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POETRY: WHAT IS IT?, by                     Poet's Biography
First Line: What is poetry? This question has been often propounded
Last Line: Rank and character of a true poet.
Subject(s): Language; Poetry & Poets; Writing & Writers; Words; Vocabulary

What is poetry? This question has been often propounded. It often recurs in
looking over the great variety of composition in the form of verse, with which
the daily newspaper press abounds. Although many attempts have been made to
answer the question, it has seldom been answered correctly or satisfactorily.
No attempt will now be made to answer it, much less to show how poetry may be
written; but a few suggestions will be offered, which may be profitably regarded
by those who may feel inclined to indulge in this species of composition.
1. To write good verses a person must be thoroughly master of the language in
which he writes. He must understand its grammar minutely. Without this there
can be no excellent composition of any kind; and it should be always remembered,
that true poetry is the highest order of grammatical composition.
2. If the author has mastered or can master other languages than his native
one, so much the better, and the more the better. Every additional language
acquired, furnishes new forms and modes of expression, and opens up new
fountains of thought, of knowledge, of criticism and of excellence.
3. To write good verses a person should have, at least, a general knowledge of
the sciences; and as in the languages so in the sciences, the farther an author
can extend his researches and his acquisitions in this direction the better.
4. The poet must be a philosopher, for every poetic composition should exhibit
a familiarity with the general nature of things, and with the settled theories
of causes and effects.
5. He must also be a thorough student in logic, in order to be able to give
clear and forcible expression to his philosophy; for, in good poetry, the
argument will appear in the body of the piece as well as in the title page.
6. He must understand geology, history, geography, chronology and astronomy, so
that he may, by simple allusions to well known facts, enrich his work of fancy
and of the imagination.
7. To write good verses the author must have studied thoroughly, the leading
works of criticism, such as those of Aristotle, Johnson, Quintillian, Kames,
Voltaire, Addison, Lamartine, Allison, Taine and Macaulay.
8. To make verses which can be at all acceptable to an intelligent reader, the
author must be master of the settled rules for this species of composition, and
especially with the first four specimens of poetic feet, viz.: lambics,
Trocheics, Anapestics and Dactylics. Without a familiar knowledge and a strict
observance of these there can be no poetic melody.
9. To write verses, the leading poets of his own language and country, together
with those of as many other languages as possible, should be made familiar to
the mind of the author, in order that he may possess the proper standard of
taste and merit as presented in the great masters of poetry.
10. The aspirant for poetic fame should also make himself familiar with the
general literature of his own language and country, for this will cast a steady
light upon his efforts at poetic composition.
11. He should also as far as possible, for the same reason, form an
acquaintance with the general literature of other languages and countries, the
more the better. Originals are always best, but translations are often
excellent, and they are generally far better than nothing.
12. The true poet must be familiar with the general dogmas and principles of
the different religious systems of the world -- past and present; for these
systems have exerted, do exert, and in the future will exert, a controling
influence upon the moral, intellectual and physical condition of mankind.
13. The poet must have an accurate knowledge of the sounds of letters, for
these sounds must enter, for better or for worse, as a most important element,
into both the melody and the harmony of verse.
14. The versifier should have a taste and an ear for music, for real poetry is
another form of music. If he is a master of vocal or instrumental music so much
the better. Poetry and music are kindred arts, and the author who cannot make
melody and sweet music in his verse, had better confine himself to the forms of
prose composition.
15. The author should be master of what is known as poetic measure. In this
respect, also, poetry bears a close resemblance to what is known as time or
measure in music. The foot or measure in poetry is closely analagous to the bar
of the staff in music. A true poet is a melodious singer, and good poetry is
melifluent song.
16. A poet should also have some considerable knowledge of what are known as
the other fine arts, such as painting, sculpture, architecture and landscape
gardening. The farther he can go in this direction the better.
17. Some knowledge of botany is indispensable to a high order of poetry, for
this branch of natural history embraces some of the best and most exquisite
elements of true poetry.
18. If an author intends to compose in rhyme, he should possess a rare tact and
facility at selecting and arranging rhyming syllables; otherwise his labors will
be very severe. He should also be master of what is known as the classification
or catalogue of rhymes. He must know what two or more syllables make admissible
rhymes for the uses of poetry and what do not. Otherwise his rhymes may turn
out to be no rhymes, and his poetic music to be no music at all.
19. The poet must possess the poetic spirit, inspiration, or poetic fire as it
is called. This is not produced by effort or labor. Nature must furnish it or
it will not exist; and he who has it not may write verses but he will never be a
20. The poet must have what is called invention. That is, he must be able to
invent or produce that which may lay just claims to originality, from the vast
range of the imaginary, the sentimental, the physical, the sensational and the
intellectual world. The true poet will be able to produce new forms, and the
exhibitions of new beauties, from the world of creation.
21. The true poet will possess a just and an elevated taste; and instead of
descending to vulgar tastes and pandering to them, by affecting bad orthography,
bad grammar, and low and vulgar thoughts and language, he will strive to improve
the popular tastes by the standard of his own. Poetry is eminently calculated
to elevate, ennoble and refine the feelings and sentiments, and there cannot be
a better test of true poetry than that it produces these effects upon the minds
and feelings of appreciative persons.
22. The poet must be a critic. That is, he must be able, wherever he sees a
piece of versification, at once to analyze, describe and classify -- its
syllables, its words, its poetic feet, its lines, its couplets and its stanzas.
If he cannot do this he will never write acceptable verses, for without this
capacity, how can he determine the real character and standard of his own
compositions? How can he hope ever to compose good verse, if he cannot analyze
poetry and tell how it is and how it should be formed?
23. The poet must possess good judgment. He must be able to judge correctly of
his subject and of its various incidents and episodes, whether they be of a
poetic and of an appropriate character. He must also be able to judge of the
proper arrangement and treatment of his subject when selected. Good practical
common sense will carry even a poet very far on these various points.
Finally: If the aspirant for poetic honors possesses the foregoing
qualifications in a considerable degree, he may find himself able to write
acceptable verses, even if he is not able to attain to the highest or even to a
high order of poetry. He may be able to produce good, correct and acceptable
compositions, while at the same time he may be able to lay no just claims to the
rank and character of a true poet.

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