On genre and the dimensionality of poetry

How does one describe a poem?

A genre is a set of creative outputs that fit a given set of criteria. Genres are useful as a sort of shorthand when describing a thing of art: instead of noting, for example, all of the objects depicted in a still-life that aren’t people or land-features, we call it a still-life and get on to describing how the objects interrelate to each other on the canvas. If you ask me what kind of painting I’m working on, and I say, “a still-life,” you have an expectation of certain elements the painting will contain. If you happen to be an agent and try to sell the painting later, you’ll say to your prospective buyers, “It’s a still-life,” and whether the buyer is over the phone or standing in the gallery, they’ll know whether they’ll like it or not based on whether they like still-lifes. In the same way, they can call you up and ask if you have any still-lifes for sale right now, and get a simple yes-or-no answer for it. This is the first kind of genre, and it applies well within separate types of fundamentally-different media, such as painting, sculpture, film, or the written word.

A poem, obviously, is in this last category, and for some reason its designation is hairier than others’. People refer to all sorts of art, or even dispassionate events, as poetry; dancing is called “poetry in motion,” for example. I think the confusion is caused in part by the nature of writing as a medium, namely in that it captures thoughts more clearly and communicably than other art forms. While a picture can be “worth a thousand words,” as the old cliché goes, when those words are actually written out they can contain shades of meaning impossible to capture in the picture itself, at least as quickly as they can be absorbed in writing. It seems as though writing is akin to the fundamental nature of thought, or at least of spoken language, which our thought is steeped in.

So we know what writing is. What is a poem? Especially in a world with such forms as prose poetry, flash fiction, short-shorts, lyrical essays, lyrical ballads, et cetera, what makes a poem a poem?

I read an essay once that lamented the unidimensionality of writing. It posited that prose is really just a long, wrapped line of text that’s bound by time—when you read a novel, for example, you really must start at the beginning and read through to the end, in order. Some newer forms of fiction are changing this, such as the Choose-Your-Own-Adventure genre in the 1970s and 80s, or hyperfiction found online, which raises the question for me if these newer forms could be considered on some level to be poetry.

This is because poetry has more than one dimension, due to its linear nature—those line breaks are intentional, and the poem can’t just fit into any-sized book or web page. If prose is a liquid, filling any container it’s placed in with a constant volume, poetry is more like a crystallized form of prose, or to put it another way, poetry has between one and two dimensions. I wouldn’t say that poetry has fully two dimensions, except for some of the more conceptually visual stuff that I’d call a word-picture anyway, because from line to line that unidimensionality of prose remains. Poetry has a higher dimensionality than prose, though, because it’s crystallized there on the page; this fractal-dimensionality of poetry has interesting side effects on the genre itself.

For one thing, poetry isn’t as bound by time as prose is. It can, as Marianne Boruch writes, resist “narrative sequence,” or “the forward press of time itself,” due to its repetitions and diversions, which are in turn made possible or more apparent by its line breaks. It’s able to meditate on a subject, or expand on it lyrically, exploring the emotions connected with the images in the poem, or the connections between images. Through repitition of sounds, the poem builds meaning through resonance and rhyming, something that’s harder to do in prose. Take, for example, the first lines of “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock:”

Let us go then, you and I,When the evening is spread out against the skyLike a patient etherized upon a table;Let us go, through certain half-deserted streets,The muttering retreatsOf restless nights in one-night cheap hotelsAnd sawdust restaurants with oyster-shells:Streets that follow like a tedious argumentOf insidious intentTo lead you to an overwhelming question….Oh, do not ask, “What is it?”Let us go and make our visit.

And here it is again, without line breaks:

Let us go then, you and I, when the evening is spread out against the sky like a patient etherized upon a table; let us go, through certain half-deserted streets, the muttering retreats of restless nights in one-night cheap hotels and sawdust restaurants with oyster-shells: streets that follow like a tedious argument of insidious intent to lead you to an overwhelming question…. Oh, do not ask, “What is it?” Let us go and make our visit.

The end-rhymes that do so much for the sound of the poem are gone, and so part of the meaning of the poem—its obsessive self-consciousness, its paranoia—are gone as well. Additionally, line breaks act as punctuation in the entirety of this fragment; without them, the meaning becomes obscured in the long first sentence of the poem.

Perhaps due to this dwelling on scene, or on all aspects of a single scene at one time, poetry tends to be heavy on images, or lyrical. I think this is what’s generally meant when someone describes a dance as “poetic,” or a story or anything else: I think they really mean “lyrical,” or maybe “beautiful.” The images form sort of a narrative as the reader moves through them, as Cesare Pavese says, that’s nevertheless different than a traditional narrative: this “image narrative” jumps from image to image not by a logical progression but by the resonances between the images that run underneath them, on almost a subliminal plane. Almost without noticing, the reader of a poem is taken on an emotional journey that’s not necessarily connected to the images of the poem, themselves.

Poetry is a manipulation of emotion, or a communication of it. Prose has the space, the time to describe what’s going on, even if the author stands by the old adage of “show, don’t tell.” Showing in prose inherently involves more telling than poetry does, as poetry communicates a feeling itself. This definition may be broad enough to include certain dance performances or paintings, but that’s okay. I’m of the opinion that the more useful genre distinctions are those which describe the thing technically: verse, for example, or lyrical. Poetry is almost a value judgement, and that makes me a little uncomfortable.