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A Definition of Formal (or “Classical”) Poetry

by James A. Tweedie

One of the frequent comment threads on SCP involves the subject of the nature of poetry, including what it is and how it exists as an identifiable and distinct literary form.

Aristotle, Keats and everybody else who has pondered the subject have written essays and entire books on the subject. Here I would like to offer my own one-sentence definition of formal poetry as a serious attempt to both add to the conversation and to (hopefully) trigger a vigorous, critical response.

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Definition

“Formal (or “Classical”) Poetry is the working of magic with words, rhythm, rhyme and form to conjure, spin, and weave an image, a story, a feeling, an idea, in such a way that it comes alive in the reader’s mind as vividly and indelibly as possible.”

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Commentary

First of all, poetry is formed from words—words that have meaning in whichever language the poem is composed. (Nonsense poetry such as “Jabberwocky” being exceptions that intentionally play on the normative meaning of words).
Words exist to communicate, so, in essence, poetry exists as a form of communication. It is a means by which the poet transfers his or her created thought into the mind and experience of the person reading the poem or hearing it being read or sung.

The success of a poem will be judged on the merits of how well the image, story, feeling, or idea is clearly and effectively received, perceived and experienced by the reader.

In formal poetry the words are arranged in syntactical ways that utilize some recognizable combination of metrical rhythm, rhyme, and structural form.

The use of these three literary elements (rhythm, rhyme and form) severely limit the poet’s freedom to speak prosaically and force him or her to selectively choose words from a vocabulary where the words not only fit the rhythm, rhyme and form of the poem, but communicate their meaning in ways that may be variously described as terse, vivid, indelible, sharp-edged, or concentrated.

A formal poem may be judged to be flawed or a failure if it fails to convey an identifiable story, image, feeling or idea, or where irregularities in the form, rhyme or rhythm distract from, rather than focus the reader’s mind on the subject of the poem.

A successful poem is not necessarily “magical” in the sense of some supernatural intervention, but rather in the way the poet skillfully and/or intuitively arranges the words—not unlike the mixing of tangible ingredients of “eye of newt and toe of frog” etc. in the “magical” potion of the witches in Macbeth.

In poetry, the magical incantations that transform a poem into a successful “potion” are not chanted as a spell or waved into the poem with a wand, but are simply the ordered words of the poem itself.

Share your thoughts in the Comments below. I look forward to whatever conversation may follow.

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21 Responses

  1. James Sale

    It is good to see the current winner of the SCP poetry competition outlining his theory of what formal poetry is. Indeed, here is an idea: perhaps Evan should stipulate that all future winners must compose their ‘theory’ article for publication on these pages before receiving their prize! That will incentivise far more debate. I am about to go away on a break for a few days and will reply properly to these ideas when I return. But meanwhile, a thought for you James: ‘magical incantation’ – have you considered what a tautology this is? The verb cantare means ‘to sing’ from which we get ‘incantation’; but the root meaning – before the singing – is ‘to magic’, which is why incantations are magical anyway. The point: why have we lost that awareness in our own day and age? Poetry is more than just technique and words in a certain order (although that too) – technique and words in a certain order is just so, so C20th! Supernatural intervention is absolutely what I like! Bye for now.

    Reply
    • James A. Tweedie

      James,

      Thanks for raising the subject.

      I am a strong believer in poetic inspiration whether from God, a Muse, or something else above and beyond the ken of the poet. I have even written a novel that deals with that subject, “The One Who Tells the Stories.” Inspiration–which means to “breathe in/inhale” or to “come alive” (as opposed to its opposite, Expiration, which means to “breathe out/exhale” or to “die”)–has often played a part in the creation of my poetry, my prose, and my music. “Something” leverages my skill and natural talent and raises it to a level that seems beyond what I might have been capable of accomplishing myself. When this happens, I am in awe both of what happened, how it happened, and what has been produced.

      This is not the case, however, with the reader of a poem. There is no inspiration in this matter. There are only the words of the poem and whatever “magic” happens at that juncture rests entirely in the words.

      As for “magical” and “incantation” being a tautology I beg to differ insofar as one can incant without any semblance of magic. “Magical” is an adjective necessary to specify what sort of incantation is being described. And, as I say, in poetry the “magic,” if it is there at all, is in the words themselves.

      Reply
  2. Russel Winick

    Mr. Tweedie:

    I’m a relative novice at all this, but your words are perfectly on point in my view. Thank you very much for sharing your thoughts.

