A Unified Theory of Poetry, Part 3

Art can be understood. Otherwise it’s just a con.

Welcome back to Mr. Horne’s Book of Secrets, for our final exploration into the unified theory of poetry. I can happily report, based on viewership statistics, that this has been one of our most successful projects to date.

Mr. Devil’s Advocate: “Well, whoop-dee-do.”

Is something the matter?

Mr. DA: “Remember last week, when I said that people who get offended by these posts could ‘kiss my Beelzebutt’?”

Of course.

Mr. DA: “I didn’t expect them to accept so…enthusiastically.”

They actually took you up on it?

Mr. DA: “Yeah. I really should have set some boundaries beforehand. Not to disturb you, but the people who hate this blog have a real Human Centipede fixation.”

I’ve never seen that movie.

Mr. DA: “Well, to put it simply, they literally ate my…”

NEVERMIND! I don’t want to know.

Mr. DA: “In any case, I’m less than thrilled about the whole affair and don’t think I’m up to the job of leading the discussion today.”

Fine, because today we’re finally going to get to the bottom of my unified theory of poetry, which means I’ll be doing most of the talking.

Systems vs. Goals

Mr. DA: “So, if I remember all our discussions correctly, you believe you have discovered a theory that unifies all poetry.”

That is correct, yes.

Mr. DA: “But you’re not serious. Surely, you’re not suggesting that you’ve discovered the magic formula for making great poems.”

Of course I’m not suggesting that. Because what I am proposing is more akin to a system than to a goal. This is no magic switch but rather a process by which one can gain an understanding of what poetry is. And it will be as effective as the amount of effort put into it, but you can be sure that any amount will not be wasted.

So, to recap what we’ve covered so far:

  1. Great poets are not great novelists, and vice versa. The virtues by which one becomes a great novelist are only a hindrance to the poet.
  2. Poetry requires objectivity. It necessitates the embracing of its subject without judgment, praise, or condemnation.

But all this was just a preamble—a way of preparing the reader to receive what comes next. For the unified theory of poetry will explain these above mysteries, and tie everything together.

Mr. DA: “But as a system, meaning that it will still take practice on the part of the poet?”

I’m afraid there’s no getting around the need for practice, no matter what skill you’re talking about.

Mr. DA: “Okay. You have my attention. So tell me: what is the unifying principle of poetry?”

It is nothing more or less than this…

Poetry is a Palindrome

Mr. DA: “What, literally?”

No, not literally.

Mr. DA: “Good, because no matter how hard I try, I can’t make sense of the word ‘Yrteop’. Although, to be fair, ‘Palindrome’ isn’t a palindrome, either.”

Indeed it is not. But, back to the point: I am not literally suggesting that all poems are palindromes, and whatever else I may say for the rest of this post, it is paramount that you understand at least that much.

Whew. Let’s begin again.

Poetry is like a Palindrome

And palindromic principles can be quite revealing, regardless of the art form.

Poetry may not be a subset of Palindromes, but among the underlying principles of each art form, there is a great deal of overlap.

Mr. DA: “Fascinating. But, as an attorney, I’m afraid I’ll need to see some evidence to support this claim.”

Would you accept circumstantial evidence?

Mr. DA: “Only if there are a large number of examples.”

There are mountains of examples. All you have to do is ask yourself, “How long is a typical artistic palindrome?”

Mr. DA: “Short. In the wild, there are a number of one-line palindromes. But for published examples, you’re looking at something marginally longer—one page at the most.”

And how long is a typical poem?

Mr. DA: “Also short. Granted, the epics of ages past sometimes had hundreds of stanzas, but even those can barely fill up an entire slim volume. In most other cases, five to ten pages is considered particularly long. For more typical poems, the ideal length is short enough to fit on one page.”

Much like the ideal palindrome, yes?

Mr. DA: “And you’re suggesting that this similarity is more than coincidence?”

Yes, and I am also suggesting that the connection between the two art forms is obvious, once we understand why this length restriction occurs.

Why Palindromes are Short

A palindrome is any word or phrase that reads the same when spelled forwards or backwards. Words such as “radar” and “madam” are palindromes. Particularly clever wordsmiths will break out whole-sentence palindromes, such as,

  • “Never odd or even.”
  • “A man, a plan, a canal — Panama!”
  • “Are we not drawn onward, we few, drawn onward to new era?”

But these are just word games. To create a palindrome worthy of publication, you need something that is comparable in length to a short poem—something that will take up the center of a page while leaving a fair amount of margin above and below. And these kinds of palindromes, while not difficult to find, are mind boggling in their creation because of one inescapable fact: the process of building the palindromic phrase is directly at odds with telling a coherent story.

Because if you don’t have to tell a coherent story, then creating a palindrome of any length becomes a trivial matter.

