Saturday, March 07, 2009

Respectful Misapplication?

What exactly do people who don't write poetry or read poetry think they mean when they say "poetry"?

In yesterday's Star-Ledger, there's a review by Bradley Bambarger in which the word "poet" appears 3 times: in the headline, in a prominent caption, and in the first paragraph; twice it appears in the phrase "avant-Americana poet". To get something out of the way, it's a fine review, well-written and multidimensional. But in assuming that the use of the word poet is a nod to an excellent use of language, then combining with the phrase "avant-Americana" (which means what, pushing the bounds of folk music?), I lose touch with my definition of the word "poet". I think of a poet as someone who works language the way a carpenter works wood: to produce objects of great beauty in which there is clear evidence of an awareness and style on the part of the practitioner.

I read an excerpt lyric, and tried to apply my definition of "poet". Here are the lines quoted in the review: "I can't stay here to hold your hand / I've been away for so long, I've lost my taste for home / That's a dirty final feeling, to be dangling from the ceiling / From when the roof came crashing down ... The next time you say forever, I'm going to punch you in the face."

Unexpected? Clearly. Powerful application of language? You bet. Make me want hear the song to hear how these challenging lyrics are applied to melody? Absolutely. Poetic? Not by my definition. I'm not even sure how "avant" this is, especially as poetry. Dark, confessional, narrative poetry of this sort is hardly at the forefront of art. I'll trust Bambarger on the Americana reference; I'm not a scholar there.

Pursuing my confusion, I turned as I usually do to the dictionaries at hand for specificity and clarity. In the Random House definition set available at, aside from the obvious "a person who composes poetry", we find the following definition of "poet": "a person who has the gift of poetic thought, imagination, and creation, together with eloquence of expression".

OK. Interesting. Now "poet" applies to a way of thinking and away of expressing that thinking together. But the definition is still recursive: it requires the word "poetic". I'll spare you all the lists and links, but RH @ lets us down there again: in 10 definitions, the only one that excises the word "poet" uses instead the phrase "literature in verse form".

What do we mean by poet? More importantly, what do persons who neither practice nor read poetry mean by poet? People tend, I think, to apply the word as compliment ("poetry in motion", "that was pure poetry"), but I bet the same people couldn't define the term in a way that didn't require the wrinkling of their noses or the use of a grade-school rhyme to complete their definition.

Here's what I think I mean when I say poet: An artist who, using language as their primary medium, applies verbal, visual, or aural effects to evoke impact beyond simple comprehension of the receiver. There are a number of ways this can evidence itself, of course, from Poetry Out Loud to VizPo, from Andrew Motion to Ron Silliman. It's a wide enough net to include Charles Bukowski (barely, I think), Amiri Baraka, and (depending on who you listen to) Billy Collins, but it lets out great songwriters for whom music is the medium, and it lets out those who practice rhyme and meter in the style of their 11th grade English teachers without trying to find something more in it than ABBA BCCB.

What do you think? Am I myopic? Off-base? Compulsive? Trying to apply engineering precision to language again? Wouldn't be the first time on that last one.

I just think the title should mean something. And after one morning's research, I can't satisfy myself that it does.


LORENZO said...

Speaking of 11th grade English class, I am reminded of the quote-
"What's in a name, a rose by any other name..." I often find these days that folks call themselves many things they are not. On another note- remember the t-shirts from the 70's (when we were young) Jim Morrison- An American Poet. Was he a poet or some dude whacked out on drugs in a rock band? I enjoy your posts, they make me think.

David V said...

Thanks for the good word, Lorenzo. I have a younger cousin who was "real into" Morrison as a poet for a while. At least she was reading....