What is at stake in/when defining poetry?

When new acquaintances ask what I study, I often tell them, “poetry that doesn’t look like poetry.” Though my response might seem glib, the sentiment is sincere: I find myself drawn to poetry that unshackles that same term from its traditional denotation. The field of modern and contemporary poetry is full of language that doesn't behave: fixed forms are abandoned for open fields, words are rendered illegible, standardized grammar is disrupted, letters stray from counterparts that would give them meaning, the page is replaced by the screen, and nonsemantic sounds fill basement bars. So why do we still call it poetry? — Katie L. Price

Respondents: Amy Catanzano, Jacob Edmond, Bob Perelman, Brian M. Reed 


A response by Amy Catanzano

Perhaps the most novel quality of poetry is its resistance to definition. There are always claims upon poetry, but poetry keeps resisting. Why? Because poetry is an inquiry into definition itself. Poetry is like a dictionary that contains only definitions for the word “dictionary.” Defining poetry is like defining the known universe within the multiverse: we must consider the dark matter. Quantum mechanics demonstrates that a subatomic particle does not exist until the moment of measurement, and that the momentum and position of a particle can be predicted in terms of probability rather than certainty. Poetry, too, comes into existence when measured and cannot be defined with certainty. In physics, an observation should take into account the observer and the instruments that are used to make the observation. When we make claims for what poetry is, we are making claims for how poetry can be valued or devalued. We cannot say with certainty how poetry can be valued without making a claim for what poetry is outside of valuation; in this way, poetry functions like particles function in a quantum superposition. Contexts such as form, content, procedure, lyricism, abstraction, subjectivity, semiotics, lineation, narration, emotion, identity, politics, urgency, agency, and mysticism are often invoked in claims upon poetry. But quantum mechanics teaches us that these contexts are invoked within the uncertain experience of the now, or what Alfred Jarry calls the Imaginary Present. Complex poems extend the perceived limits of poetry, making the Imaginary Present more novel, which redefines and extends spacetime itself. This is why the avant-garde’s challenge to normative artistic practice represents a direct challenge to consensus reality. Quantum mechanics, too, challenges ordinary conceptions of reality by way of its refutation of the Newtonian scientific method. Consider the Hubble space telescope, which, by looking back into time through space, compiles pictures of the known universe to depict how the known universe looked nine billion years ago to now. It is a beautiful composite picture. While Hubble can only describe the known universe relative to the position of technology on the International Space Station above Earth, it exposes the limits of our understanding of spacetime more than conveying a description of the universe. Poetry, like the universe, is expanding as the space between galaxies is getting bigger, and this expansion is happening at accelerating rates. Sometimes poetry is the act of moving in a direction we did not think of before the poem. Poetry can be a spacetime ship piloted by the Principle of Indeterminacy. Poetry is like a photograph when its subject position is the paper or the pixel. Poetry, when italicized, is a literary magazine published by The Poetry Foundation. Poetry, in its defiance of the narrow, in its anarchistic quantum jumps, keeps asking, “What is poetry?” We respond with poems and poetics, including poems that do not seem like poems and poetics that do not seem like poetics. These poems and these poetics, especially, are what is at stake when defining poetry.

A response by Jacob Edmond

it is not ryming and versing that maketh Poesie: One may be a Poet without versing, and a versefier without Poetrie. — Philip Sidney

What matters in defining poetry is not the definition per se but the oppositional or diversifying force that definition making or definition defying can achieve. These days, at least to the kids in the town where I live, “versing” means opposing, rather than rhythmic compositionas in, “we’re versing you in football.” Perhaps punningly anticipating this usage, Sidney’s “Defence” has its oppositional thrust (those ballad makers — the “ragged rymers,” whom Spenser also scorned — are not real poets!), as well as expansionary tendencies (it doesn’t have to be verse to be poetry!).

Several centuries later, the rise of structuralism was not just about applying a linguistic paradigm to the entire realm of human culture, but was equally — though this is still not widely recognized — a consequence of seeing everything as poetry. Here, I have in mind not Saussure, but Roman Jakobson, whose structuralism emerged in part out of an approach to poetry that attributed “poetic function,” or “poeticity” (poetičnost), to the basic structure of language. Jakobson’s identification of poetic function with the doubleness of the sign made all sign systems — the cultural totality that is the horizon of structuralism — potentially poetry.[1] This move, of course, was itself originally provoked by the need to explain how the strange zaum trans-sense compositions of Velimir Khlebnikov and Aleksei Kruchenykh could be poems.

