never met, maybe even someone long dead. And it’s as if a hand has come out, and taken yours.” I don’t even think it has to be something that you think is “particular to you,” just something that you know and feel and understand.

I think we reduce the act of writing poetry, or writing things in general, if we try to expand the definition of poetry to be anything beautiful or wonderful in the world. I don’t think poetry is a symbol: it’s an attempt to capture some part of the human experience in such a way that it strikes a chord in another person, yes, but it becomes its own object, like Kristin said in her comment under Debbi’s post. I still think poets are trying to capture something, be it a feeling or an experience or an image, but like I said, they’re not trying to make you feel the same way you did when you saw that really great sunset or whatever. The importance is not the recreation of an image, but the connection between the reader and the poet through the poem, the hand reaching out and taking yours.

(These are some pretty unfinished thoughts, so please bear with me.)

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