by Andrew Knight
It seems the face of a poem has changed a great deal since the classic times of literature when the more memorable poets set down on paper the ingredients for their poetry – and, though the swells in population today give us more poems, I fear most of them are not as good. Today a poem wears a rather brave face which may be taken for a smile, but underneath its tough exterior is its health quite all it should be? Has the majesty of literature lost that sparkle in its crown and does its glory now grow dim as more people turn their heads from its printed page and fill their thoughts with other things?
After reading Stan Frith’s interesting article in Acumen  concerning the future of the poem and that of poetry too, I rapidly began to lose faith in both. His views entirely express my own which incidentally I’ve held for a decade and a half or more. However, as time has marched on, Stan Frith’s article makes me feel that the art of writing a poem has indeed somewhat declined. Something seems palpably missing from its translation and transition into poetry. Mr. Frith states his case loud and clear and though we both seem to be losing faith in what seems nowadays to masquerade as poetry we should perhaps not lose heart. Nevertheless, it seems for the time being, the title of his essay Poetry – What’s That? – couldn’t be more poignant.
But isn’t change and learning to adapt to it a prerequisite for life we cannot do without, for if there were no progression of thought there would be no worthwhile evolution to life; no new concepts or perspectives to anything – life would become stagnant and not worth living. All artistic expression likewise would become meaningless and if we think that something is missing from poetry now, ought we to think that without any change at all in the way a poem is written, everything of poetry from the written word might soon disappear.
It seems to me that in the new-build of anything, the old has to be raised to the ground, but in time anyway doesn’t history tell us that most new things are better for us and eventually become more popular, liked, and even loved. Changing anything though does tend to shock for a while and even offend, but over time one naturally changes one’s point of view about those things that change. The same must be true in the appreciation of a poem and to poetry itself, and, one might add, to any artistic expression because life for the sake of its own progress demands natural progression of thought.
‘Controversial as it might be’, Stan Frith writes, ‘I think today we are being presented with lots of rubbish in so-called books of contemporary poetry; even from those internationally recognised poets. Most people would have not considered the depiction of a Brillo box, a store-bought urinal or a dirty, unmade bed to be art until Andy Warhol, Marcel Duchamp and Tracy Emin respectively, placed those objects in the context of art (i.e. an art gallery), which then associated these objects with a way that art could be defined. If such objects constitute art, then similarly a few jumbled up words taken from Roget’s Thesaurus randomly spread across a page can conceivably constitute poetry’.
T. S. Eliot once said, ‘People are exasperated by poetry which they do not understand and contemptuous of poetry which they understand without effort’ and for most people I think he has it about right.
However, when it comes to being decided as to what a poem is, or for that matter what anything is, the definition of that thing is important. A definition of anything is a statement that must directly connect with the absolute essence of what that thing is in a way that such a connection cannot be tampered with in terms of any argument or debate. There are of course many things in life which remain ambiguous because the criteria above has not been met – and that which attempts to determine what a poem is or indeed define poetry, is probably one of them.
I have read and listened to many definitions of a poem. One that springs to mind here and serves as a typical example to most of them I read fairly recently in Acumen  on page (37). ‘A poem is a verbal form in which the words interact more than syntactically to produce a memorable and coherent statement. The more ways the words interact and the more memorable and coherent the statement, so the better the poem’. There are several problems with this definition. Basically, a [memorable and coherent statement] must surely limit any poem’s expression of poetry and to boot, what does – [so the better the poem] mean?
Actually I am excited by the fact that after reading a poem I am left perhaps not remembering or completely understanding in detail anything of what I’ve read and yet I can be left transfixed and transformed by something that has taken me on a journey I’ve never taken before, or given an insight about something I wouldn’t otherwise have considered. This experience is almost dream-like and yet in this near dream state I can feel intuitively that the place the poem has taken me to might actually exist, or from even the smallest of insights some aspect of truth might prevail. In fact there is nothing here that is necessarily memorable or coherent from any particular line of a poem. In this it seems the over-all interpretation of a poem in terms of its poetry is more important than any memorable or coherent statement written within its text, and if that part of the definition with regards to ‘[so the better the poem]’ is indicative to actual poetry which in every sense it has to be – how can anyone qualify poetry in terms of it being better. Better than what – and to whom?
