traditional poetryPoets and workshop conveners dread the question, but it can hardly be avoided. What exactly is poetry? Dictionaries generally offer something like: the expression or embodiment of beautiful or elevated thought, imagination or feeling in language adapted to stir the imagination and the emotions.

Speaking of high poetry, Maeterlinck said, 'the constituents are threefold: beauty of language, the passionate portrayal of what is real around and in us, nature and our own feelings, and the enveloping whole, creating its peculiar atmosphere, the idea that the poet forms to himself of the unknown, in which floats the being he invokes, the mystery which dominates and judges them, which presides over and assigns their destinies.' {27}

That last deserves some brooding on, for all its Symbolist echoes, but it doesn't describe the aims of most poets working today, nor take us far in appreciating the sheer variety of past work.

Traditional Poetry

Traditionalists generally believe that poems give enduring and universal life to what was merely transitory and particular. Through them, the poet expresses his vision, real or imaginative, and he does so in forms that are intelligible and pleasurable to others, and likely to arouse emotions akin to his own. Poetry is language organized for aesthetic purposes. Whatever else it does, poetry must bear witness, must fulfill the cry: 'let not my heart forget what mine eyes have seen.' A poem is distinguished by the feeling that dictates it and that which it communicates, by the economy and resonance of its language, and by the imaginative power that integrates, intensifies and enhances experience. Poems bear some relationship to real life but are equally autonomous and independent entities that contain within themselves the reason why they are so and not otherwise. Unlike discourse, which proceeds by logical steps, poetry is intuited whole as a presentiment of thought and/or feeling. Workaday prose is an abbreviation of reality: poetry is its intensification. Poems have a transcendental quality: there is a sudden transformation through which words assume a particular importance. Like a bar of music, or a small element in a holographic image, a phrase in a poem has the power to immediately call up whole ranges of possibilities and expectations. Art is a way of knowing, and is valuable in proportion to the justice with which it evaluates that knowledge. Poetry is an embodiment of human values, not a kind of syntax. True symbolism in poetry allows the particular to represent the more general, not as a dream or shadow, but as the momentary, living revelation of the inscrutable. {1}

The poet's task is to resurrect the outer, transient and perishable world within himself, to transform it into something much more real. He must recognize pattern wherever he sees it, and build his perceptions into poetic form that has the coherence and urgency to persuade us of its truth: the intellectual has to be fused with the sensuous meaning. All poets borrow, but where good poets improve on their borrowing, the bad debase. The greatness of the poet is measurable by the real significance of the resemblances on which he builds, the depth of the roots in the constitution, if not of the physical world, then of the moral and emotional nature of man. {1}

Poetry can be verse or prose. Verse has a strong metrical element. An inner music is the soul of poetry. Poetry withers and dries out when it leaves music, or at least some imagined music, too far behind. The diction of poetry is a fiction, neither that of the speaker nor the audience. Without its contrivance poetry is still possible, but is immensely poorer. Subtly the vocabulary of poetry changes with the period, but words too familiar or too remote defeat purpose of the poet. {1}

Traditional Aesthetics

Can these widely different views be bridged? Definitions are tricky matters, especially in art, but could we not analyze successful works of art and identify their common features? So attempts aesthetics, {2} which recognizes the following:


What is the first task of art? To represent. Words certainly do not stand in simple one to one relationships with objects, and there's no doubt that codes, complex social transactions, understandings between speakers, genre requirements etc. play a large if somewhat unfathomed part in the process. But if literature of all types — written, spoken, colloquial, formal — reconstitutes the world according to its own rules, those rules are also constrained by our sense perceptions and social needs.

Emotional Expression

We also expect art to move us. Whether that emotion is what the artist originally felt, or what he subsequently induces in us through the artwork, is a debated point. But make us feel something a poem must, and we cannot begin an appraisal until we have that first response.


Beauty is a term unfashionable today, and troublesome to the contemporary philosopher, but there remains organization — internal consistency, coherence, a selection and shaping of elements that seems to make art an autonomous and self-enclosing entity. Is that aesthetic separation required? Postmodernists say not, but most commentators have thought art was something different from life, and that a host of qualities — harmony in variety, detachment, balance, luminous wholeness, organic coherence, interacting inevitability, etc. — allowed art to provide something different from our everyday existences.

