On Poetry

My title is too grand. What I offer here falls far short of a full description of poetry. I barely offer a definition. A more accurate title would be “Axioms and Suspicions About Poetry.”

Axioms first. I have three of them. The first is the closest I can come to a definition of poetry: Poetry is a concentrated excess of language or speech. Poetry is “concentrated” because through sound, syntax, rhyme, rhythm, associations of words, it implies, evokes, elicits much more than it overtly says. Commentary on poetry dwarfs poetry itself, testimony to the fact poetic speech is bigger and fuller than it looks.

Poetry is “excessive” in two senses. Poetry doesn’t need to be spoken or written at all. It is not “functional” in any obvious way. The first recorded human speech is Adam’s love poem for Eve, the first expression of the “useless creativity” that characterizes man made in the image of a “uselessly creative,” prodigal God.

Poetry is also excessive in the sense that it seems to belabor the obvious. “Why can’t he just get to the point?” says the exasperated student when he first encounters Marvell’s seduction poetry. “Why can’t he just say, ‘You’re hot, you’re going to get ugly, let’s hop in bed while it’s still worth the trouble’?” Poetry is off-putting to the impatient because it seems to meander here and there before getting to the punch line, or the pick-up line.

This first axiom about poetry applies, I think, to poetry as such and also to prose that we call “poetic.” Dickinson’s “I heard a fly buzz when I died” is poetic because it deftly sketches a scene, and evokes the stark reality of death, the inevitability of decay, the clash of sublime and mundane. Dickinson’s deceptively simple sentence is an enthralling puzzle. Virtually every sentence of Finnegans Wake is poetic for the same reason.

A second axiom: Poetry articulates correspondences that pre-exist in the world. Just the other day, I was reading a book about greed on my back deck and a bird flew past and lighted precariously on a wire that stretches over our bird feeder. I instantly thought of Jesus’ command to “Look at the birds of the air,” and I felt poetic. I did not impose a concentrated excess of significance on the scene. The scene itself was a concentrated excess, and what I felt was the poetry of the moment. Even the most metaphysical of conceits (a flea as “marriage temple”) is only marking for the half-blind what is always already there for those with the eyes to see.

A final axiom: Poetry is language verging toward music. The semantic load of language is greater than music. A single word, isolated from context, has a semantic content that a musical note or phrase lacks. Language is more obviously referential.

Still, poetry exploits the musical qualities of language. That means, in part, exploiting the aural qualities of language, its rhythms, repetitions, alliterations and assonances. Poetry is supposed to sound luscious. But it also means that poetry aims to exploit the transcendent qualities of language, the evocative and emotional qualities that make it stretch beyond direct reference and strain toward musical.

So much for axioms. I have two suspicions. The first is that the differentiation between poetry and prose is historically specific. It might be modern, and if so it would correspond to other modern dualisms – subject/object, emotion/reason, science/art. Prose is language aspiring to mathematics, poetry is language emoting. Whether it is a modern distinction or not, it is certainly not universal.  The Bible and many other ancient books are composed in a kind of prose-poetry that has all the concentrated excess of poetry but also aims to be, and is, both discursive and didactic.

A second suspicion, depressing for poets: Because poetry is an aural art, it almost inevitably takes a back seat after the introduction of the printing press. Traditionally, poetry is an aural art, and when printed on the page it loses that quality and has to find some other raison d’etre. From Herbert to e. e. cummings, pattern poetry provided an alternative. Most opted instead for sheer obscurity.

More poetry is written and published today than ever before, and since modernism prose writers have cultivated a poet’s taste for the mot juste. Still, poetry is a wee speck at the bottom of our cultural hierarchy. For years, I tested my students by asking them to name three contemporary poets, and then three novelists. The second was instant, but only a handful could do the first. Efforts to restore the cultural stature of poetry appear quixotic: Noble, probably doomed.

That is a challenge for Christians, since Bible contains a great deal of poetic language. If poetry is low on our cultural priorities, it will likely mean that the Bible is as well. But the way forward is to start with the Bible, not with poetry. Put the Bible back in play, and poetry will follow. God’s poetry comes first. Put it back in play with a vengeance. If the Bible is poetic, it needs to be heard not just read, heard not in snippets but in sweeping poetic swathes.

All that is just to say: Liturgy is the first use of speech, and if poetry is going to be revived it will first have to be revived there.

Peter J. Leithart is President of Theopolis. This essay was first published in Credenda/Agenda in 2010.