In order to define a poem, because it is fundamentally an art form, one firstly should understand the definition of art. I define this by saying that [art is any presentation or performance made on behalf of an artist]. Whether this by general consensus is considered to be good art or bad, it cannot make any difference to the statement of what art is. Interestingly enough a poem subscribes both to the performing arts and the visual arts – in the former by its reading to an audience and in the latter by simply appearing on the written page.
When one considers a poem further, in the literary sense alone, it might be thought at first that any definition should become more specific in its statement of fact or at least more so than my definition of art in general; there is though a certain irony in this. Although the definition should tell us exactly what a poem is – what a poem actually is must be stated as something that is rather non-specific though in that non-specificity it is as specific as it can possibly be. It is here I guess that I must tell Stan Frith that possibly if one were to jumble up a few words from Roget’s Thesaurus and spread them randomly across the page they just might make a poem. I cannot help thinking though that one might also have to scatter among these words a few of one’s own at least to add the minimum of clarification though this would depend, of course, on the words themselves.
The Greek [poesis], [meaning, the making of verse, or not]; does mean too that the novel, essay, and drama, may also be a poem. In fact, any literary production may be called a poem. The word [poem] in point of fact, is etymologically unimpeachable and so varied in its presuppositions as to appear to some, almost objectionable in any usage and from this it may appear that if one is searching for a more explicit definition then one might be fighting a losing battle.
In a former essay, ‘The Influence of Poetry’ published in Acumen  I suggested, albeit romantically, that poetry is just as likely to present itself as much off the page as on it, that it was something which flowed from one’s own individual experience of life and written in life’s own handwriting. But now I must declare in more concrete terms what a poem might be.
In line with my definition of art (because the writing of a poem is an art form) and in this respect a poem is equally a performing art and a visual art – [a poem is the arrangement of words which convey poetry]. It is, nothing more, and certainly nothing less. Whether this action produces a good poem or bad is neither here nor there because that which is (a poem) remains unchanged. The good or bad element will always surround any expression of art. However, what is important is that such an element depends entirely on one’s individual intellectual perception and receptivity to the art form. A woman is a woman, but whether she is more beautiful to one individual and less to another, she remains a woman – and, though there are no bounds to beauty in terms of absolute beauty, the eye of the beholder will always make its ever-changing judgement.
A poet must, I feel, attempt to arrange the words of a poem in much the same way as a composer writes a musical score, he or she must find that subjective narrative, and in doing so placing the observer of a poem under the spell of poetry – and when this happens there is no mistake about it; for the reader of a poem can become transfixed and transformed. It’s as though, even momentarily, our ordinary senses have suddenly and simultaneously combined to form a sixth sense and this for me is about the real changing face of a poem. Its other changing face in context to new or different fads reflected in its presentation and which I admit can lead to despair over the state of what a poem might be and indeed what poetry might become is but a passing faze or fashion. However, for as long as there is poetry, somehow a poem will find some point of connection with it.
To bring a little humour to this; the face of a poem is recognisable enough to itself – it is us who change its face, but whatever face we give it we cannot change its identity. A poem doesn’t care less how it is judged – it’s just pleased to be a poem. The only thing that seems to matter of course these days, when money seems to corrupt all things, is what type of poems are popular in poetry magazines and books.
As the twenty first century gets off the ground it just might get airborne enough to take on board, not only the different ways of constructing and presenting a poem and the points of view concerning its new fads and peculiar wording etc., but also the different cults, movements, and attitudes among those who appreciate poetry. Are we at the dawn of a new age in poetry appreciation?
Should people like me, Stan Frith, and many other lovers of poetry perhaps take that heart I mentioned at the beginning of my essay for is it not about broadening our outlook as to what constitutes poetry before we consider what a poem might be. Have those of us who have been reading, writing, and listening to poems over many decades put the cart before the horse? In the absolute sense, poetry constantly looks out over new horizons and perhaps a poem should do the same – changing face or not.