    Reply
  3. Brian Yapko

    James, I like your definition of classical poetry which is, itself, rather poetical. It’s a beautiful “right brain” definition which emphasizes the magic of poetry.

    I’m more of a “left brain” thinker in some ways (almost certainly the law background) so here is how I would define formal classical poetry:

    “Formal poetry” refers to a number of different genres, formats and traditions, both oral and written, in which a transcribable verbal communication on any conceivable subject is given an artificial structure consisting of division into lines of repeatable or conventionally-predetermined length (defined either by syllable or stress counts) and which uses rhythm, rhyme or syllable count to enhance the subject matter so as to aspirationally engender an emotional and/or heightened intellectual reaction in the reader and to aspirationally impart this artificially-structured communication with artistic merit in the form of beauty, humor, informativeness, memorability or musicality.”

    This probably sounds more scientific or legalistic than artistic but I believe it gets the job done. A “definition” is not in itself meant to be a work of art.
    Under this definition one can fit epics, sonnets, haikus, hymns, blank verse, some shape poems (if they meet the criteria), limericks, triolets and even clerihews. Also, this dry definition excuses the poet from having to create only works of beauty. In fact, it allows for some seriously unpleasant or uninspired works as well. It also allows for classical poetry not only in a Western tradition but in any language, including unusual languages such as Xhosa or even made up languages such as Esperanto or Klingon.

    There’s my two cents. Thank you for the interesting subject and your poetic thoughts!

    Reply
  4. James A. Tweedie

    Brian,

    Thanks for providing for a dialogue. If you accept that my use of the word “magic” (as explained in my commentary) is similar in meaning to your use of the phrase “aspirationally engender” then I don’t see much of a difference between your definition and mine—except for mine being shorter.

    I would also add that your inclusion of subjective terms as such as “artistic merit” and “beauty” add a bit of “right brain” into your definition as well.

    To this I would also submit that strictly left-brain poetry would likely leave very little to the imagination!

    Reply
    • Brian Yapko

      Ah, thank you for your clarification James. I think we’re talking about two different things. The initial issue was “a definition of classical poetry.” Your later commentary zeroes in on the “magic” that makes it a SUCCESSFUL classical poem. I think these are two very different subjects. I think your definition speaks much more to the workings of inspiration. My definition is essentially mechanical. Your view is, in fact, aspirational — what the poet hopes for when he sends his poetry out into the world.. the creation of wonderful, memorable work. Mine simply says what the machine looks like and how it runs. It is one thing to define a “painting.” It is an entirely different discussion as to what constitutes a “masterpiece.” That being said, I’m no longer sure which discussion we’re having: are we defining classical poetry or are we analyzing what creates GOOD classical poetry?

      Referring back to your definition, my definition which was reactive to yours addresses the question of poems that don’t work magic. There are plenty of them around but they are still classical poetry. There are poems that do not use rhyme at all. There are poems that do not use rhythm. There are plenty of poems where nothing “comes alive” in the reader’s mind. Nonetheless, these qualify as classical poems. I think the difference in opinion we are having is that your definition relies on the existence of inspiration, which you term “magic” in its appearance in the mind of the poet and its subsequent manifestation on the written page. I think classical poetry can be written with no magic whatsoever. It might not be good, it might not be memorable, but it will qualify. My definition, although it is merely mechanical, accounts for this. I take into account my impression that there is far more bad or uninspired poetry in the universe of classical poetry than there is good. What gets published and what history remembers is but a tiny fraction of what has actually been written.

      Reply
      • James A. Tweedie

        Brian, nowhere in my definition or my commentary do I mention the subject of inspiration at all. Instead, I kept to a strict discussion of what constitutes a classical poem irregardless as to whether it may be “good” or “bad.”

        I even explain my use of the word “magic” to make it clear that I am NOT referring to inspiration.

        “A successful poem is not necessarily “magical” in the sense of some supernatural intervention, but rather in the way the poet skillfully and/or intuitively arranges the words.”

        This is re-emphasized soon after with these words: “In poetry, the magical incantations that transform a poem into a successful “potion” are not chanted as a spell or waved into the poem with a wand, but are simply the ordered words of the poem itself.”

        Nowhere do I suggest that poetry, classical or otherwise, requires any sort of “inspirational” component at all. This does not, of course, preclude that there may or may not be some form of inspiration at work in the creation of someone’s poem. Nor do I suggest that should there be such a thing as an inspired poem that it would be any better or worse than an uninspired one.

        In my personal comments I have made it clear that I do believe that there is more to some of my poetry than the merely mechanical placement of words on paper. But that idea is not referenced in my essay and definition.

