The Traditional Theory of Poetry 

Robert Harris
Version Date: March 25, 2013

This article is a companion to How to Write Better Poetry, which argues for the use of thought, artistic considerations, and richness in poetry writing. The Traditional Theory of Poetry presents the theory and philosophy of what makes the best poetry. The analysis should be useful to anyone either studying poetry or writing it.

1. Poetry is mimetic.
Poetry imitates, copies, or reflects something. The thing can be real (an actual thing, such as the poet’s love for someone), an ideal (a representation or copy of a universal, such as a conversation with Truth), or an imagined thing or an experience or feeling (such as a description of the loss of a loved one). But whether or not physical nature is involved, the poem must convey or recreate something true--it must deal with real feeling, thought, or truth. We must say, "Yes, this is a mirror of possibility or actuality in some sense," even if we are reading about dragons and talking trees.

Thus, the following example is not a poem:

The doorknob barked past the razor blade's spring
While the rocks afloat coughed up the string.

because, even though it contains meter, rhyme and metaphors, it does not reflect something true or real. On the other hand, this example is a poem:

His brain was running on stolen retreads
So when the ruts attacked,
The flats arrived early.

because, even though it lacks meter and rhyme (which, by the way, would make it a better poem), it conveys an image of truth in poetic form: people who rely on others' thinking (stolen retreads) often find themselves at an intellectual loss (flats) when their ideas are challenged (ruts attacking).

2. Poetry is emotional as well as rational.
Like all literature, poetry exploits connotation, multiple meaning, emotive language, and penetrating images. Its language is constructed deliberately to add feeling to thought--or better, to create the fusion of thought and feeling (a phrase applied to the metaphysical poets), or as C. S. Lewis puts it, to create "emotion impregnated with intelligence." By bringing emotion into the argument, poetry allows the reader to feel a truth. As Edwin Arlington Robinson says, poetry “tells us through an emotional reaction something that cannot be said.”

Thus, one measure of good poetry is the emotional as well as the intellectual effect of the idea: does it move the intellect with its brilliance, persuade the heart with feeling, and touch the soul with its truth, beauty, and immediate recognition of kinship? Compare these synonymous expressions:

A guy can tell what his love is thinking by looking at the expression on her face.

To hear with eyes belongs to love's fine wit.

Isn’t Shakespeare’s version just stunningly beautiful and powerfully effective, and true? People in love can exchange looks that communicate more than words might express, and a poetic expression of that truth communicates more beautifully than a mere prose description.

Unlike history, the sciences, and scholarship, all of which shun the use of feeling or emotion, poetry welcomes it, not as a substitute for thought, but as an ally. Some of the latest work in neuroscience tells us that emotions represent a huge amount of subconscious thinking and analysis. So the fusion of thought and feeling can produce a genuinely better understanding of life or reality than thought alone.

3. Poetry recreates, not merely recounts.
Readers of a poem should not just recognize or understand the feeling or idea the poet is treating; they should experience it. They should participate in the intellectual, spiritual, or emotional message. The poet excites in the reader "a tone of feeling similar to that which existed in his own bosom," says Sir Walter Scott. To do this, the poet must not merely describe or tell, but find words and images that produce an effect--that reproduce a feeling or insight. Edgar Allan Poe calls poetry the “rhythmical creation of beauty.” In nonfiction you learn about a feeling; in fiction you understand a feeling; in poetry you share the feeling.

For example, a biographer might write, “When he left her, she was sad.” But a poet would write,

That time he stayed, the days were hot and bold,
But then he took the sun and she was cold.

Poetry, then, calls on not only your previous knowledge but also your previous emotional experience as you understand and resonate with what’s being expressed.

4. Poetry is a "speaking picture."
The phrase belongs to Sir Philip Sidney. He means that poetry uses imagery, pictures, concrete visions to convey its message and feeling; it shows, and not just tells. The speaking picture is created by association, and association is the key to poetry, because the devices of association (metaphor, simile, personification, and so forth—see below for more) provide the flash of understanding, recognition, wit, and perception, the greatness of expression and art that presents and clarifies truth and feeling. (See the Handbook of Rhetorical Devices for information on these devices.)

Another measure of good poetry, then, is the freshness of the associations it offers: the use of new or unusual comparisons, thoughts, tracks, or perspectives. And, of course, not only novelty is important, but the quality, aptness, and worth of the association. Petrarchan conceits (eyes like stars, roses in cheeks, hair like golden thread) got old quickly. On the other hand, how marvelous yet how unusual and fresh are Herrick's lines:

She by the river sat, and sitting there,
She wept, and made it deeper by a tear.

Note how effectively this image captures the imagination, how beautiful and moving it is.

Good imagistic creativity produces striking, fresh, and vivid images, consonant with the mood and thought, such as a full, rapidly changing, tour of life or a multifaceted examination of the subject. A good poet has the ability to reduce abstract thoughts and ideas to pictorial form, either by comparison, special imagery, or otherwise. Consider these lines from "The Pulley" by George Herbert. God is speaking, and commands all the blessings of the world to enter a drinking glass, which he grasps (a span is the distance from the thumb to the tip of the little finger):

Let the world’s riches, which dispersed lie,
Contract into a span.

Now God has

... a glass of blessings standing by

--> Next page, Devices of Association and more

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About the author:
Robert Harris is a writer and educator with more than 25 years of teaching experience at the college and university level. RHarris at virtualsalt.com