What is Poetry?

by J. Michæl Teti

We are listening creatures; whence else our speaking? Scripture speaks speech as God’s first act. God said, “let there be light,” and there was light. The Father simultaneously names and creates in speaking. The first act of Man, then, created in the image of God, is to name the animals. We image Him. Yet we must know how to listen from somewhere, too. So God listens to us. In the beginning, we listened to listening.

Listening consecrates speaking. Silence is one with speech. If God spoke without listening, it would be a double contradiction. First, nothing would even be created to hear Him. Second, if it did create, it would bestow an attribute it lacks. Creation listens while He is deaf. Conversely, God’s listening without speaking is also a double contradiction. Either He does not listen to Himself or creation speaks while He is mute. The fruitful unity of listening and speech is therefore more omnipotent than either alternative. Silence speaks and speech listens. In the beginning was the Logos, and that Word is God only because it is not He Who Spoke Him. He Who Was in the beginning listened to each of us within Himself.

God’s naming and creating are one act. If Man just names the animals, his mimesis is partial. So Man also creates in his speech: not ex nihilo as his Father, but from the artificial nothing of ignorance or the receptivity of mind. Speech draws reality to the soul of the listener. But to create is not simply to understand: God creates being, which can be thought of as the space in which we take place. It is the medium or substrate for our lives; the silence accompanying our speech. Speech listens and speaks, or makes space and takes place. These are internally complementary; neither part is complete or intelligible without the other. They are one. But man in his fallenness has the ability to diffract speech. When he creates without naming, it is a lie. He deafens others from hearing God. When he names without creating, it is willful ignorance. He deafens himself from hearing God. But the word that goes out from the mouth of the Lord shall not return empty. Jesus exemplifies for us, “not my will, but Thine be done.”

Man strives to be man; to be human is paradoxically to feel not human enough. In this way speech —ex-pression— which stretches to know outside itself is the perfect ex-pression of man. Man exceeds himself. Nature gives man an end to be her perfection: in his freedom from her he speaks her. He is mediator, proxy, paraclete. He listens to nature and helps all things speak themselves; his vocation is always giving voice to the voiceless. Man and nature are wedded. They concelebrate, speaking to God their thanks. Speech is the human act par excellence. This is why all human acts speak, and why everything speaks to the human.

Speech is the human act par excellence. This is why all human acts speak, and why everything speaks to the human.

Besides the material parallel between God’s first act and Man’s, there is also a formal parallel: they are both poetry! Many commentators note the elevated character of John 1, and most editions of scripture write Adam’s first address to Eve in verse. Speech is the paradigmatic human act, and poetry is the paradigm of speech. Just as all acts are a kind of speaking, all speech is more or less poetic. So poetry is speech par excellence.

What is the form of speech? What is form? Form expresses the material as it is; it does what the matter is. They are so tied in God’s poetry that many philosophers have considered them to be reducible to the other. Hence materialism and idealism. Nonetheless, in the craft of poetry, this unitive consideration allows us no small insights into what the reader can expect of the form of a poem. The form will be wedded to the matter. In blank verse, for example, the reader finds a meditation. The fixed iambic pentameter without rhyme occasions a constancy of rhythm akin to the serenity of thought. When the rhythms vary, it is also a turbulence in the content of the meditation. These features allow all the words to blend together; they are only separated by each distinct word’s texture. Blank verse is as the beat of the waves onshore. Each is the same, but each different. 

Speech also has the formal aspect of being spoken. This necessitates a rejection of all visual and shape poetry. But it also requires an asterisk on punctuation. Line breaks, commas, questions, exclamations, etc. must arise out of the speaking itself. But these features can certainly be heard. Anyone immersed in English poetry can simply hear a line of iambic pentameter. Anyone reading Vergil begins to breathe dactylic hexameter. But simple verse does not a poem make. In fact, because of the unitive requirement, a writer who correctly picks prose as the form for her material is making the poetic choice. The poem is suffused with itself.

Speech is formally an address, so poetry is essentially intelligible. Speech reveals the speaker. It listens and makes space and anticipates the other. So if being —intelligibility— is the poetry of God, then Man’s participation in speech must also be an habitation. But it is not merely receptive. We encounter it: creation confronts us, causes us to act and react. So man’s speech must also take place, must confront. My words call reality to you, and in this you are called to reality. In speech, the speaker and spoken to are initiated into a dramatic encounter. All the world’s a stage. The poem desires itself to be known at its most fundamental level; just so God desires to be known and listens inside Himself, hearing us. 