        It is clear to me that the word “magic” has thrown you off by reading your own meaning into it rather than my own.

        As for whether a poem is good or bad I gave clear parameters for how a poem might be objectively judged:

        “A formal poem may be judged to be flawed or a failure if it fails to convey an identifiable story, image, feeling or idea, or where irregularities in the form, rhyme or rhythm distract from, rather than focus the reader’s mind on the subject of the poem.”

        Once again there is no mention of inspiration.

        In my comment replying to James Sale (which is not part of my essay) I make it clear that even if a poet believed there to have been external inspiration involved in the creation of his/her poem that would be a matter of complete indifference to the person reading and/or judging the success or failure of the poem.

        So, yes, I agree that we appear to be having two separate conversations and that your “mechanical” definition which precludes inspiration is not much different than my own which also does not reference the subject.

      • Brian Yapko

        Not to quibble, James, because we’re on the same side here and, in fact, remarkably close on a subject that we both obviously love. You’re quite right, you don’t use the word “inspiration” per se. That is how I unilaterally interpreted your use of the word “magic” — a word which carries metaphysical connotations which you encourage with words like “conjure.” So in your definition of classical poetry instead of saying “the working of magic with words, rhythm, rhyme and form” why not just say “the use of words, rhythm, etc.” Or even “the skillful use of words…” What can “working of magic” in this context mean EXCEPT inspiration. Yes, I suppose it could also mean “excellent taste” or “creativity” but what else is at play BUT inspiration when it’s a poet writing a poem who “skillfully or intuitively arranges words?” Otherwise what’s the point? I’m a lawyer and I write up Wills and Trusts all the time. I skillfully and intuitively arrange words. It certainly isn’t poetry but your use of the word “magic” would apply. Anyway, I don’t mean to hairsplit. I think I understand what you’re getting at which to some degree involves mastery of craft. Like I said at the outset — left brain versus right brain. Forgive me for playing devil’s advocate.

  5. Paul Freeman

    Yesterday, in the pub, I wrote a poem titled ‘A Somerset Lad’ for a competition. I thought it would be an impossible task, but then that magic started working, slowly transforming a first draft of four quatrains with numerous dodgy rhymes, into a recognisable, logically structured, seamlessly(-ish) rhyming shape.

    The eye of newt and toe of frog indeed did their job, James.

    Reply
  6. James A. Tweedie

    Paul,

    LOL When it happens it does, indeed, happen! I hope your Muse wins you first prize!

    Reply
  7. James A. Tweedie

    Brian, this is out of sequence but we ran out of space.

    My reply to you is that neither my essay/definition nor poetry itself cannot, should not, nor must not in any way, shape or form, be compared to a legal document. Legal documents are never poetry so the comparison is dead before you say it. What the hell does Sandburg mean when he says,

    “The fog comes
    on little cat feet.

    It sits looking
    over harbor and city
    on silent haunches
    and then moves on.“?

    There is nothing mechanical about this. There is no left brain brain Type A literal rational meaning in these words—words which in and of themselves are complete nonsense; words that no one would ever simply drop into a prosaic conversation; words that had likely never been placed in that combination before; word-use in which Sandburg was self-consciously engaged in the “working of magic with words, rhythm, rhyme and form to conjure, spin, and weave an image, a story, a feeling, an idea, in such a way that it comes alive in the reader’s mind as vividly and indelibly as possible.”

    And this is free verse!

    This is not to say that poetry, particularly formal/classical narrative poetry, cannot be prosaic, but even then, within the artificial limits imposed by rhythm, rhyme and form, the poet arranges the words in a way that “conjures” or calls up from thin air an image, a story, an idea and/or a feeling in a way that metaphorically, at least, can justifiably be described as “magical.”

    “My love is like a red, red rose.”

    Mechanical nonsense.

    Poetical magic.

    Lawyers do not talk like that.

    Poets do.

    Reply
    • Brian Yapko

      James, did you actually read what I wrote? That was exactly my point! There is ZERO “magic” in what lawyers write. There is however the skillful and intuitive use of words and phrasing. That’s why I have a problem with your highly subjective “magic” definition.

      Reply
  8. James A. Tweedie

    Brian,

    From the Cambridge Dictionary:

    Magic: a special and exciting quality that makes something seem different from ordinary things as in:

    “Although the film was made 50 years ago, it has lost none of its magic.”

    And,

    “No one could fail to be charmed by the magic of this beautiful city.”

    In any case,

    We don’t see eye-to-eye. We disagree.
    Semantics seem to be the bottom line.
    Yet I believe my view of poetry
    Is very close to yours, and yours to mine.