Social Purpose

But art is not entirely consolation or private pleasure. Artworks are social objects. We wouldn't fund the arts, or honour artists, unless they served some further end. Marxists believe that art should not only represent the economic facts of life, but improve them. And even conservatives would accept that poems give us some understanding of the world, can make us more tolerant and perceptive, shake us out of stock responses, perhaps even give our lives some overall purpose and significance. {4}

Traditional Poetry Today

Traditionalists see themselves in a difficult position. Criticism, which was useful to them in opening doors to new approaches and poets, has been taken over by literary theory, which espouses different objectives. Formalism, which shares their interest in craft, tends to march poems up and down in strict iambic beat, or to suppose that prosaic thought expressed as verse automatically becomes poetry. Many of the prestigious small presses will not take traditional work, or show by the pieces they do publish that they have no ear or soul for poetry. On the other side lie the vast plains of amateurism, well intentioned efforts on the whole, and with the odd success, but with talent spread so thin that poetry itself is given a bad name.

Writers may be competitive creatures, but the traditionalists do not generally have a quarrel with later schools, whose manifestoes they find interesting if not wholly convincing. They can see why Modernists believe that poems should not represent, but be. That they are structures of meaning with those meanings conveyed only through language. That once created, poems have an existence independent of the author's intentions, of the historical context or any social purpose. That poems are in some sense fictions and not representations of reality, though they may give significance, value and order to our perceptions. That they have the ability to hold something in the mind with uncommon sensitivity, with uncommon exactness, and to hold it there by attention to the language in which they're formulated. Yes, and that language catalyses, interpenetrates and modifies what is said. Perhaps even that a new reality is created, often by metaphors, which have an outward-ringing quality. Poetry does not simply illustrate a concept, but give it a new life and larger dimensions. A man is a poet if the difficulties of his craft provide him with inspiration, and not a poet if these difficulties deprive him of opportunities. {3} Yes, to all these they have no objection.

Of Postmodernism in its various manifestations — minimalism, conceptualism, performance art, improvised happenings — they are more wary. Perhaps Postmodernist poems do negate themselves by appearing to strive for autonomy but then dislocating that autonomy by shifting genre boundaries, fragmentation and montage. Perhaps language is ultimately ambiguous, when poetry is a special locus of unreality, poems accepting and exploiting that ambiguity, and to that extent becoming the most authentic of literary creations. Perhaps content is created by language, and meaning is simply the play of forms. Texts cannot know themselves, and it is the reader who has the final say on interpretation, no interpretation being final or better than another. More important than any outward organic unity is the dissonance, complexity, athwartness, estrangements and lacunae that specialized reading will discern in a poem. {4} All very interesting, traditionalists feel. But then they look at Postmodernist collections that receive rave reviews and see mere novelty, pieces that are clever but ultimately trivial and disheartening, what they might produce themselves if they forgot what poetry was or could be.


There is no school as such, but the following twentieth-century poets might be called traditionalists.

Walter De la Mare {5}
Robert Graves {6},
Edwin Muir {7},
W.H. Auden {8}
Stephen Spender, {9}
Kingsley Amis {10},
Philip Larkin {11}
Dylan Thomas {12},
John Betjeman {13}
Geoffrey Hill {14}
Robert Frost {15}
Elinor Wylie, {16}
Sarah Teasdale, {17}
A.E. Robinson, {18}
John Crowe Ransome, {19}
William Meredith, {20}
Donald Hall, {21}
Hugh Moss, {22}
J.V. Cunningham, {23}
Howard Nemerov, {24}
Robert Lowell {25}
John Hollander {26}


Traditional poets often publish in the following (and no doubt many other magazines):

Shadow Poetry
Cowboy Poetry
Blue Collar Review
Tower Poetry Society
Eclectic Muse

Looking Ahead

Though literature of the last century turned away from the findings of pure and social science — if not from life altogether — research in many areas of pure and applied science is beginning to place traditional poetry in context, to show the basic rightness of its intuitions. Study of complex systems suggests, for example, that art is important for the patterning it creates from chaos — i.e. it is not the order nor the chaos per se that are important, but the growth of one from the other. Poems therefore have to be fought for: they are continually asserting themselves against the obscure, the incoherent, the dark forces of our instinctive natures. The greatest poems are not necessarily made from the most obviously felt emotions, but are made from deep strands of intellectual and emotional instability in society and individual character.

