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What's Poetry?

"All slang is metaphor, and all metaphor is poetry," G.K. Chesterton (1874-1936).

"Verse must have a magical character or it does not exist," Paul Valery (1871-1945).

"If I read a book and it makes my whole body so cold no fire can ever warm me, I know that it is poetry. If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know that it is poetry. These are the only ways I know it. Is there any other way?" Emily Dickinson (1830-1886).

"Experience has taught me, when I am shaving of a morning, to keep watch over my thoughts, because, if a line of poetry strays into my memory, my skin bristles so that the razor ceases to act," A.E. Housman (1859-1936).

Poetry has been defined in many ways, including metaphors comparing it to air, bread, and water. However, I believe poetry is not a biological necessity but perhaps a social and cultural one. Although we can live our lives without poetry, the fact is very few people, regardless of their culture, do. While most people have never bought or read a book of poems in their life, many can recite lyrics to memorable songs or remember certain lines that appeared in a card given to them by a loved one. My grandmother says she doesn't understand poetry or "care for it." Yet she can be so touched by the words in a book of hymns that she will write them on the back of her checkbook. The truth is that poetry surrounds us. Music and religious texts employ elements of poetry, as does advertising and some types of prose.

Despite this, those who know poetry in its traditional form (i.e. written and published) often hear rumors of poetry's eradication or erasure by music videos and, now, the competing medium of the Internet. Admittedly, there is a lot of bad writing out there, especially on the Internet where home pages have become diaries/journals embarassingly opened for the world to read. Despite the irrational fear of some academics, poetry remains as alive today as it ever has, with dozens of skilled poets publishing books each year and with an even greater number of poets writing poetry that will never appear anywhere but in a small (but admirable) number of journals and chapbooks. In fact, community poetry readings and open-mike forums have sprouted across the United States in recent years at a pace equalled only by coffeehouses, like Starbucks, and mega-bookstores, like Borders and Barnes & Noble—which have become, not too surprising, the venue for many of these events.

Universities are offering a record number of classes designed to accommodate students interested in poetry. Unfortunately, many of these classes are limited in scope to the writing of poetry. I say unfortunately not to belittle these amateur or aspiring poets but to point out that there are very few guides to point readers in the direction of "good" (yes, it's quite subjective) poets and books of poetry. I hope Poetry Previews site will serve as such a guide.

All that's well and good, but it doesn't define poetry and this section is titled What's Poetry? Although poetry takes advantage of sound and other senses through rhythm and related devices, including images and allusions, what truly differentiates poetry from other genres is that poetry's basic unit of measure is the line, which can ultimately be broken down into feet. The root meaning of verse (another word for poetry) means "to turn" and that is what a line of poetry does: it turns or steers one line to the next.

This transition from line to line is not arbitrary (though with some poets it may seem so). An exceptionally well-crafted poem may use these turns, also known as line breaks, to: mirror the action within the poem, build suspense, break phrases or units of thought, or simply speed up or slow down the poem's rhythm. Of course, there are exceptions: where the line breaks in a prose poem is arbitrarily based on where the margin ends. Without the constraints of a margin, a prose poem like any other piece of prose (including the novel) could theoretically continue as one straight line until the end.

Care to curl up with a mile of Dickens, anyone?

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