"A synthesis of hyacinths and biscuits"; "musical thought"; the unsayable said" - the ways to define poetry seem unlimited and forever partial. This truly is the inner sanctum of literature. It is the way words sound and move and see their way to meaning that astonishes us; it is the very indefinability of the feelings that distinguishes them from the grosser forms of feeling inspired by television and novels, and that humanizes us; it is the rebirth of faith and the renewal of meaning that poetic feeling can command when the holy word awakens the attentive reader. There are those who try to bend poetry to a cause, but if the trick can be performed with the novel or the play, it cannot be done with the poem. Shapely social criticism is not poetry and where poetry does take a social issue as its setting, its real effect must lie elsewhere, in the mysterium of human experience. Poetry is "the real thing", can "blow your mind", is "where it's at", "wants you", will help you "down cemetery road" , let's you know "you're not alone".
Auden distinguishes the misguided poet who has "ideas" to impart from the real poet who "loves words." The classroom reveals two other types: the aspiring poet who never reads any other poems than her own and the one who does. Northrop Frye remarks that one reason to write poetry is to learn how difficult it really is. This insight, and the humility it brings, is worth working hard for. Alas, the self esteem zealots make such insights difficult. It is no reason to stop writing poetry to note that most of what passes for student poetry is bad, if poetry at all. If poetry has the power to move us like no other literary form, then it is not likely an art easily learned. Or, as Yeats once put it:
A line will take us hours maybe:
Yet if it does not seem a moment's thought,
Our stitching and unstitching has been naught.
Better go down upon your marrow-bones
And scrub a kitchen pavement, or break stones
Like an old pauper, in all kinds of weather;
For to articulate sweet sounds together
Is to work harder than all these, and yet
Be thought an idler by the noisy set
Of bankers, schoolmasters, and clergymen
The martyrs call the world.
A word on interpretation. Relativism is a view that suggests there is neither good nor bad - it's just however you wish to look at it. Who can say that one poem is any better than another? The four year old will value what the forty year old won't, but, the question goes, is one any better than the other? Doesn't it depend on the viewer? Of course, this is true, but considered exclusively it becomes a silly and even damaging truth. My cat places zero value on all poetry, but that doesn't prevent me from asserting opinions about the worth of various poems and expecting my opinions to be taken more seriously than her critical silence. Everything may be relative, but I'm worried about a society than can't unanimously agree that my violin playing is inferior to Perlman's, that my poems are embarrassing compared to Larkin's, that my critical abilities are a load short of Frye's, that Mategna's Christ is superior to whassisname's piss- christ. Hamlet really said "neither good nor bad but thinking makes it so" and it is just that that is required of us - the thinking to establish that one thing is better than another. Also, we must practice the thinking which will show that some interpretations are better than others. A poem is by its very nature ambiguous. It thrives on it. But to say that a poem may be read in many ways is a far cry from saying it may be read in any way you like it and that no one must say any one way is better than any other. "Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening" may be about Santa Claus, but if so, it means the poem is both a failure (since so many things would have to fit so awkwardly) and a triviality, a trick, and a weak one at that. To think the poem is a lament for the lost world of beauty which our busy lives divorce us from is less offensive but still imperfect as an acceptable interpretation - it means you haven't read any other Frost and read into the poem what is not there: the idea that nature is a lovely thing. The "right interpretation" had better feel the darkness in this poem. Having limited the poem by listening to its language we are hardly pinned down by the poem. There is still lots of room for the really serious differences in interpretation, or ways of feeling the force of the poem. If, as Emily Dickinson says, each age brings a different lens with which to view the same existence, so too do readers bring their own lenses. But they should not bring their own poems too and then claim Frost wrote them.