The Word became flesh and dwelt among us. Poetry takes place in time and therefore within a tradition of the art. To be embodied requires this. The tradition may be viewed as a dialogue across time about the Word itself, to which the poet listens and responds with his own logos. The tradition primarily offers forms through which to express poems. But when the logs are chopped, it is time for the carving. These poetic forms are tools designed to draw out the horizons of words as themselves: their music, rhythm, connotation, etc. We may identify a spectrum of accidental or positive differences between forms of writing, from prose, to plays, to free verse, to blank verse, to rhymed verse etc. All of these reach a hand towards the reader for her to grasp speech under its different aspects; each requires a unique mode of reading. Prose does not scan for rhythms or enjambments; Plays add scansion for character positioning. Deference assumes that every formal choice the artist makes is apt for the material. This is where criticism steps in. A free verse work where the rhythms do not change primary meanings of words has line breaks by mistake. But if the formalist is right, Whitman can never sing America. Yet he scans better than several of his shakespearizing contemporaries. Song of Myself, for example, begins with iambic pentameter. And Whitman never wrote a line longer than a breath could speak. He punctuates precisely. There are messages there. The poet of true genius holds hands with the past and extends a hand to the future. The formalist tacitly concedes that poetry is accidental to man. Her mistake is not to value forms but rather to add an historical support for them. Forms arise from the character of speech. On the other hand, the modernist implicitly admits that man is accidental to poetry. Her mistake is not to emphasize the material, but that she in fact rejects the material by not allowing it to speak itself. We do have good cases of poets changing verse to prose and back. Novalis removed the line breaks from several stanzas of his Hymns to the Night; Frost was critiqued that his verses read like prose, but to his “sound of sense” modus this was a compliment. Poetry is not boastful or proud because it is speech simpliciter; it is for this reason Wordsworth disdained “poetic diction.” 

Poetry is the only form of human communication that requires speech in its essence. Spoken rightly, it is a via media between two extremes. Philosophy emphasizes the content of words, and so disdains a medium. It points beyond the word and would direct download to your mind if it could. Aestheticism emphasizes the form of the word, and so desires nothing but mediation. It points to the word itself. But to read aesthetically is a contradiction; for the sign is precisely not what it represents, and thus must be passed through. The aesthete disputes with nature over her purpose; the philosopher disdains her for it. This is not to say that no philosophy or art is good or worth writing, but merely to say that they are not speech itself. And in fact, the best iterations of these genres are the ones we find to be the most poetic. In poetry we find Balthasar’s “hanging middle” incarnate; and for these same reasons Hölderlin wrote in the foreword of Hyperion that “those who merely sniff my flower mistake its nature, and so do those who pluck it.” This seems like a contradictory and irresolvable dilemma. But we meet Hölderlin’s demand for both by uniting with reality.

In poetry we find Balthasar’s “hanging middle” incarnate.

Form is a catalyst for concision because the words stand as themselves. They work on all cylinders. If speaking was only about communication of ideas, we should expect everything to collapse into verse. But they have not. Why? Modernity is simply uninterested in speech as speech. Poets are unpoetical first before they reject form. They confuse the means with the end; the effect with the cause; the accident with the essence. Poetry is unified between the particular meaning of the word and the universal significance of speaking as an act. A poem and its words are thereby an instantiation of the fact of speech. It is Man giving thanks. Poetry consummates the marriage of speech and silence, is the child of their fruitful union. When someone speaks poetry, the words stand as themselves; as the union of the finite and infinite. But the modern is content with either simply showing or telling. The modern thinks the two mutually exclusive. But a poem does both. It speaks and listens.

Poetry consummates the marriage of speech and silence, is the child of their fruitful union.

We allow the category of poetry to fail by reducing it to philosophy or aestheticism. Nicanor Parra’s self-titled “anti-poetry” follows; Poetry Magazine’s cryptic hyperpersonal messaging follows. The unintelligible crypticisms of Amber McCrary or Julia Kolchinsky Dasbach attempt to go farther than simply reject speech’s nature: they attempt to remove even design from art. This intentional removal of intention, this self-annihilation amounts to a rebellion against the structures of being itself. It is an attempt to unhear God. But we hear God through creation. The weaver God, he weaves. When we weave our own yarns, we participate in God’s speaking. And a word is not identical with nature. All speaking is genuinely creative. 

We hear God through creation. The weaver God, he weaves. When we weave our own yarns, we participate in God’s speaking.

We always strive to be more poetic. We strive to enact what we are, to be the form of the material God gave. In some ways we always fall short. But God created a striving creature, so striving reaches its end by merely reaching for its end. Christ the Word accepts and redeems Peter’s filia when agàpe is failed. This life between speech and silence —this logos we all partake in— is also why the arts are viewed as “subjective” and all opinions in them are thought equals; why the poet is capable of speaking to every human life; and why every human can find solace in poetry. Everything speaks to man. We are listening creatures.

Deep calls to deep/

At the thunder of Your torrents;/

All Your waves and Your billows/

Have gone over me./ 

—Ps 42:7 NRSV


Joseph “Teddy” Teti is a senior studying English. He would like to thank Dr. Dwight Lindley, Mercedes Bryan ‘23, Alex Mulet ‘23, Monica Blaney ‘24, Helen Schlueter ‘24, Maya Toman ‘25, Seth Ramm ‘22,  James Shotwell ‘23, and Henry Ahrabi ‘25 for their help crafting this piece. 

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