Wednesday, March 17, 2010

What is Poetry?

I didn't get my hands on a copy of Spies of Mississippi in time to read and write about it this week, so instead I've thrown together a post discussing poetry. My comments on Spies of Mississippi will appear next week. Also, since the copy I'm reading is an uncorrected proof that doesn't include illustrations or back end matter, I would love it if anyone who has read the final version could provide some comments!

What is poetry; and if it is going to be judged against other books for a nonfiction award, then how do you judge it?

The New Oxford American Dictionary that we keep behind the reference desk at my library has the following definitions:

poem: a piece of writing that partakes of the nature of both speech and song ...

poetry: literary work in which special intensity is given to the expression of feelings and ideas by the use of distinctive styles and rhythm

Hmm. After looking in the dictionary, I turned next to my near-constant companion, the Internet.

From Wikipedia I found this tidbit:

Poetry (from the Greek "ποίησις", poiesis, a "making") is a form of literary art in which language is used for its aesthetic and evocative qualities in addition to, or in lieu of, its apparent meaning.

Okay, none of these definitions is very helpful at defining what poetry is, but it does tell me that the way a poem sounds and how/what it makes the reader feel are both important to whether it is successful, or not.

That seems simple enough. When reading a poem, does it have rhythm? Does it evoke strong ideas or feelings?

The following suggestions about poetry come from

1. Poetry may well be the art of the unsayable.
2. Poems are an act of discovery, and require immense effort — to write and to be understood.
3. A poem is something unique to its author, but is also created in the common currency of its period: style, preoccupations, shared beliefs.
4. Poems are not created by recipe, or by pouring content into a currently acceptable mould.

This would suggest that poetry should seem fresh and current, and should avoid cliches. I'm not so sure about the "immense effort" part, although I know from my school days that writing good peotry is hard. Should it be hard to read, though? Perhaps poetry should say something that may be difficult to express through conventional prose.

How do these questions correspond to the criteria for the YALSA nonfiction award? The eligibility criteria for the YALSA nonfiction award include, "excellent writing, research, presentation and readability for young adults."

Presentation and readability seem pretty straightforward. Is the book attractive? Will young adults get the poetry? The part about "excellent writing" seems fairly easy, as well. Perhaps when judging "excellent writing" in poetry one should look at its rhythm, the feelings and ideas that it evokes, and it's originality. But what about research? How much research goes into writing poetry?

Biographies written in verse, like Margarita Engle's Poet Slave of Cuba and Stephanie Hemphill's Your Own, Sylvia would definitely require research. So would poetry collections like Engle's Surrender Tree, which is about real events in the history of Cuba's struggle for independence. But what about works like Francesca Lia Block's collection of love poems, How to (Un) Cage a Girl? Shouldn't works like this be exempt from the "research" requirement?

While I believe that poetry in general should be eligible for the YALSA award, I also believe that there are some exceptions. Novels written in verse, such as works by Ellen Hopkins (Crank, Glass, Indentical) and Sonya Sones (Stop Pretending, What My Mother Doesn't Know), are cataloged with fiction. These are fictional narratives that just happen to be written in verse. It makes sense for these to be eligible for fiction awards, but not a nonfiction award.

A final word on poetry: On, I found this neat statement by freelance writer Mark Flanagan, "Poetry is a lot of things to a lot of people ... defining poetry is like grasping at the wind - once you catch it, it's no longer wind."

Your comments on poetry?

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