In the last century or so, however, much of what has been at stake in defining poetry has concerned not the Tzaras and Kruchenykhs of this world but the attempts to claim, appropriate, or otherwise include vast swathes of linguistic traditions — from shige 诗歌 in China to hain-teny in Madagascar — within the Western tent of poetry.[2] Though these expanding definitions of poetry didn’t so much break Western writers — such as Pound, Olson, and Rothenberg — out of the Western box as put more in the box, redefining poetry was and is a spur to overthrowing Anglo-European hegemony.

In Jamaica in the mid-1960s, for example, Kamau (then Edward) Brathwaite outraged some in the literary establishment by attempting to present Rastafarian riddim as poetry.[3] This moment of definitional tension depended on a particular media revolution (new recording and multi-tracking machinery supported a reimagining of cultural production in music and poetry as remix and iteration) and on a particular postcolonial moment — the clash between an Afro-centric decolonizing pop culture and reactionary, neocolonial attempts to preserve a threatened European tradition.

Moments of definitional contestation, encounter, and change can thus emerge from, on the one hand, new applications of the term poetry or, on the other, extensions of poetics to thinking about language and the world at large. In the (primarily) North American Anglophone scene of Jacket2, for example, acts of institutional experimentation — here one might cite, inter alia, Vanessa Place, Kenneth Goldsmith, Gauss-PDF­, Cecilia Corrigan, and Felix Bernstein­ — perform and extend the institution of the poet and at the same time they turn attention to the modes of composition and arrangement available in their particular technological, media, and cultural context, especially the economies of celebrity and attention that have long shaped US culture and that find new inflections in the age of social media.[4]

Making and unmaking definitions of poetry may be a centuries-old practice, but defining poetry remains a way to challenge reigning cultural values. Redefining poetry can also highlight, à la Jakobson, how language — only some of which is called poetry, shige, hain-teny, etc. — acts on the world. In other words, radical changes in how poetry is defined matter not because they make anything potentially poetry but because they can make us look at everything in a new way.

[1] Roman Jakobson, “Co je poesie?” [What is poetry?], Volné směry 30 (1933/34): 229–39. Translated as “What is Poetry?” Selected Writings, vol. 3 (The Hague: Mouton, 1981), 239–59.
[2] On the central role played by Jean Paulhan’s account of the hain-teny in the development of the Western conception of oral poetry and orality in the twentieth century, see Haun Saussy, The Ethnography of Rhythm: Notes on Writing and Orality, forthcoming from Fordham University Press.[3] Kamau Brathwaite, Roots (Ann Arbor, University of Michigan Press, 1993), 289.
[4] For more on this “like” culture, see “Everybody’s a Genius,” http://jacket2.org/article/everybody%E2%80%99s-genius. 

A response by Bob Perelman
“Poetic Taste: Or, Gorillas in the Mist”

There is recognized poetry and there is what's beyond, and it's what's beyond that's exciting. Poetry should be exciting

The narrative of poetic advance makes for a brittle vista. The avant-garde has long been museum-ish (donor-investors; low-paid guards; deals for members). Recent exhibits: the real language of men; free verse; Tzara's original scissors. The newspaper and the hat are missing 

Snark aside, desire for exciting poetry is something I continue to feel

Poetry is both ubiquitous and elusive 

Poetic invention is ubiquitous: in speech and writing each noise and grapheme is tagged with ratios of timeliness, disruption, formulaic speech, baloney. Remarks are literature, all of them. As are whimpers, warnings, polite answers, ancient reminders. We are all Stein's lively little aunts, stepping in the same big data river of language a bit differently each time

Nevertheless, the rounds of known conversation get wearying; poetic taste wants something tasty, umami

One source is the mistake: I can haz cheeseburger [lolcats 2006; thanks to Jen Scappettone]

And there's scenic warping by distance -- an Australian bush-ballad with exotic U.S. rhythm (Poe's Raven)

. . .
He was shearing when I knew him, so I sent the letter to him,
     Just "on spec", addressed as follows: "Clancy, of The Overflow"

