Why is this Bukowski poem poetry?
July 17, 2013 9:37 PM   Subscribe

Yesterday I was reading a Bukowski poem, and as much as I enjoyed it, I got to wondering: "Why is this poetry?"

So that's my question: What exactly makes this poetry - as opposed to prose just arbitrarily broken up into discrete lines?

Here's a sample excerpt from the poem:

anyhow, one night in Miami Beach (I
have no idea what I was doing in that
city) I had not eaten in 60 hours
and I took the last of my starving
pennies
went down to the corner grocery and
bought a loaf of bread.


This could just as easily have been written as follows:

Anyhow, one night in Miami Beach (I have no idea what I was doing in that city) I had not eaten in 60 hours and I took the last of my starving pennies went down to the corner grocery and bought a loaf of bread.

So why wasn’t it? Is Bukowski just allowed to do whatever he wants and call it poetry? Or is he following some poetic convention?
posted by paleyellowwithorange to Media & Arts (16 answers total) 10 users marked this as a favorite
 
Or is he following some poetic convention?

Free verse is definitely a poetic convention. But Bukowski wasn't really terrifically concerned with literary conventions, generally speaking.

For what it's worth, the poem you've posted here does not seem--to me--substantially less poetic than, say, William Carlos Williams's "This is just to say", except that the subject matter is slightly less pretty, I suppose. The line breaks here emphasize "60 hours", "starving", "pennies," "bread." It's a portrait of hunger and destitution, rather than a documentary sentence. To me, the effect is substantially different.
posted by like_a_friend at 9:52 PM on July 17, 2013 [3 favorites]


This explanation from ReadWriteThink [pdf] might help. It mostly has to do with form--and you're right that Bukowski could have arranged the words as you did. But by breaking them up as he did, it changes the feeling you get when you read them, because it emphasizes some words over others.

One of the things I do with my lit students is get them to rewrite William Carlos Williams' "This is Just to Say" in conventionally punctuated sentences and then ask how that changes the way they perceive the poem.

[Haha, jinx about WCW's poem, like_a_friend.]
posted by hurdy gurdy girl at 9:55 PM on July 17, 2013


Three relevant terms and their Wikipedia pages:

Enjambment
Free verse
Line break

Is Bukowski just allowed to do whatever he wants and call it poetry?

Poetry? Sure. Good poetry? Who's to say?
posted by papayaninja at 9:57 PM on July 17, 2013


by breaking them up as he did, it changes the feeling you get when you read them, because it emphasizes some words over others

Hm. I guess I was reading it wrong, then, because I was reading it as if it was prose - ignoring the line breaks and observing the punctuation. I see that if I emphasize the last word in each line, the poem does feel quite different.
posted by paleyellowwithorange at 10:09 PM on July 17, 2013


Read the last word of each line again:

I
that
hours
starving
pennies
and
bread

Those line breaks are in no way arbitrary.
posted by jesourie at 12:32 AM on July 18, 2013


My feeling, as a failed poet (I would have loved to have had real talent), is that the key thing you need to get, to get poetry, is that

words
matter.

The way the poet decides to break lines is essentially a form of emphasis, which either highlights words visually, or forces a mental pause on the word, so that you

think
about each
and every
word.

It's not that you don't when reading good prose, mind you, it's that prose is sort of sentencey, or even paragraph-ey, while poetry is definitely word-y. The poet thought long and hard, or was liberally inspired, when choosing the particular words you're reading. S/he wants you to think long and hard when reading them.
posted by dhartung at 3:29 AM on July 18, 2013


The other thing that matters in poetry is the rhythm of the words, which syllables are stressed or emphasized. Stephen Fry explains this and other poetry devices over well in his book The Ode Less Travelled.
posted by SyraCarol at 3:42 AM on July 18, 2013


Free verse is still constructed with careful attention to rhythm and phrasing in a way prose isn't. In well-written free verse the line breaks aren't arbitrary.

The two breaks in the parenthetical "(I / have no idea what I was doing in that / city)" break up the phrase in an odd non-fluent way as if he's hesitating and really can't remember. The placement of the breaks in the phrase "the last of my starving / pennies / " draws out words "starving pennies" and emphasizes them. The remaining breaks follow natural punctuation.
posted by nangar at 4:33 AM on July 18, 2013


Anyhow, one night in Miami Beach (I have no idea what I was doing in that city) I had not eaten in 60 hours and I took the last of my starving pennies went down to the corner grocery and bought a loaf of bread.

