What other ways has poetry been defined?

Different Poetic Paths

Poetry has been defined as a way of writing. In the early 1960s, Robin Skelton writes that poetry is difficult to define. It is well known that between poets, critics, and the captivated readers of poetry there’s been staggering disagreements. One could argue, that a poem “works”, simply because it affects someone else in a “deeply private level”.[1] Skelton, Poetry, pg. 1
However, once we enter the “professional” arena, it is not about this “feeling” but about form and execution. For example, Robin Skelton writes that the following poem is not an achieved poem but could that it become one:

Fire phoenix burning into life. 
Fireflies and crimson petals. 
Fire flames signifying presence of holy spirit. 
Symbol of spiritual experience. 
Symbol of human love. 
Capable of both great destruction and great service. 
Fire, like life, burns itself up leaving only dust and ashes.[2]Skelton, Poetry, pg. 86 

One could easily critique any poem and find ways to improve what’s being said, but what is most difficult is not the achievement of the form but the authenticity to be truly oneself. There will always be a pull and push between the said and how it is being said. And the more we want to be precise with what we say, the more it resembles philosophy and logic. The more we want to be imprecise, the more it resembles a surrealist dream.

The poet’s mastery comes into place when we find the perfect balance between abstraction & concretion, rationality & irrationality, and logic & conundrums. We could define poetry through poetry and that’s what Eric Oakley Parrott did. He wrote a book full of poems to explain what poetry is, for example:


jumping naked into a barrel 
of razor blades, 
a distress message from Hell, 
acting one’s heart out to a sphinx, 
gardening in concrete, 
an incurable disease.[3] Parrott, How to Be Well-Versed in Poetry, pg. 4
Philip A. Nicholson 


A POET needs… 
the optimism of an alchemist,
the gregariousness of a leper,
the patience of Stonehenge, 
the stamina of Tarzan, 
psychiatry. [4] Parrott, How to Be Well-Versed in Poetry, pg. 4 
Philip A. Nicholson

The main difference between the fire poem and these two is the use of more concrete images. While Skelton’s example uses the words “symbol of human love”, Nicholson uses the word “optimism of an alchemist.” The abstract is followed by a concrete in Nicholson’s poems, whereas Skelton’s example follows an abstract with another abstract.

The question would be, is it true that Skelton’s example is not achieved poem whereas Nicholson’s is? The answer to this question can be found in the philosopher Martin Heidegger’s Poetry, Language, Thought. Heidegger writes that poetry turns ourselves toward the unprotected. It is the poetry that makes us vulnerable that converts the unholy to wholeness:

“The more venturesome are the poets, but poets whose song turns our unprotected being into the Open. Because they convert the parting against the Open and inwardly recall its unwholesomeness into a sound whole, these poets sing the healing whole in the midst of the unholy.”[5] Heidegger, Poetry, Language, Thought, pg. 37

Does Skelton’s example provide this sensation of being into unprotectedness to you? That’s where we could find the answer to this question. It is up to you. Does it make you turn yourself into the unprotected Open?

— Extracts from The Being Poetry Troupe conversations, Tuesday, July 4, 2017.

Skelton, Robin. Poetry. St. Paul’s House, 1963.
Parrott, Eric Oakley. How to Be Well-Versed in Poetry. Penguin, 1990.
Heidegger, Martin. Poetry, Language, Thought. HarperCollins, 2001.

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