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Ribeiro, Anna Christina, , . Intending to repeat: A definition of poetry
2007, Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism 65 (2):189-201.
Added by: Chris Blake-Turner, Contributed by: Christy Mag Uidhir

Abstract: In light of the enormous variety of poetic traditions we find around the world and across the ages, any attempt at finding a defining feature of poetry that would encompass all and only poems would seem to be in vain. What can Stabat Mater, Beat poetry, Shakespeare’s sonnets, Goethe’s Faust, and Japanese haiku possibly have in common? At-tempts to provide positive accounts, with necessary or sufficient reasons for what counts as a poem, often meet with the counterexamples that human creativity is wont to produce. Consider these excerpts from two twentieth-century poems. Are there any commonalities between the Georgian poet Galaktion Tabidze’s ‘Without Love’ and the Mexican Octavio Paz’s ‘The Poet’? [transliterated:]usi Kvarulodmze ar sufevs ts-is kamaraze,sio ar dahqris, T-Ke ar krtebasasixarulod…El hombre es el alimento del hombre. El saber no es dis-tinto del so ?nar, el so ?nar del hacer. La poes ??a ha puestofuego a todos los poemas. Se acabaron las palabras, seacabaron las im ?agenes. Abolida la distancia entre el nom-bre y la cosa, nombrar es crear, e imaginar, hacer.1Aside from being literary texts, at first glance the similarities are hard to find. Even line breaks, a feature we typically associate with poetry, are ab-sent in Paz’s prose poem. Neither is there a rhyme scheme in it as we find in the Georgian example(abca), which also combines the rhymes with specific line lengths. The passage from Paz’s poem is filled with metaphors (‘Man is the food of man,’ ‘to name is to create’), whereas Tabidze’s has no metaphors (though there is imagery in it: ‘the sun does not shine in the heavenly spheres’). In view of such dissimilarities, even those who are most familiar with the art form have shied away from drawing strict boundaries between poetry and other types of verbal art. Thus Robert Pinsky, a former laureate poet, says he ‘will be content…to accept a social, cultural definition of poetry: poetry is what a bookstore puts in the section of that name.’2It barely needs remarking that such a definition is inappropriate on many levels; I will note only that it leads to a regress that, while not infinite, would likely land us back precisely at the doors of people like Pinsky himself, that is, poets, inasmuch as bookstores follow rather than create the categories under which they sort their books. In a recent article, Robert Pierce examined six contenders for a defining criterion of poetry: rhythm, imagery, beauty, unity, strangeness or playfulness, and ineffability of meaning.3None of these, he argues, does the job of separating poetry from other literary arts: there is no ‘essential core of meaning’ of the word ‘poetry,’ nor a ‘clearly delimited entity that is poetry’ according to Pierce.4While rhythm, imagery, and so forth may be typical features found in poems, none of them is necessary or sufficient for a text to count as one. Rather, he says: ‘What the term ‘poetry’ refers to is a group of publicly visible things in the social world that we call ‘poems.”5Hence all we can do is see what these things are and learn to use the term on the basis of how newly encountered texts resemble them. I will not review Pierce’s arguments for a family-resemblance approach to poetry here. I agree with him that none of the features he considers passes muster as a characteristic all and only poems must have. Nevertheless, even if we fail to find a feature intrinsic to poems that will set them apart from other forms of literature, we may still be able to accomplish our definitional goal on the basis of a relational feature. I will rather argue for a historically-grounded poetic intention, one that I believe will provide us with the necessary and sufficient conditions for a satisfactory definition of poetry. If my definition is right, it will in addition provide a partial explanation for what is the ubiquitous characteristic of all poetries of the world – the use of repetition devices.

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