A Unified Theory of Poetry, Part 1

There’s a trick to it.

There has to be. No kind of art just “works” for no reason. Granted, there’s always room for the ineffable, the ecstatic experience, the divine madness that dredges the hidden masterpiece up from the lunatic’s soul. But even that has to possess a form and technique. Otherwise, all you’ve got are ugly scribbles.

Untitled, by Cy Twombly. And yes, someone bought it for $2.3M.

But don’t think this is about painting. We’re not talking about painting. Why did you bring up painting?

Today, we’re talking about poetry.

Enter the Skeptic

Mr. Devil’s Advocate: “And what, pray tell, do you know about poetry?”

Well, I’d like to think I…

Mr. DA: “I mean, what do you really know about poetry? What kind of credentials do you have? Because, as I recall, you are a prose writer.”

Is it impossible to be a poet and a novelist?

Mr. DA: “It’s impossible to master both subjects. And there’s plenty of precedent to back that up. If you claim sufficient mastery of prose to teach others how to do it, then you cannot do the same with poetry.”

That sounds like an utterly unfounded assertion.

Mr. DA: “Name a single exception to that rule and I shall recant my words forever.”

That’s easy enough. All I have to do is think of someone who reached the highest level in both fields. Which shouldn’t be hard, considering the many famous novelists and famous poets in the English tradition.

I mean, when you look at Shakespeare…

Mr. DA: “Not a novelist. Shakespeare ruled poetry much like Cervantes ruled prose, and neither obtained any degree of glory within the other’s kingdom.”

And of course there was Shelley.

Mr. DA: Which Shelley? The husband was a poet and the wife a novelist. Surely you didn’t think you could fool me into thinking they were the same.”

Uh…of course not.

But no matter, because I have a more modern example to draw upon. Ever heard of a guy named J.R.R. Tolkien?

Mr. DA: “Naturally. What of him?”

Well, he wrote a number of novels that included a number of songs. And, absent any kind of sheet music, those songs are read as poems inside his books.

Mr. DA: “So?”

So here we have an example of prose and poetry written not only by the same man, but appearing side by side within his books.

Mr. DA: “I see. And would you say that Tolkien achieved mastery in his poems? Are the poetic parts, scattered here and there among the text, just as cherished as the novels themselves? Are any of Tolkien’s poems comparable in quality to Shelley, Shakespeare, Keats, Frost?”

*Sigh* No.

Mr. DA: “That’s right. Even with all his study and scholarship, he demonstrated mastery in only one of these arts, achieving only competency in the other.”

“And it isn’t hard to see why.”

Mutually Exclusive

Mr. DA: “Poetry and prose never manifest in their fullness within the same person. They can’t, because the basic principles of poetry are injurious to the mind that is composing novels, and the essentials of novel writing (or even short story writing) do violence to the soul of the poet. In order to assume the proper mindset needed to perform one, you must sacrifice the faculties that allow you to do the other.”

“It’s a rather sad state of affairs, but there you have it.”

Wait a minute: how does that even work? I need you to give me some specifics.

Mr. DA: “Fair enough. To put it bluntly, in order to gain any amount of skill in either field, you have to first indoctrinate yourself with the idea that your chosen field’s approach is the only way of doing things right.”

“Poets see writing from the vantage point of description and word sounds. They find a natural object and make it come alive in the mind through a vivid combination of words.”

“Prose writers see writing from the vantage point of character development and evaluations. They dabble in events, arcs, and big-picture movements of people’s lives, seen through an internal lens that constantly passes judgment on its surroundings.”

“Once you’ve pledged yourself to one method, the other one looks ridiculous. When you’re a poet, and have learned to embrace the descriptive, the novelist’s approach comes across as judgmental and stifling, which is no way to write a good poem. Similarly, to a novelist, the poet’s approach appears trite and meaningless. There is, after all, no adventure to be had in obtaining a profound definition of a single object or place.”

“In either case, any kind of experimentation with the alternate paradigm will weaken, water down, or even destroy what you already have. It is for this reason that all the great writers end up walking only one road, though perhaps sorry that they cannot travel both and be one traveler.”

But Wait…

I certainly appreciate the history lesson. But, in my characteristic style, I am going to tell you that absolutely none of that matters.

Mr. DA: “Hah! Right. So what great revelation are you privy to, oh Eminent One? Please share with the rest of the class.”

I may not have a background in poetry, but one thing I pride myself on is my skill of observation. And, after a lot of soul searching, I believe we may be on the cusp of developing a unified theory of poetry.

Mr. DA: “A unified what of what?”

Theory of poetry. Through simple observation, I believe we can not only define what is and isn’t poetry, but what makes some poetry better than others. And the natural consequence of this will be a system by which anyone can become a great poet, given enough practice.

Mr. DA: “And just when I thought you were starting to get boring.”

Don’t get too excited yet. This idea will require an in-depth examination, meaning that we have to split our analysis across multiple blog posts. This one has already gone on long enough, so you’ll have to wait a week to see what I’ve come up with.

Until then, I invite readers of this blog to consider what has been presented here. Why is it impossible to reconcile the approach of the prose writer with the one that writes poetry, and how does this hint at the existence of a unified theory of poetry?

Maybe you can come up with the answer without my help.



[This week’s tagline: “Where people come…apart.”]