Poetry is a fluid form of linguistic art that uses the strategic combination of words and phrases to form thought provoking and meaningful works. It would be presumptuous to delineate the limitations for what is considered poetry based solely on the understanding of one person, society, or historical perspective as the inherent nature of these creative works means that they are a product of the society within which they were created. The current “traditional” understanding of what society considers to be poetry is defined through a societal or institutional validation by which the people who create and read poetry are the ones that judge the merits of a work as it pertains to being considered poetry. The societal validation that is required to recognise poetry, and the linguistic constraints that are imposed on such works, have brought rise a movement of challenging this traditional definition to highlight the arbitrary nature of the constraints. These challenges to the institution of poetry are what keeps the art form evolving and maintaining it’s ability to speak to the issues of the day, while allowing authors to find new ways to express themselves.
In a modern context the word “poetry” comes from the Greek “poieo”, meaning “I create”, and is described as “an art form which uses the expressive qualities of human language to convey meaning, provoke though, or challenge ideas” (“What is Poetry”). Poetry existed in lyrical auditory form as a way of conveying information that pre-dated many forms of writing. Even the Greek use of poetry is a relatively modern outlook when you consider that people had been communicating thousands of years before writing or even the Ancient Greeks came around. Only with the recent advent of globalization has there been any contact between previously distant civilizations which never had the opportunity to interact. Even with this separation there are many examples of poetry from a wide range of civilizations dating back thousands of years. These civilizations developed their own forms of poetry completely independent of one another. Civilizations tailored the structure and use of the poetry to the needs and issues pertaining to that specific society at that point in time.
Early Greek poetry, as described by Aristotle, consisted of the epic, the comic, and the tragic (Halliwell). Later Greek works emphasised epic poetry, lyric poetry and dramatic poetry as the main genres. Greek poetry was used extensively as part of the creative aspects of Greek culture with many poetic works being dramatic plays that were performed to an audience. The work of Aristotle and many other Greek poets of the time would go on to be highly influential throughout the Islamic Golden Age in the Middle East and the Renaissance in Europe.
The earliest existing collection of Chinese poetry is the Classic of P__oetry. This collection of 305 poems and songs is comprised of works dating from the 7th to 10th century BC. Classical Chinese poetry consists of both literary and oral components. The written works were the literary component of their poetry while the oral poetry tended to be folk songs and ballads. The poetry was used to convey laws as well as pass on history. The style and emphasis of these works developed and evolved chronologically with the changes in the Chinese Dynasty Eras (“Shijing”).
While neither ancient Greeks nor the ancient Chinese had knowledge of the others existence or works, both were utilizing forms of poetry. This exemplifies the idea that poetic expression transcends definitional, cultural, or historical barriers in such a way that the idea of poetry is part of inherent human creative expression and not tied to a cultural or societal definition or construct.
It is foolish to try and impose the definition of poetry as it is seen in a 21st century Western context to the literary and auditory works of all peoples, in all places, and in all times. Any form of restrictions on what is considered poetry is unfairly limiting the creativity of writers who may consider their works poetry from their own perspective. With so many individual, societal, and historical influences on poetry our ability to learn, innovate, and evolve the art form is predicated on our ability to question the definition of what is considered poetry.
The Oxford and Webster dictionaries define poetry as the “Productions of a poet”, “writing that formulates a concentrated imaginative awareness of experience in language chosen and arranged to create a specific emotional response through meaning, sound, and rhythm” and “Literary work in which the expression of feelings and ideas is given intensity by the use of distinctive style and rhythm” (“Definition of Poetry in English.”). The similarities between the definitions currently used to describe poetry say a lot about the societal forces that influence the definitions themselves. These definitions are a good example of a form of literary dogma ingrained in society that limits the extent to which people consider things poetry. This form of social myopia has individuals, and society as a whole, so caught up in their own activities and progress that they fail to recognise that they lack unilateral control over the workings of the world.
In a modern 21st century context interacting within society is a very social activity. Some of the strongest influences in peoples decision-making process’ relate to conformity, validation, and acceptance. People often look to conformity through their desire to find security within a specific group or culture. Through the process of conformity people learn to interact with other within the established framework that society uses to operate. A large part of validation is the idea that “when we are uncertain about what to do we will look to other people to guide us”(Akil II). This idea of social conformity is very applicable to subject of poetry as it is often a reflection of the society itself. Much of what is considered poetry throughout the 20th and 21st century is part of a systemic institutional validation of literary works by society.
People look for themselves and their works, to be accepted and recognised by society as part of the need for validation. In order to achieve this recognition authors follow the established norms to create a works that fits into the existing definition of what is considered poetry by society.
Even poets who know they themselves are great writers, and those who have created great works seek to be recognized for their work through this institutional validation.
The unwillingness to conform to the social norms within society puts those individuals at risk of social rejection. The rejection by a social group or society can be tremendously detrimental as humans are extremely social in nature. The experience of rejection can lead to social isolation, loneliness, depression, aggression, and being more susceptible to future rejections (McDougall).
The personal and social risks of standing out, breaking away, or distancing one-self from the norms of society are a testament to the tenacity of those who do so and the work that they create.
Many poets choose to break away from the traditional constraints of poetry baking changes from within the institution. These poets recognise that even though they are looking to push the envelope of poetic work, it is sometimes easier to facilitate that change when one has established credibility within a group. Having established themselves as a reputable member of a social group these individuals can leverage their influence to effect the change they are looking to make by directing the existing system rather than fighting against it.
Two of the main movements that are driving change within the realm of modern poetry are that of conceptualism and the avant-garde.
