Theory of Poetry Blog

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News sources report that the Pulitzer Prize Board said that it did not award a Pulitzer for fiction this year, leading to a hue and cry among publishers and others over the snub by the Board, particularly as three worthy candidates had been selected by the Pulitzer jurors as finalists. The fact is that a Pulitzer was awarded to a work of fiction this year after all – it was awarded to Tracy K. Smith for her book: “Life on Mars.” This was unnoticed because the Board mistakenly awarded her the prize in the category of “Poetry,” when in fact a reading of Smith’s “poems” reveals that they were not produced by the poetic process and do not qualify as works of art because they are essentially prose poems that could better have been written in sentences and paragraphs than in lines and stanzas.

A featured story posted April 7, 2012  in the April 17, 2012 edition of News at Princeton, where Smith is Assistant Professor of Creative Writing in the Lewis Center for the Arts, described Smith’s philosophy of poetry. The story can be read in its entirety by clicking here.

There it is reported that Smith “says she seeks the ‘magic’ that [her mentor] identifies as being central to the art of poetry, which ‘beckons’ the poet to discover the poem that is asking to be written.” So far so good, for poetry must have magic and, written as art, is always a voyage of discovery. Poems written by the poetic process do “beckon” the poet to discover the poem.

Where Smith falls off the trolley of poetry as art, however, is the remainder of her theory – that: “It is this search for meaning that Smith seeks to convey to her students." (Emphasis added.) The writing of a poem is, loosely, a search for meaning, but the “meaning” of a poem is different from prose meaning and is always secondary, and in many instances unimportant, in poems as works of art. Where Smith goes wrong is in selecting the tools to perform her search. The article reports: “To help her find the magic in her own writing, Smith said that she ‘thinks about what I don’t yet understand, or what I’m curious about figuring out, and using my questions and curiosities as a guide’.”

Thus Smith has fallen into the steely trap that characterizes the bulk of what is written and published as “poetry” in today’s poetry subculture. The development of the poem by reference to logic, ideas and curiosities can only lead to prose meaning, certainly not poems as works of art. The true poet begins his/her poem with language and music, is guided by that language and music to further language and music, and the development of the language and music may lead to a discovery that assists the poem to become a work of art. If a “meaning” develops out of that language and music, that meaning is as much a discovery for the poet as for the reader, but it is a meaning that springs from the poetic process and not from the guidance of the ideas and curiosities of the poet.

Not surprisingly, therefore, Smith’s poems evidence the trappings of prose, and lack the trappings of lyric poetry. The language of her poems is the language of everyday speech, not the language of poetry. Her lines and stanzas have no tensions and suspensions. The breakpoints are the breakpoints of the breath divisions of the sentence or the phrase as in prose writing. In true poetic verse, on the other hand, verse is always technically tightened, line by line and stanza by stanza, and can only proceed so far and no farther, nor can they go shorter. Every line is in its strict place and limit – no line is out of joint. It is this strictness of structure that creates the movement of verse – which is artificial – the artificial and arbitrary rhythm of composed art.

Accordingly, the writers and publishers of the three books that made the final selection for the Pulitzer award for fiction and were not rewarded with a Pulitzer should not despair, or view their rejection as a signal to intelligent readers that their books are unmeritorious. If the Pulitzer Board does not even recognize the differences between poetry and prose, and thus does not know what makes “poetry” poetry, how much credence should be given to its selections in any category?

Vocation: Wall Street Trial Lawyer (Retired)
Avocation: Poetry and Poetics
Studied poetry with Jose Garcia Villa 1970-1997
Writer and Publisher of Poetry


  • Guest
    Fuzhou, China Tuesday, 01 October 2013

    Why is it so confusing in the American poetry where so much of rubbish that is either hard to understand and too realistic to be poetic is categorized into poetry? What's wrong with the American poetry since WWII? Does it have anything to do with pop culture that arose in the 50s? As far England where we find no such a mess, there are fewer poets though. In America so many dilettante poets destroy the art of poetry since they can't make good poetry. So poetry suffers sort of tragical fate in the US.

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Guest Tuesday, 20 February 2018