Friday, September 21, 2012

The unit of poetry

I'm going to be doing a little nachtmusik light po-crit over at (the freshly redesigned and -launched) Lemon Hound, run by the great Sina Queyras, whom I met when Sandra Simonds asked us both to participate in a roundtable on women who write criticism. My first post is just an introduction to my column, which I'm calling The Poneme, because I'm nerdy for neologisms. Here's the gist:

What is the unit of poetry? If the basic unit of prose is the sentence, the analog for poetry would seem to be the line. Sentences constitute paragraphs, and lines constitute stanzas. The only problem is that it doesn’t work for prose poetry, visual poetry, and conceptual forms that don’t have easily identifiable “lines.” (The foot causes even more problems, since so much of poetry is not metrical in a traditionally scannable way.) 
I’ve talked a lot in the past about “moves” – identifiable stylistic tricks that poets use for flair, often as personal calling cards. The concept is borrowed from chess or dancing. You can abstract certain patterns away from the game, the flow of movement, or the poem as a whole (the Queen’s gambit, the electric slide). In poetry, as in dancing, a writer can create an original or put her own spin on a classic move. Some poets are especially drawn to certain “moves,” and they become signatures at best, tics at worst. Moves come into fashion, get overused and then fall out of favor. Moves are recycled, and new or newish moves are born. 
It’s a useful concept, but it has its shortcomings. For one, it sounds slangy and unserious compared to “line” or “stanza.” Secondly, it’s not specialized; it’s not specific to the practice of poetry. Many disciplines, in both art and science, have their own specialized units. So why not poetry? In linguistics, the smallest unit of sound is called a phoneme – for example, the k sound – while a morpheme is the smallest unit of semantically meaningful language (the word “dog,” the plural “s”). Richard Dawkins defines the gene as the unit of natural selection – a bit of DNA that translates into some potentially useful or harmful trait (such as blue eyes or sharp teeth), and which is therefore more or less likely to be replicated and passed on to other organisms. 
These concepts are especially applicable to the problem of units in poetry – the gene is not defined by size or shape but instead by meaning and use value. This is the type of flexible unit that is needed in poetry ...

Read the rest over at Lemon Hound! See also interviews, essays, poems and much more goodness from Sina, Laura Broadbent, and other contributors and regulars.


  1. I read something somewhere (long ago, don't remember the author) to the effect that novels are made of paragraphs, short stories are made of sentences, and poems are made of words.

    This made sense to me at the time. And, I guess, it still does.

    Nothing more elaborate to say about it at the moment, but commenting this here for what it's worth.