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What is a poem 1: why isn’t it prose?

I’ve come to the conclusion that I will never write my great philosophical tome on the nature of poetry. So instead I’m going to put a few sketch marks down as individual posts. The question which interests me here is the brutally simple one – what is a poem? That is to say what is a poem as opposed to all the other things we say or put on paper that are not poems.

There is plenty I’m not going to argue for properly in these notes: tough. One more or less unargued premiss is that any kind or sample of language can be a poem. Put another way if you tried to define ‘poem’ in terms of features like rhyme, assonance, rhythm – or simile, metaphor, image – or any other characteristic which limited the type of language a poem could contain you would be bound to fail. The easiest demonstration of this fact is the ‘found poem’ – a sample of language which in its original format and use was not a poem. (In fact found poems tend to be found where language is least ‘poetic’ – instruction manuals, lists, hospital signs.)

That, it seems to me, is our clue. The poem lies not in the kind of language used but in the pedestal we put it on. On this view ‘poem’ is a language act, a particular way of approaching a piece of language for the hearer/reader, which the writer/speaker/singer activates by saying ‘this is a poem’. We all know how to say ‘this is a poem’ of course, generally we use a lot of white space and lines that don’t go all the way to the right hand margin. We can also use a particular tone of voice and methods of intonation – or simply be in the setting of a poetry evening, standing in front of the microphone.

I don’t want to deny that particular ways of patterning the surface of language are important to what we call ‘poetry’. In a sense found poems (and perhaps prose poems) lie at the outer edges of a category centred on very patterned language. However the form of pattern we use varies depending on the culture and times we live in. It is going to be important to look at the, if you like, ‘overpatterning’ of language in the typical poem and the reasons for it. (‘Overpatterning’ because of course prose and all sorts of other language uses are also patterned – it is just that poems are typically jammed with pattern – think of the complex formal rules of  Shakespearean Sonnets or Japanese Haiku). A really good answer to the ‘what is a poem’ question should explain why this is a pervasive feature of poetries across cultures and times.

That ‘really good answer’ has to go beyond the simple observation that a poem is a kind of language act rather than a kind of language. We need to know what kind of a language act it is.

If we go back to the classic formulation of speech act theory we come across obvious heavy hitters – questions, commands, promises, apologies. In these cases there is a strong argument that something gets ‘done’ in the utterance itself – and that the relation of the meaning of these utterances to truth conditions is not the same as the relation that propositions have to their truth conditions. That’s verging on philosophy speak, which I don’t wnat to go too far in to, but it gives an idea of the kind of answer I want to find to the ‘what is a poem’ question. A poem isn’t a statement, or a command or a promise, but we might be able to come to a view of what its peculiar role is – and with luck that might explain some of our puzzles about poetry to make us better readers, writers and (heaven help us) critics.