“Poem” has its etymological root in a Greek verb meaning “to make,” thus a poem is something made. A more detailed description of poetry has been elusive for more than a couple thousand years.
A somewhat bountiful book on this subject is Classic Writings on Poetry, edited by Dr. William Harmon.
From his Introduction:
“…In none of [these] documents is poetry as such distinguished very crisply from prose…(1)
Poetry resists absolute definitions…Rhyme, for example, has been an incidental blemish of prose in many literatures, especially those of classical antiquity…in time, however, in the poetry of Europe, rhyme turned into an ornament so important that ‘rhyme’ itself virtually came to mean ‘poem’…”
But before that happened, “…during the Middle Ages…rhymed accentual verse was introduced for certain religious texts set to music, but rhyme was so alien to true poetry, according to many conservatives, that such texts were called ‘proses.’ “(2)
Harmon notes that an “old-fashioned” poem, or “verse,” like “Adeste Fideles,” does not rhyme either in Latin or in English.
I am fully intrigued by reflecting on the distinction between prose and poetry. I’m not yet prepared to offer any compelling commentary on that point, except to say that I’m in complete agreement with Edgar Allan Poe in believing that brevity has something to do with it.
In his “The Poetic Principle,” Poe makes his view very clear:
“I hold that a long poem does not exist. I maintain that the phrase, ‘a long poem,’ is simply a flat contradiction in terms.
“I need scarcely observe that a poem deserves its title only inasmuch as it excites, by elevating the soul. The value of the poem is in the ratio of this elevating excitement…That degree of excitement which would entitle a poem to be so called at all, cannot be sustained throughout a composition of any great length. After the lapse of half an hour, at the very utmost, it flags—fails—a revulsion ensues—and then the poem is, in effect, and in fact, no longer such.”
It takes about a minute to read this post.
(1) Harmon, p. xii
(2) Ibid., p. x
Copyright © Richard Carl Subber 2016 All rights reserved.