Then we have the expanding field of metaphor research, whose findings echo the sustained search for foundations in the other great areas of human endeavour: mathematics, linguistics, philosophy and science. Man is a complex creature, and his truest experiences are not to be wholly encompassed by rational systems. As the classical world accepted, man's nature is also instinctive and physiological. Traditional poetry operates through language used in its widest remit, and that language, having been fashioned by trial and error over millennia, must inevitably hold man's truest needs and longings.


1. Originals of many of these summarized aphorisms are to be found in Christopher Butler and Alastair Fowler's Topics in Criticism (1971), in Babette Deutsch's Poetry Handbook: A Dictionary of Terms (1957), and in David Daiches's Critical Approaches to Literature (1981). For more extended expositions, see Chapters 8 and 9 of Dana Gioia's Can Poetry Matter: Essays on Poetry and American Culture (1992), contributions to the magazine The Formalist edited by William Baer, George Whalley's Poetic Process (1915, 1953), H.J.C. Grierson's The Background of English Literature (1925), Phyllis Jones and Derek Hudson's (Eds.) English Critical Essays: Twentieth Century (1933-58, Kenneth Hopkins's English Poetry: A Short History (1962), Winifred Nowottny's The Language Poets Use (1968), Christopher Rick's The Force of Poetry (1984), and Robert Wallace's Writing Poems (1987)
2. Oswald Hanfling's Philosophical Aesthetics: An Introduction (1992) and entries in David Cooper's A Companion to Aesthetics (1995).
3. Michael Podro's Fiction and Reality in Painting in Kermal and Gaskell's (Eds.) Explanation and Value in the Arts (1993), James Gribble's Literary Education: A Revaluation (1983) and Chapter 29 of William Wimsatt and Cleanth Brook's Literary Criticism: A Short History (1957). Also Julian Symons's Makers of the New: The Revolution in Literature 1912-39. (1987)
4. Frank Kermode's History and Value (1988), Roger Cardinale's Figures of Reality: A Perspective on the Poetic Imagination (1981), Rainer Emig's Modernism in Poetry (1995), Richard Bradford's A Linguistic History of English Poetry (1993), John Hollander's Fictive Patterns in Poetic Language (1988) and Brandon Taylor's The Art of Today (1995).
5. De la Mare Society. http://www.bluetree.co.uk/wdlmsociety NNA
6. The Robert Graves Trust Information Centre. http://www.robertgraves.org/introduction.php NNA
7. Edwin Muir’s journey. Robert Richman 1997. http://www.newcriterion.com/archive/15/apr97/richman.htm NNA. The New Criterion article: Vol. 15, No. 8, April 1997
8. W.H. Auden (1907-73) http://www.poets.org/poet.php/prmPID/120.
9. Steven Spender (1909-95). http://www.granta.com/authors/562 NNA.
10. Kingsley Amis (1922-95). http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kingsley_Amis.
11. Without Metaphysics: The Poetry of Philip Larkin. An Sonjae. 1992. http://www.sogang.ac.kr/~anthony/Larkin.htm NNA.
12. Dylan Thomas (1914-53). http://www.poets.org/poet.php/prmPID/150.
13. Sir John Betjeman (1906-84). http://www.johnbetjeman.com/
14. Geoffrey Hill (b. 1932). http://www.complete-review.com/authors/hillg.htm
15. Robert Frost (1874-1963). http://www.robertfrost.org/indexgood.html NNA
16. Elinor Wylie (1885-1928). http://www.poemtree.com/Wylie.htm
17. Sarah Teasdale (1884-1933). http://www.poemtree.com/Teasdale.htm
18. AE Robinson (1869-1935). http://www.poemtree.com/Robinson.htm
19. John Crowe Ranson (1888-1974). http://www.poemtree.com/Ransom.htm
20. William Meredith (b. 1919). http://www.conncoll.edu/meredith/criticism/ NNA
21. Donald Hall (b. 1928). http://www.poets.org/poet.php/prmPID/264.
22. Howard Moss (b. 1922-87). http://www.nhptv.org/kn/itv/mcd/moss.htm
23. J. V. Cunningham (1911-85). http://www.poets.org/poet.php/prmPID/256.
24. Howard Nemerov (1920-91). http://www.press.uchicago.edu/Misc/Chicago/572439.html
25. Robert Lowell (1917-77). http://www.english.uiuc.edu/maps/poets/g_l/lowell/lowell.htm
26. John Hollander (b. 1929). http://www.poets.org/poet.php/prmPID/64.
27. H.J.C. Grierson's The Background to English Literature and Other Collected Essays. (Chatto and Windus, 1925) 212.