    All the best,

    JAT

    Reply
    • Brian Yapko

      I think you’re right. We are quite near
      Which means we both have cause to cheer!
      There’s nothing to be gained by fighting,
      So let’s shake hands and keep on writing!

      All the best back,
      BAY

      Reply
  9. Russel Winick

    When I started writing (formal) poetry a few years ago, I was struck by the seeming irony of what Mr. Tweedie has summarized well – that ‘the use of rhythm, rhyme and form severely limits the poet’s freedom to speak prosaically…’. But I also read something else on this site back then – by C.B. Anderson if I remember correctly – to the effect that there is always a solution to what a formal poet is trying to communicate, if he or she works hard enough to find it. That kept me going many times. This also is why, besides formal poetry being the only type of verse that I consistently enjoy, I consider the poets whom I enjoy reading on this site to be among the most skillful of all those writing today.

    Reply
    • James A. Tweedie

      And so, Russel, we continue to support one another as we grow in our craft. All the best and thank you for your good words.

      Reply
  10. BDW

    One of American poetry’s greatest critics of PostModernism and the NewMillennium is Dana Gioia. Though he doesn’t really penetrate the Classical World of Greece and Rome, his essays span from Romantic Longfellow and Realist Chekhov, to Modernist Eliot and PostModernist Wilbur. A recent essay of his, that I am not particularly fond of, goes into greater depth, along the lines of Mr. Tweedie’s definition, in his recent essay “Poetry as Enchantment”.

    For me, however, in describing classical poetry, magic is a limiting term; because it has such negative connotations, like those seen in T. S. Eliot’s “Mr. Mistoffelees”.

    In reference to Mr. Tweedie’s example from “Macbeth”, I am reminded of the superiority of William Shakespeare’s handling of dramatic poetry and magic in English literature.

    In this modern age, when referring to magic and the classical world, I prefer the vision of T. S. Eliot’s magus in “Journey of the Magi”.

    As to Mr. Tweedie’s comment that “lawyers don’t talk like that”; it depends on the lawyer, take, for example, in German literature, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe.

    My favourite classical lawyer/writer is Cicero:

    Cicero, at the end of the republic, shows
    us the futility of th’ individual
    of principles when he is pitted against foes
    ready to violate his laws. Residual
    defense is all he has to confront enemies,
    and in such instances is downright pitiful.
    He has so little chance against the venomous.
    And yet, his stand counts. As pathetic as it is,
    it is an antidote to the vile animus
    that plagues this earth, and can remind a Tacitus,
    years later, that, amidst his sadness and his woes,
    better does exist even if he can’t have it.

    Reply
    • James A. Tweedie

      BDW,

      A well-written and well-considered comment that makes a number of good points. I especially like the reference to the word “enchantment” relative to a characteristic of poetry—a word that can simply mean “to speak” but also “to infuse some experience with extraordinary beauty and attraction” or simply “to cast a magic spell.” My use of the word “magic” is intended to be understood in the second meaning as could be illustrated by Eliot’s line, “The wounded surgeon plies the steel that questions the distempered part”—a compelling (dare I say “enchanting”) phrase that utilizes metaphor, simile, and analogy in a way that “conjures” from thin air a profound insight into the person, nature, and salvific sacrifice of Jesus Christ. I love quasi-prosaic narrative poetry and write a great deal of it, but it is this element of enchantment and magic that elevates versified prose into true poetry. When this is accomplished by means of rhyme, rhythm and form, it is Formal (or “Classical”) poetry. Authentic free-verse poetry also accomplished this—where a combination of words achieves meaning beyond the mere sum of its parts.

      As for Cicero, in your marvelous example I would say that in this case, at least, he is not a lawyer speaking as a lawyer (using the standard legalese) but a lawyer speaking as a poet—a distinction that I believe supports my point instead of challenging it.

      Reply
      • Francis Otto

        …perhaps Cicero’s prose (“Cicero doth write as a boar doth piss sc. ‘in jerkes’ – Aubrey?) rises, from time to time, as he is a Rhetorician (I could have written ‘Rhetor’, but I know you Americans esteem the polysyllabic) and sometimes might feel the need to ‘wring the heart-strings’ (cf. the alleged Vicar who always wrote his Sermon on a Monday, reviewing it later in the week, often adding in the margin, ‘Argument weak: shout here.)
        I rather like Walter Bagehot’s dictum re. Lyrical Poetry, that it should be ‘memorable, intense, and soon over,’

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