Poetry is...

...indefinable. The prolific attempts to define it probably tell us more about its nature than any one definition. Nevertheless, there are some great lines trying to fill in this preeminent blank. Here’s a goodly number of them. The list doesn't include Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s line from the first in the House of Life sonnet sequence: “A sonnet is a moment's monument.” That to me is as good a definition as any.

Indefinability, though, is a palpable quality, not the absence of a quality. Saying we don't know the nature of something is not the same as saying it has no nature. American poet Marianne Moore, admired by TS Eliot, said “I see no reason for calling my work poetry except that there is no other category in which to put it.” Poetry shouldn't be a basket into which anything indefinable can go. The same applies to art. Art is not that which falls short of reality but that which goes beyond it.

Wordless as the flight of birds

I came across this poem, ‘Ars Poetica’ by Archibald Macleish, while doing some work on poetics and poetic theory. I think it beautifully captures what a poem is or should be, without tedious explanations or what the Greeks called periergia. Macleish (1892-1982) was among other things America's Librarian of Congress. 

A poem should be palpable and mute
As a globed fruit,

As old medallions to the thumb,

Silent as the sleeve-worn stone
Of casement ledges where the moss has grown--

A poem should be wordless
As the flight of birds.


A poem should be motionless in time
As the moon climbs,

Leaving, as the moon releases
Twig by twig the night-entangled trees,

Leaving, as the moon behind the winter leaves,
Memory by memory the mind--

A poem should be motionless in time
As the moon climbs.


A poem should be equal to:
Not true.

For all the history of grief
An empty doorway and a maple leaf.

For love
The leaning grasses and two lights above the sea--

A poem should not mean
But be.

Things as they are

A bit of a departure today.  Here's a very short extract from a longish poem by Wallace Stevens based on a painting by Pablo Picasso.  It's called “The Man with the Blue Guitar.” 

You can read more of the poem here, but I think this excerpt contains an extraordinarily profound and succinct definition of art. 

They said,

“You have a blue guitar,

You do not play things as they are.”

      The man replied,

      “Things as they are

      Are changed upon the blue guitar.”