Internet Resources

1. Poetry Lover's Guide. http://users.datarealm.com/Lucius/PLG.index.html. Links to other poetry collections and poetry guides: many traditional.
2. Before and After New Criticism: an Overview. http://www.eng.fju.edu.tw/Literary_Criticism/new_criticism/traditional.htm. Brief notes on salient features.
3. The Last Great Critic. Jul. 2000. http://www.theatlantic.com/issues/2000/07/glick.htm. Atlantic Online review of Lionel Trilling and the Critics: Opposing Selves.
4. The Social Mission of English Criticism 1848-1932. Chris Baldick. http://www.english.ucsb.edu/faculty/rraley/research/english/baldick.html. Excerpt on troubled birth of literary criticism.
5. The Hermeneutics of Biblical Lyric Poetry. Daniel J. Estes. 1995. http://www.biblicalstudies.org.uk/article_lyric_estes.html. Literary criticism from a variety of perspectives, generally traditional.
6. English Literature on the Web. Mitsuharu Matsuoka. http://www.lang.nagoya-u.ac.jp/%7Ematsuoka/EngLit.html. Very extensive listings.
7. Litcrit or litlit? Mark Noe. 2001. http://www.findarticles.com/cf_dls/m2342/4_35/97114242/p1/article.jhtml. Literary criticism versus literary theory.
8. 'Speaking of Beauty' by Denis Donoghue. James Wood. Sep 2003. http://www.nytimes.com/2003/09/14/books/review/14WOODLT.html. Times book review contrasting radical criticism with traditional aims.
9. Reading Poetry. James R. Elkins. Jan. 2004. http://www.wvu.edu/%7Elawfac/jelkins/lp-2001/intro/readpoem.html. Listings of useful articles and interviews.
10. Introduction to Modern Literary Theory. Kristi Siegel. Jan. 2003. http://www.kristisiegel.com/theory.htm. Introduction to types, bibliographies and Internet listings.
11. Magazines and E-zines. http://dmoz.org/Arts/Literature/Poetry/Magazines_and_E-zines. Open Directory's listing of sites.
12. Magazines and E-zines. http://dmoz.org/Arts/Literature/Poetry/Magazines_and_E-zines. Open Directory's listing of sites.
13. Beyond Poststructuralism: The Speculations of Theory and the Experience of Reading. Brian G. Caraher. 1998. http://www.findarticles.com/cf_dls/m2220/n3_v40/21182133/p2/article.jhtml?term=. Critical book review summarising current arguments.
14. Literary History. Jan Pridmore. Jan. 2004. http://www.literaryhistory.com/index.htm. Index of critical articles.
15. Guide to Literary Theory. Michael Groden and Martin Kreiswirth. http://www.press.jhu.edu/books/guide/. Johns Hopkins online guide: free access limited.
16. Literary Criticism. http://www.libraryspot.com/litcrit.htm. Library Spot's listing.
17. Literary Resources on the Net. Jack Lynch. Jun. 2003. 'shttp://andromeda.rutgers.edu/%7Ejlynch/Lit/. Extensive as usual.
18. Internet Public Library. Jun. 2002. http://www.ipl.org/div/litcrit/. Listing of critical and biographical websites.
19. Poetry Lover's Guide. http://users.datarealm.com/Lucius/PLG.index.html. Links to other poetry collections and poetry guides: many traditional.

C. John Holcombe   |  About the Author    | ©     2007 2012 2013 2015.   Material can be freely used for non-commercial purposes if cited in the usual way.