Whenever I’m asked in a class about what poetry is, I often remember the words of an
enraged mother addressing her daughter who planned to move in with her boyfriend, saying: “Ha otswa ka lemati leno, o siye sohle seleng saka, le madi atabohang mmeleng ono wa
Translated (Prose): “I will disown you if you walk out that door.”
Direct translation (Poetry): “At your exit, cast behind all my belongings, even the blood that tears through that body of yours.”
In the same artery, I’m reminded of a man lending money from a friend, and the friend
replying with: ”Ke molora fela nou Ntjamme, mara oskashwa, sbandaba bhoda rea tsoha”
Translated (Prose): “I’m broke brother, but rest assured, I’ll have money at the end of the month.”
Direct translation (Poetry): “All I am now is only but ash my kin; die not, however, when the cold is deemed departed, we shall rise.”
In the Vaal Triangle the end of the month is called sbandana bhoda, that is, “the death of the cold”. “Death” is referred to as bhoda, derived from the English word “boarder”, denoting a “crossing over or departure”; this is the time of the month where people get paid and the discomfort (cold) of the strife that comes with the lack of money departs,
even if it’s only for a moment. I believe it is in such crevices where a distinction between poetry and prose, direct and creative speech, is unearthed.
TS Elliot argues that “The distinction between verse and prose is clear, the distinction between poetry and prose is obscure.” The mother and the friend contra the latter, however, their speech clears any kind of obscurity; it proves that it is the creative crafting of language to produce powerful and clear impressions on the senses that is the transforming of prose to poetry.
In its isolation then, what can we say Poetry is?
Well, let’s take it from the beginning, etymologically the word Poetry is derived from the Greek word Poesis meaning, “the activity in which a person brings something into being that did not exist before.” Shortly put, Poetry is Creating.
The question that follows is, “Creating what?” My answer is, “Vividness.”
I submit that Poetry is the art of employing language to create vividness. It is to creatively make vivid that which is being conveyed. Poetic devices are thus mere instruments of vividness; theirs is to produce a powerful and clear impression on the senses.
The poet and politician, Aimé Césaire put it simply by saying, “the most vital thing [in poetry] is to re-establish a personal, fresh, compelling, magical contact with things.”
There have been, for millennia, multiple definitions of poetry, from Aristotle’s Poetics (3rd century BCE), the first surviving philosophical treatise on literary theory, to definitions in all various dictionaries in use today (Webster to Oxford to Dictionary.com). Within all these extant definitions, there pulses a common vein that vessels verse into
the heart of literature; this is what I’ve come to view as, “The Trinity of Poetry”.
Every poetry definition concurs that a poem needs to have a Narrative, and for this narrative to carry the poet’s message across, Image and Rhythm need to be the tunica at its center.
Poetic devices are deftly categorized under these three elements:
Image: – Metaphor, simile, allegory, personification, anthropomorphism, hyperbole, etc.
Rhythm: – Alliteration, assonance, consonance, cacophony, onomatopoeia, meter, rhyme,
Narrative: – Irony, paradox, pun, pathos, metonymy, synecdoche, bathos, etc.
In conclusion, with all mentioned, our definition of Poetry is thus:
“Poetry is the creative crafting of language, through the use of narrative, image and rhythm, to produce powerful and clear impressions on the senses.”
If you will allow me to leave you with a word from Nobel Prize-winning poet Wislawa Szymborska on prose and poetry, and a free-verse poem from the legendary South African poet Mbuyiseni Oswald Mtshali:
Wislawa Szymborska replies to a letter from Mr Pal-Zet, a poet asking for feedback on his work:
“The poems you’ve sent suggest that you’ve failed to perceive a key difference between poetry and prose. For example, the poem entitled ‘Here’ is merely a modest prose description of a room and the furniture it holds. In prose, such descriptions perform a specific function: they set the stage for the action to come. In a moment the doors will
open, someone will enter, and something will take place. In poetry, the description itself must ‘take place.’ Everything becomes significant, meaningful: the choice of images, their placement, the shape they take in words. The description of an ordinary room must become before our eyes the discovery of that room, and the emotion contained by that
description must be shared by the readers. Otherwise, prose will stay prose, no matter how hard you work to break your sentences into lines of verse. And what’s worse, nothing happens afterwards.”
Master of the House by Mbuyiseni Oswald Mtsali
Master, I am a stranger to you,
but will you hear my confession?
I am a faceless man
who lives in the backyard
of your house.
I share your table
so heavily heaped with
bread, meat and fruit
it huffs like a horse
drawing a coal cart.
As the rich man’s to Lazarus,
the crumbs are swept to my lap
by my Lizzie:
‘Sweetie! eat and be satisfied now,
To-morrow we shall be gone.’
So nightly I run the gauntlet
wrestle with your mastiff, Caeser,
for the bone pregnant with meat
and wash it down with Pussy’s milk.
I am the nocturnal animal
that steals through the fenced lair
to meet my mate,
and flees at the break of dawn
before the hunter and the hounds
run me to ground.