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What is a poem?

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Poetry is distinguished from prose by its extensive use of the sound of language. This relates to the means a poem uses to express something. But what I wonder about is WHAT a poem expresses. Take a look at this poem:

"Success" by Berton Braley

If you want a thing bad enough

To go out and fight for it,

Work day and night for it,

Give up your time and your peace and your sleep for it

If only desire of it

Makes you quite mad enough

Never to tire of it,

Makes you hold all other things tawdry and cheap for it

If life seems all empty and useless without it

And all that you scheme and you dream is about it,

If gladly you'll sweat for it,

Fret for it,

Plan for it,

Lose all your terror of God or man for it,

If you'll simply go after that thing that you want.

With all your capacity,

Strength and sagacity,

Faith, hope and confidence, stern pertinacity,

If neither cold poverty, famished and gaunt,

Nor sickness nor pain

Of body or brain

Can turn you away from the thing that you want,

If dogged and grim you besiege and beset it,

You'll get it!


This poem, if one took out everything relating to the means of expression, does not seem any different from a passage from a non-fiction self-help book. Perhaps it would be something like, "If you want something enough to put all your energy into it, working day and night, planning, making it your priority, letting nothing get in your way, you'll get it." Does that mean that all non-fiction would be considered poetry, if only it used the sounds of language to a great degree?

This seems wrong to me. Non-fiction "poetry" would cease to be an art form. (I'm not saying that Braley's poem is this sort of thing; however, if it isn't, I find it hard to say why not...and it is also useful to consider it such for the sake of argument.)

What makes poetry an art form? In what way is it helpful in cognition?

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Daniel, I would say that poetry is something like a marriage between music and literature.

There are three key elements:

1. The words. (Like literature)

2. The rhythm (or whatever you like to call the sounds used in poetry). (Like Music)

3. The relationship between 1 and 2.

For a passage to be poetry, it must have 1 and 2, and both must be meaningful and complementary.

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I think Richard’s right. Poetry lies some where between music and literature or more like combination of them, it definitely contains both. Notice that there are many variations on the amount of either music or literature contained in poetry. There are poems that mostly rely on descriptive words with a smaller sense of rhythm and there are poems that follow a rhythm very intensively but use very little description in terms of words, and then every variation in between. They defiantly have to contain both characteristics and the relationship between the two is what makes it or breaks it.

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I think Richard_Halley hits on what you're looking for here, Daniel. I would say that, in terms of content, poetry has to express values (just like any art). That further distinguishes it from non-fiction--besides just the issue of sound (rhyme, meter, etc.)--in that it couldn't just be a descriptive passage, like non-fiction could be. But as long as it is a concretization in some way of the poet's metaphysical value-judgments, and uses the sounds of the words to create a musical type of feel, pretty much anything goes.

To get a little more specific in terms of what poetry should portray in terms of content (from an Objectivist perspective)--well, the same kinds of things as any other art-form: it should glorify man and his rational values.

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What exactly is the difference between writing poetry and "versifying?" Because Braley described himself as a versifier, not a poet. Many of his poems were strictly made to order. A magazine would ask him for a poem about some subject (e.g., football), and Braley would "versify" on that subject. He discusses this in his autobiography, Pegasus Pulls a Hack. As long as he liked the subject he was asked to write about, he had no compunction about working to order. Which is perfectly reasonable.

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