Up until about the mid-nineteenth century, poetry could be differentiated from prose by its organisation into lines and its use of metre, rhyme, and other conventions. Old English poetry like Beowulf was organised into lines of four stressed syllables in two hemistichs, divided by a medial caesura. Geoffrey Chaucer is often attributed with the introduction into English of the accentual syllabic metre, and indeed he pioneered the heroic couplet, a rhyming iambic pentameter, in his magnum opus The Canterbury Tales. Since then the iambic pentameter, often used with rhyme, has been seen as the natural rhythm of English, and has by far been the most popular poetic metre. However, the publication of Milton’s epic poem Paradise Lost, written in blank verse, marked the beginning of rhyme’s decrease in popularity. In the Preface to the poem, Milton, in response to comments made by Dryden about rhyme’s intrinsic value, said that the musical delight of poetry depends on “apt Numbers, fit quantity of Syllables…not in the jingling sound of like endings…” However, Walt Whitman’s development of free verse (or ‘cadenced verse’) saw the rejection of regular metre, too. Poets like Ezra Pound and Wallace Stevens capitalised on the liberation of poetry and the rejection of constraining rules, and indeed Pound is known for his aphorism, “Make it new”. By the mid-twentieth century, although some poets like Philip Larkin and Thom Gunn (both members of ‘The Movement’) stood by conventional form, a lot of poetry could only be differentiated from prose by its organisation into lines. But now even that is uncertain: the slightly more recent development of what is known as prose-poetry means that anything can pass as poetry. In fact, it seems as if the only defining factor of poetry is its composition as poetry. Thus, one could very well argue that anything posing as poetry is poetry. For example, William Carlos Williams’s poem “This is Just to Say” is only considered to be a poem because Carlos Williams said it was one. If somebody who had never read the poem before wrote it down on a piece of paper as a note to their spouse, would it automatically become a poem? No, it would not, it would simply be an apologetic note.
An article by Stanley Fish entitled “How to Recognise a Poem When You See One” expands on this point and concludes that a poem can be read as a poem if the reader approaches it thinking that it is one. He says that “all objects are made and not found” through “interpretative strategies that are finally not our own but have their source in a publicly available system of intelligibility.” He comes to this conclusion by means of an experiment: he wrote five names on a blackboard, and told his students that they were reading a religious poem. Through their knowledge of what a poem is they were able to find implicit meanings in the random names and thus interpret them as a succinct poem. Although this article is a rather extreme example, it certainly supports the proposition that poetry is anything that is said to be a poem. There is no reason to believe that “The cat sat on the mat” is not a poem, although it is certainly a very bad one. This inevitably leads us to the question: what makes a good poem? The one thing that seems to differentiate poetry from prose (although the best prose does this too) is a poem’s ability to express itself in a number of different ways. Poetry seems to have a number of different layers of meaning transmitted not only through the sense of the words but also through their sounds, their syntactical arrangement, their cadence and the images they evoke. This economy of meaning is used by writers of both prose and poetry to make their expressions of emotion all the more powerful. The fact that it is only seen in good poetry and the very best of prose perhaps suggests that this is what we mean when we say a piece of writing is ‘poetic’.