But the longer the palindrome, the harder it becomes to remain coherent. Many of the longer palindromes found in publication are barely readable. Some are nauseatingly opaque. And once you hit a certain threshold, the difficulty curve goes asymptotic.

Exponential growth isn’t always a good thing.

But, of course, there are ways around this. The ideal length of a palindrome could be extended, if we are willing to be flexible. For example, in addition to letterwise palindromes (such as all the examples above), there are also wordwise palindromes and linewise palindromes, which are less rigid and allow for longer stories.

And, while not commonly accepted, there are also near-palindromes, which don’t fit the palindrome pattern perfectly. They may have a letter out of place in a few places, but they allow for more interesting stories to be told on the page, and can therefore be longer.

But if you’re gunning for a true palindrome, then you are limited by the bounds of linguistic credulity.

It is the Same with Poetry

Creating a longform palindrome requires the writer to divide his time between the microscopic task of making sure all the letters align and the macroscopic task of making sure a coherent narrative is delivered.

And poetry has the same problem.

As with composing a good palindrome, poetry is a struggle between the microscopic and the macroscopic. For, on the big end, you want the poem to tell a complete story or describe a complete scene; and on the little end, you want the placement of each word to be measured and precise.

And what determines the correct word placement?

Well, in many poems, correct word placement is dictated by rhyme: the words in certain parts have to sound similar.

In other poems, correct word placement is dictated by meter: the rhythm of syllable stresses must follow a particular pattern.

And many great poems restrict themselves according to both. Or neither, in the case of free verse.

But, more than any of these, the microscopic labor of word placement revolves around what I call “the delicious phrase.”

Poets down through all the ages have hunted for these delicacies, like pigs sniffing for truffles. And they’re not difficult to find, if they’re all you care about. But simply composing a list of delicious phrases does not usually result in a self-contained story.

Still, if the poet can weave these confections into a solid whole, then he has done his job. But as the poem gets longer, this becomes ever more difficult, especially if he is working with rhyme and meter, as well. The clever poet can juggle all of these things, of course, but never for long.

Unless he is willing to break something.

If the poet is willing to break meter, every now and again, or throw in a few slant rhymes where pure ones won’t suffice, then he can extend the work, stretching his poem across several pages. And the great epics, with their hundreds of stanzas, go even further. They rely heavily on making exceptions, time and again, to the rules of rhyme, meter, and flavor, so that the macroscopic story may be as coherent as it has to be. And as long, too.

How This Explains the Previous Points

Mr. DA: “Huh. I guess that is kind of a unifying principle behind poetry, now that I think about it. Although, I kind of want some clarification on what you mean by ‘the delicious phrase.'”

Yeah. I hate to say it, but we may need to make a “Part Four” to this post.

Mr. DA: “Even if we don’t, we should probably reexamine parts one and two, according to what we learned today.”

That’s right, because everything we’ve talked about previously ties into this.

If we go back to our first point, that poets don’t make good novelists…

Mr. DA: “That would make sense, because novelists are trained to place the macroscopic sculpting of story events above all other considerations. That’s how they ply their trade. And if a novelist became a master poet, he would become so distracted by trying to micromanage words that he would never finish a book, or even a short story, for his entire life.”

Exactly. And, likewise, a poet does not benefit by becoming a master novelist, because then he would have been trained to ignore the microscopic considerations of word placement, which are paramount to a poet.

Mr. DA: “And what about the second point: the idea that poetry requires objectivity.”

To answer that, we must understand the opposite: how prose writing requires subjectivity.

The macroscopic considerations of story composition require that we understand our characters as people, which means being able to portray their perspectives on what they are seeing. This is something the prose writer can do because it is his entire consideration. Every word is designed to reveal the vision and experiences of the narrator, through that narrator’s subjective lens. And whether that narrator is limited or omniscient, the narrative is still colored by their personality.

On the other hand, we have poetry, which is so much concerned with the microscopic task of word execution that it honestly has no room to consider the macroscopic art of perspective. At best, the poet can only hope to produce a somewhat coherent and comprehensible story out of all his delicate wordsmithing. Having to color that language with the lens of perspective would be yet one more ball to juggle, and since the addition of each new variable causes an exponential increase in difficulty, it is better for the poet to cleave to the purity of language lacking judgment, that concerns itself with the forms of all the creatures, but not the value thereof.

Mr. DA: “And all because the poem has to undertake the same labor as the palindrome. It has to refine the microscopic virtues at the expense of the other kind.”



This is my unified theory of poetry, and I have yet to meet a poem, of any renown, that does not hold to it. It is my observation that other approaches to poetry are mere fads that fade with the march of time. And while, as a prose writer, I may not be able to take advantage of this knowledge, it leads me to appreciate the difference between my discipline and others, and gives me hope that all the arts can be accessible and non-mysterious.



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