What is a poem?

An Extract from the book

Far greater writers than The Enthusiast have endeavoured to say what a poem is. The list of contributors to the conversation might include, as a minimal sample: Sappho, Plato, Aristotle, Virgil, Horace, Dante, Sidney, Jonson, Johnson, Hegel, Hölderlin, Wordsworth, Shelley, Keats, Whitman, Mallarmé, Yeats, Rilke, Pound, Trakl, Eliot, Tzara, Auden, and Paul Celan. And Marianne Moore (who 'too disliked it' - poetry that is), and André Breton (who understood that it had to be 'marvellous'), and  Martin Heidegger (who found it to be revelatory), and Frank O'Hara (who thought the poem was like a 'call'). And Lorine Niedecker. And Adrienne Rich. And Mina Loy. And Elizabeth Barrett Browning. And Langston Hughes, and Amiri Baraka, and Paul Valéry. Among others.

These writers have spoken with great authority, and in all cases their definitions have won many adherents, and yet by common consent 'the poem' remains a most elusive thing. Even so, and undaunted by the wealth of previous definitions and statements, The Enthusiast has - after many years of research - arrived at, or at least glimpsed, a definition of its own.

A poem is an arrangement of words containing possibilities.

This is important. In fact it could hardly be more important. In the corner of the territory with which The Enthusiast is familiar - let's call it, for the sake of argument, the overdeveloped world - there are, roughly speaking, only two possibilities available to people: one is working, and the other is shopping. We work to shop, and we shop in order that we might more effectively work, and we are merrily educating the next generation to do the same. And in case of disruption to the smooth functioning of the work-shop process, we invest enormous amounts of cultural and political energy in closing off alternative possibilities. Here, for instance, are some of the agencies charged with closing off - or down - possibilities for people: schools, universities, ministries of state, firms of accountants, firms of auditors, advertising agencies, banks; focus groups, research councils, funding bodies, corporations; shops, workplaces, television. So successful, in fact, has the shut-down operation been of late that it is difficult, now to think of any alternatives to working and shopping, and even when we do, before we know it, they've somehow reappeared as more of the same: more working, more shopping, more of both. Which is why, as The Enthusiast sees it - and as much as ever - we need the possibilities of the poem. [.....]

Field Guide to Poetry

150 poems introduced and illuminated by THE ENTHUSIAST

Quercus Publishing Plc
ISBN 1 84724 104 2

Quercus: http://www.quercusbooks.co.uk/

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