Writers very often make use of syntax and word placement to stress that certain words or ideas are of significance in the meaning they hope to convey. Writers of both poetry and prose tend to put the most important part of their sentence near the end, and the least important part in the middle. Therefore, rather than saying, “He is a fool, in my opinion,” we often say, “He is, in my opinion, a fool,” thereby emphasising the importance of his foolery. This syntactical inversion for emphasis is seen in Emily Dickinson’s poem “I stepped from plank to plank” in which she writes: “The stars about my head I felt, / About my feet the sea.” Here the poet manipulates the syntax of the sentence (which might normally go, “About my head I felt the stars…”) to give the effect of true surrounding, in that the “I” of the sentence is placed between the stars on one side and the sea on the other. Poets, as well as considering the importance of sentence structure, must also consider line and stanzaic structure (less important in prose, although single word lines and very brief paragraphs are sometimes used for emphasis). A good poet is unlikely to place pronouns and conjunctions at the end of lines, since it is a waste of one of his many layers of emphasis and therefore meaning. Particularly in an accentual-syllabic poem, in which the lines anticipate their end because they are units of measured time, the last word of each line gains a certain strength and weight. Moreover, a poet can often use the length of his lines to suggest something about their significance or meaning. Lines of equal length tend to suggest an equal weight of importance (unless this is not the poet’s intention, as in Robert Herrick’s poem “To Daffodils”). In the same way, the dramatic and grammatical weight of a sentence or phrase ought perhaps to fall in the weightier line. However, many poets choose to use particularly short lines to emphasise particular words or phrases. For example, the first four lines of Walt Whitman’s “The Dismantled Ship” gradually increase in length (from 10, to 12, to 14, to 20 syllables), but the final line suddenly contracts to a meagre 6 syllables: “Lies rusting, mouldering.” The contraction perhaps suggests a sad loss or decline of the ship’s previous glory, thus supporting the dejected image. In this way, poets and prose-writers alike can manipulate sentence structure to emphasise certain parts of a phrase and thus support their meaning and evoke a more powerful emotional response. They can also support meaning through the manipulation of line length and through the placement of certain words in the line. This economical manipulation to support the meaning is perhaps what makes some writing ‘poetic’.
A stanzaic form can, in the same way, also become an indispensible form of meaning. The size of stanzas can often suggest the importance or unimportance of their content. Moreover, a poem generally tends towards a greater density the closer the number of stanzas accords with the number of divisions of action the poet depicts. Paul Fussell notes that there should be a reason for dividing a poem up into stanzas – it should not be done arbitrarily. He cites Robert Bridges’s “I Praise the Tender Flower” as an example of a poem that makes full use of its strophic divisions: the first stanza talks about the flower, the second talks about the maiden, and the third explains why he mentions them both in the same poem. Strophic division is also important in the development of an argument; “To His Coy Mistress” is perhaps the best example. Marvell’s poem involves a tripartite rhetorical experience which is argued exactly like a classical syllogism: a major premise of 20 lines (the desire for more time), a minor premise of 12 lines (that time is limited), and a slightly longer conclusion of 14 lines (that they should make use of the short time they have). Another example of form conveying meaning comes in E.E. Cummings’s poem “l(a”: hundreds of poems have used the image of a leaf falling to represent loneliness, but Cumming’s poem, through his use of poetic form, is perhaps the most powerful. There are also various poetic forms that tend to lend themselves particularly to certain themes or techniques. For example, the Petrarchan sonnet, with its unequal division of octave and sestet, lends itself to the presentation of an argument followed by its contradiction (or, in other words, the creation of tension, then a release of that tension). To write a sonnet without a turn is to miss the most important part of the sonnet. The volta can also be used to show a development of or change in thought (as in Wordsworth’s “It is a beauteous evening…”) In the same way, the English sonnet (or Shakespearean sonnet) lends itself more to wit and paradox due to the brevity of the couplet. Thus, as we can see, not only can a poet make use of stanza length to support his intentions, the form itself can often serve to develop that meaning (as with the Sonnet or the Villanelle).