Could this not also be poetry?
posted by J0 at 9:15 AM on July 18, 2013


"starving pennies" is pretty poetic.
posted by St. Peepsburg at 9:44 AM on July 18, 2013


Lineation is surprisingly complicated, and it goes beyond mere emphasis. It's not just a pause, either: while it's not meant to be ignored entirely, in general, when you're reading a poem, a line break should be weaker than any actual punctuation and shouldn't be treated as a formal syntactic element. That's not to say line breaks can't be used to hint at alternative parsings, as in the second stanza of William Carlos Williams' "To a Poor Old Woman", but it's precisely the fact that they don't have as much weight as regular punctuation that allows them to superimpose a different parsing on an existing sentence. Probably the most convenient way to read line breaks is as an indicator of breath control, though of course it depends on the poem.

Anyway, a really good book to get if you're curious about the interaction of syntax and line is Ellen Bryan Voigt's book The Art of Syntax. It sounds really dry, but she does a really good job of teaching you how to really feel lineation and get a better grip on its formal properties. It was a revelatory read for me.

Also! Prose poems are a thing. Russell Edson is a prose poet I really like. "Poetry" can be kind of hazily defined.
posted by invitapriore at 10:23 AM on July 18, 2013 [1 favorite]


Finally, on the definition of poetry, I always liked Laurence Perrine's definition, from Sound and Sense:
There is no sharp distinction between poetry and other forms of imaginative literature. Although some beginning readers may believe that poetry can be recognized by the arrangement of its lines on the page or by its use of rhyme and meter, such superficial signs are of little worth. The Book of Job in the Bible and Melville’s Moby Dick are highly poetical, but the familiar verse that begins “Thirty days hath September, / April, June, and November...” is not. The difference between poetry and other literature is only one of degree. Poetry is the most condensed and concentrated form of literature. It is language whose individual lines, either because of their own brilliance or because they focus so powerfully on what has gone before, have a higher voltage than most language. It is language that grows frequently incandescent, giving off both light and heat.

...

Poetry, finally, is a kind of multidimensional language. Ordinary language—the kind that we use to communicate information—is one-dimensional. It is directed at only part of the listener, the understanding. Its one dimension is intellectual. Poetry, which is language used to communicate experience, has at least four dimensions. If it is to communicate experience, it must be directed at the whole person, not just at your understanding. It must involve not only your intelligence but also your senses, emotions, and imagination. To the intellectual dimension, poetry adds a sensuous dimension, an emotional dimension, and an imaginative dimension.
posted by invitapriore at 10:35 AM on July 18, 2013


Like invitapriore says, the line between poetry and prose can be hazy...Jamaica Kincaid's piece "Girl" is another good example: it's sometimes referred to as a short story, sometimes as a poem, sometimes as a prose poem. Anyway, it's very good and you might find it helpful in thinking about the differences between poetry and prose and the blurred lines that exist between.
posted by hurdy gurdy girl at 12:27 PM on July 18, 2013 [2 favorites]


Anyone can call anything they want "poetry". It's poetry if you agree it is.
posted by doomtop at 12:46 PM on July 18, 2013


Ordinary language—the kind that we use to communicate information—is one-dimensional. It is directed at only part of the listener, the understanding. Its one dimension is intellectual. Poetry, which is language used to communicate experience, has at least four dimensions. If it is to communicate experience, it must be directed at the whole person, not just at your understanding. It must involve not only your intelligence but also your senses, emotions, and imagination.

Does this mean that I could classify, say, The Lord of the Rings as poetry? I've always considered it to be extremely poetic prose, and I don't think its content only communicates information - I have often found myself leaning back from various passages almost vibrating with rapture at the sheer loveliness and expressiveness of Tolkien's use of the language.
posted by paleyellowwithorange at 7:00 PM on July 18, 2013


I tend to think that's the point where doomtop's definition starts holding sway, because while poetry and non-poetry have certain defining characteristics in the aggregate, it really does seem to come down to whether something is presented the one way or the other. So I guess on that basis I wouldn't call The Lord of the Rings poetry per se, but you could definitely make the case for it being "poetical" in the sense that Perrine attributes to Moby Dick above.
posted by invitapriore at 9:28 AM on July 19, 2013


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