And an answer came directed in a writing unexpected,
    (And I think the same was written in a thumbnail dipped in tar)
'Twas his shearing mate who wrote it, and verbatim I will quote it:
    "Clancy's gone to Queensland droving, and we don't know where he are"

["Clancy of the Overflow," Banjo Paterson, 1889; thanks to Tim Chandler]

With Rachel Zolf's Janey's Arcadia vividness is various: the overall complex collage livened by shocks of straightforwardness; the detourning of racist language via the uncanny agency of OCR mislegislation 

. . . I want you to plunge into my wounded body the
name of axtonlv ttvuo ottrLove. It's a pity these soft-eyed
little bundles of femininity must grow into large, dull
Oftifcof r I .,^IIC squOndtruawsXIVf. . . .  [60]

Kathy Acker's porn-sincere presentation of penetration; Victorian pedestalling of soft female bundles -- it's heartening to see Zolf set them clashing. Then there's

Oftifcof r I .,^IIC squOndtruawsXIVf

which is both judgment and transformation. Judgment: OCR is another advance in colonial surveillance and from its drone-like eminence this is how the territories register. Transformation: little bundles of femininity (note the letters of "squaw" there) transforming beyond the reach of porn and pedestal

Desired poetry is elusive: "a fading coal [awakened] . . . to transitory brightness" [Percy Shelley, "Defense of Poetry"]. But this excitement has its shadow. For Shelley, Plato is a divine poet, his language "that of an immortal spirit," while "his imitator, Cicero, sinks in the comparison into an ape mocking the gestures of a man." I'm not endorsing Shelley's binaries, but it's good to remember how thoroughly constellations of desire/aversion structure everything we call poetry

A response by Brian M. Reed
“Is You or Ain’t You My Poetry”

What constitutes poetry is subject to change over time. It has no transhistorical essence. It could, in the abstract, become anything at all. That does not mean, however, that at any moment it could drastically, instantly transform itself into something wholly other. Alternatives, expansions, and revisions can be put forward, and they can then be judged as admissible, or not. One person asks, is this poetry? Some say yes, others no, and the process works itself out. Institutions, politics, economics, and history all play a role. Struggles over whether X or Y counts as poetry are not trivial incidental spats. They are disagreements concerning deeply held beliefs concerning what poetry is, can, and should be. These disputes are also passionate because no one is objectively or for-all-time correct. Anyone, in other words, could lose.


Alejandro Crawford and Patrick Lovelace’s Park & Stars (2010) is a digital piece hosted by the web site Gauss-PDF. It consists of two streaming .MP4 video files that a viewer can stop and start at will. The playback windows appear one above the other. The upper video, the “Park” portion of the work, is a version of the Hollywood blockbuster Jurassic Park II: The Lost World (1997) from which all scenes showing dinosaurs have been removed. The bottom video, the “Stars” part, presents every scene from the first six Star Wars movies (1977-2005) that contain the robots R2D2 and C3PO. The two videos are roughly the same length, just under an hour and forty minutes, which suggests that maybe one should view both at the same time and seek out echoes and overlaps, perhaps imagining that the actors in “Park,” who spend a lot of time staring stupidly off screen, are viewing the antics of the “Stars” below.

What would be the consequences if I declared Park & Stars to be—a poem? Such a claim would represent a (somewhat) logical next step in a progression already underway. When announcing that it would devote January to October 2014 to reviewing one book of poetry a day, the Volta Blog expressed particular interest in Gauss-PDF and its multimodal offerings. And Gordon Faylor, Gauss-PDF’s editor, has been interviewed by the Poetry Foundation’s Harriet Blog about his desire to challenge outmoded notions of what a poem can be and do.

Think about it. Crawford and Lovelace have taken found material, including speech, reshaped it according to clear procedures (no dinosaurs, yes droids), and presented it in a concise format in which narrative matters less than juxtaposition, symbolism, and ellipsis. One could, in short, describe Park & Stars much as one would a poem by T. S. Eliot or Susan Howe. Why not then go ahead and call it a poem? Would you, dear reader, take that step with me?


I am less invested in where one draws a line between “is” and “ain’t” than in what follows after people start making such distinctions. That’s when the movie gets good.