Writers of poetry and prose very often manipulate their diction, grammar, and tone to convey or emphasise certain emotions. For example, a writer’s repeated use of archaic diction and syncope (e.g. ‘ne’er’), when in the context of a passage describing tradition or the past, supports the sense of the passage in that it suggests a certain yearning for what has come before. Paul Goodman’s poem “Birthday Cake” demonstrates the importance of diction and grammar. His use of hurried and wistful phrases, the poem’s lack of punctuation, and the simple, childish syntax (“most loveliest sight” and “too many to blow out / too many to count too many”) implies a childish narrator and therefore a certain obstinacy and wistful disobedience, contributing to the poem’s sense. It is impossible to discuss the linguistics and grammar of poetry without making mention of E.E. Cummings. In his poetry he uses strange grammar and parentheses to emphasise words, create pauses, and also to convey his meaning. In his poem “[i carry your heart with me(i carry it in]” he uses parentheses and a lack of spaces to suggest unity and embrace. A passage’s tone, be it dialectical or flat, can also contribute to its meaning or sense. Tony Hoagland, in his book Real Sofistikashun, cites the poem “Married” by Jack Gilbert as an example of a poem’s tone adding to its meaning. The poem begins: “I came back from the funeral and crawled / around the apartment, crying hard…” A flat and stoical tone is maintained throughout (he uses very few adverbs and adjectives), perhaps suggesting that he has now accepted his wife’s death, or that he realises the absurdity and futility of searching for his wife’s hair. Diction and tone can also contradict the sense of a passage or poem’s words, therefore making it ironic or sarcastic, as in “Ode on the Death of a Favourite Cat Drowned in a Tub of Fishes”. And so, writers are able to use a number of techniques to convey their meaning and emotion, and perhaps this is one reason that we might refer to an extract or poem as ‘poetic’.
Metaphor is a technique found in all writing, although it is certainly more common in poetry. Metaphors have the power of suggesting that which is not necessarily explicit in the sense or the meaning of the words themselves. For example, comparing a child to an animal in chains not only suggests a sense of confinement or entrapment, but it also implies a slightly wild and animalistic desire for liberty. A metaphor has two halves: the object half (the thing being described) and an image half (the thing that is being used as a comparison). When a direct metaphor works well, the two images appear simultaneously in your mind, revealing a number of different layers of comparison between the two. However, many writers do not explicitly compare the object and the image halves; rather, they expect the meaning of the metaphor to be self-evident. For example, in her poem “Mushrooms” Plath uses the metaphor of mushrooms to represent a subtle, subversive and yet powerful feminist movement. Little else could so economically and accurately demonstrate the themes of discretion and suddenness that she clearly wanted to convey. It is in these instances that metaphor comes into its own. Another example is in her poem “Morning Song”; she compares the child to a “New statue.” No other two words could so briefly and effectively express the emotions of distance and alienation that she hoped to communicate. Metaphors, although useful in all types of writing, are perhaps most needed when discussing emotions, since it is emotion that the human mind finds most hard to describe and depict. Maybe this is why Tony Hoagland describes metaphor (incidentally using another metaphor) as the “raw uranium of poetry” – because so often does poetry attempt to describe emotions. Perhaps this combination of economy and complexity of ideas, particularly when concerning emotions, is what we mean when we say something is ‘poetic’.