The term avant-garde can apply to activities of an experimental or innovative nature in arts, culture, and politics. The term originated from French for the front flank of an advancing army, the forerunner who paved the way for everyone else (“avant-garde.”). In this sense, the avant-garde are considered to be literally ahead of their time. In the Theory of the Avant-Garde by Peter Bürger he indicated that the purpose of the avant-garde was to “radically questions the very principle of art in bourgeois society according to which the individual is considered the creator of the work of art” (51). The term avant-garde has faced mixed reception among those groups or individuals who are at the innovative forefront of their field. Many who are considered to be part of the avant-garde were never directly part of a group, or actively avoided being labelled one. As such, “not every ‘movement’ is an avant-garde and not every avant-garde poet or artist is associated with a movement”(Perloff). In this sense even those who would be considered avant-garde were reluctant to restrict, or be restricted by the definitions of a social institution. These leaders directed the way, and broke new ground on unexplored areas of poetry which has helped make it what it is today.
Language poetry is one prominent example of the avant-garde movement. This form or poetry looked to bring the art of poetry back to its origins. The concept was based on the idea that “language should dictate meaning rather than the other way around” (Love). “The Language poets broke sentences into disjointed phrases and broke phrases into words in order to cleanse language of corruption and banality” (Love). Many language poets focused on the idea that the modern use of language had left it dull, and that if there is nothing left at the end then it is part of a fruitless exercise. Language poetry “invites participation, rejects the authority of the writer over the reader and thus, by analogy, the authority implicit in other (social, economic, cultural) hierarchies”(Love). This concept is a very straightforward example of people and social groups utilizing the literature to take a stand against the institutional definitions imposed by society.
Conceptual poetry is a literary movement that started in the early part of the 20th century. Many conceptualist writers describe their work as “uncreative writing” where “appropriation is often used as a means to create new work, focused more on the initial concept rather than the final product of the poem”(“A Brief Guide”). In a very extreme form conceptual poetry is considered “process-oriented and non-expressive” where large sections of the work are sometimes not actually intended to be read. “pure conceptualism negates the need for reading in the traditional textual sense—one does not need to ‘read’ the work as much as think about the idea of the work”(“A brief Guide”).
The often ridiculous restrictions that conceptual poets choose to place on their works can be considered part of a commentary on the seemingly arbitrary nature of the restrictions society demands of poetic works. “Nothing quite prepared the poetry world for the claim, now being made by conceptual poets…that it is possible to write ‘poetry’ that is entirely ‘unoriginal’ and nevertheless qualifies as poetry”(“A Brief Guide”). The works of conceptual poets, while often filled with irrelevant text, are a critique by the authors on how they understand the uses, meanings, and requirements of poetry in our society.
One of the most famous examples of conceptual poetic works are those created by the French Oulipo Ouvroir de Littérature Potentielle organization. This “textual laboratory” was started in 1960 by Raymond Queneau as an organization “dedicated to investigating ‘severely restrictive methods’ of literary composition”(Starnino). The flagship work of their organization is the 1957 La disparition by George Perec. This 300 page novel neglected to use words that make use of the letter ‘e’, the most common letter in the French language. In the Introduction to The Oulipo and Combinational Art one of their members Jacques Roubaud wrote that the organizations “declared aim was to replace literary values with new traditions, through the discovery of constraints as ‘productive’ as those which for centuries had ruled over the world of letters”(Starnino). The implications of this ability to change the constraints with which literature is governed means to question the seemingly arbitrary nature and necessity of the constraints currently in place.
Each of the five chapters of Christian Bök’s conceptual work Eunoia are written using only one of the five vowels. This book is an example of a quad-vocalic lipogram and is based on many of the same principles of conceptualism as the works of Oulipo. Much like the works of Oulipo and its flagship effort La disparition, Eunoia is a product of the intrigue that conceptual poets find in self-confinement. The more constrained the restrictions they limit themselves, to the more motivated they are to complete the work, and more spectacular it is upon their success. It is through these increasingly more complex and inventive restrictions that “Oulipians have created so many new, unusual options of phrase-making”(Starnino). So while these Oulipoian constraints may themselves not provide a very reusable form of literature, they do continue to bring innovation to modern poetry in their ability to challenge the structure and formation of the literature being manipulated.
There are those within the poetry world that do not consider much of the work of conceptual poets to even be poetry. The claim by Marjorie Perloff from her introduction to the Unoriginal Genius that “one does not need to ‘read’ the [conceptual poem] as much as think about the idea of the work” is disputed by some. In his analysis of Christian Bök’s Eunoia V_owel Movements: Pointless Toil and Empty Productivity_ Carmine Starnino makes the argument that a “constraint should never be appreciated as an object of artistry in its own right”. He makes the assertion that when it comes to good poetry we “celebrate [it] for the satisfying way the poets have exploited those constraints to convey meaning”. The statement really begs the question as to whether poetry needs to convey meaning through text that is used to create it, or whether the process, constraints, and resourcefulness of the final product have the ability to convey meaning in a poetic manner in their own right.
As society, the people within it, and the issues that are found to be important to it change, so will the structure and content of the poetry that is created. This will also mean that over time society will continue to modify the definition of what is considered poetry. Poets will continue to struggle with the concept of institutional validation. While those who break away from the traditional norms seem to be foregoing this personal validation, they are in fact just finding it in another social group. The outcome of the debate over whether the literary works of conceptualism and the avant-garde actually qualifies as poetry is largely irrelevant. The important aspect of this argument is the contribution it makes to creating a debate about the definition of poetry. The criticism brought forth by conceptual poetry has been able to create a dialogue where both sides can voice their opinions about the definition of poetry and the seemingly arbitrary nature of the constraints placed on literature. Even Starnino admits that when looking at the arduous process of creating many conceptual works we sometimes “need to witness such self-punishing acts of technical adroitness to shake up our cherished idea of poetry”.
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