Metre and rhyme, although occasionally used in prose, are often seen as the two aspects of poetry that differentiate it from other forms of writing. Many people (Dryden in particular) believe that metre and rhyme have inherent, independent value. However, this may not be true. Although the human mind may be pleased by a tending towards order and control, there is no value in poetry completely independent of its sense. I.A. Richards, in Practical Criticism demonstrates this by exchanging all the words of a verse of Milton (the first line being “Yea Truth, and Justice then…” with gibberish (“J. Drootan-Sussting Benn…”). For someone to argue that the mere sound of verse has independently any aesthetic value, they would have to argue that the above gibberish is valuable. Some may argue that this is false, because we can still enjoy poetry read in other languages. This is certainly true, but perhaps the aesthetic enjoyment of foreign poetry comes from the speaker’s inflections as they read the poem, and the emotion that they, knowing what it means, charge the poem with. However, this is not to say that metre and rhyme do not improve a poem. When the two are used to support the meaning and emotion of a poem, they can have a particularly heart-wrenching effect on the reader. Poor poets rigourously adhere to metre so that their poems are perfectly regular; however, it is metrical variation from a norm that produces the most powerful effects. For example, the initial trochee is often used to suggest a suddenness of action, as in Donne’s “Holy Sonnet XIV: “Batter my heart, three person’d God.” [my italics] Poets often use spondees to suggest a slowness of movement or difficulty, as in Pope’s “Sound and Sense” (part of An Essay on Criticism):
“When Ajax strives some rock’s vast weight to throw,
The line too labours, and the words move slow.” [my italics]
Wallace Stevens shows that the removal of feet from lines can suggest lifelessness and monotony: “The jar was gray and bare” (from his poem “Anecdote of the Jar”). Paul Fussell points out that regularity itself can be used to express meaning, but only when used in conjunction with frequent variation (as in the last lines of Milton’s Paradise Lost: “They hand in hand with wandring steps and slow, / Through Eden took thir solitarie way.” The regularity of this line suggests a certain hope for the future, and perhaps even contentment. Particularly in moments of emotional climax, a trochee or spondee can have a particularly exhilarating effect on the reading of a poem. At this point, it is perhaps worth mentioning Gerard Manley Hopkins, famous for his development of what is called ‘Sprung Rhythm’. This metre is highly accentual and seeks to make the poem more forceful and strong. ‘Sprung Rhythm’ often suggests a certain seriousness, awe and amazement that is very suited to Gerard Manley Hopkins’s most frequent subject matter: God’s skilled design of nature. Free verse poets, on the other hand, although they do not have a norm to vary from, can still use metre to convey and support meaning, although it does not necessarily have such a powerful effect as it does in accentual-syllabic verse. Moreover, free verse poets often find methods of creating a pattern from which to vary by, for example, employing anaphora or enumeration.
Rhyme, too, can have meaning. For example, it can often show a semantic connection, or indeed difference, between two words, as when, in his poem “Dover Beach”, Arnold rhymes “seems” and “dreams”, both suggesting falsity and unreality (these rhymes follow from, “Ah, love, let us be true…”) In the same poem he rhymes “plain” and “pain”, perhaps implying the infinite amount of pain within our world (following from, “Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light…”) A change in rhyme scheme can also suggest a different line of argument or topic, as seen in the traditional Petrarchan sonnet (which rhymes abbaabbacdecde – the change from abba to cde marks the volta). When certain metres and rhyme schemes are used together, it can often evoke certain ideas or themes. For example, common metre (a tetrameter followed by a trimeter, rhyming abab) is very nursery-rhyme-like and can often be used to imply childishness. Moreover, the absence of rhyme and metre altogether can in itself support the meaning of a poem. When a poet who frequently writes in iambic pentameter (e.g. Philip Larkin) decides to use free verse for a particular poem (“High Windows”), he certainly has a reason for doing so. The poem describes the liberty of the young, and so it would be very unusual for the poet to follow strict rules and tradition. This is also seen in Wallace Stevens’s poem “Disillusionment of Ten O’Clock” which again describes liberation. Thus, we see that, although metre and rhyme may not have any innate value, they can certainly be used to contribute to and support the meaning of a poem. Moreover, they can also evoke certain emotions and increase the weight and power of certain words or phrases, thus augmenting the feelings they express.
Poetry is, therefore, a very economical form. It has several layers of meaning and various methods of expressing that meaning and emotion, including form, sound, diction, and metaphor. Perhaps what we mean when we describe a poem, passage, or extract as ‘poetic’ is that it is something that makes full use of its different layers of meaning to accurately express the feelings and emotions of the scene or event. One would find it hard to argue that a sentence from a Biology textbook that began with a trochee was, because of this, ‘poetic’. It is surely only when the intention of the writer is to evoke an emotional response and to bring an image to life that we can safely describe something as ‘poetic’. Because emotions are so difficult to accurately describe, poetry, as a form that tends towards economy, has become the conventional medium for expressing them. Perhaps it is only through this economy that emotions can be amply expressed.