On the Poetry of Definitions

As a kid, I never used to think of myself as a poet; even after I wrote my first poem, when I was 8. It was a terribly silly one, about an imaginary cat I had. Of course, since cat rhymed with hat, I had an imaginary hat in the poem too. When I finished writing this obviously brilliant piece, I felt like I was the cleverest person alive. Suffice it to say, I miss those days.

Since then, things have changed in my world of poetry, and nothing seems so obvious anymore. I call myself a poet now, which I find ironic, considering how I’m a lot less certain than I used to be about what poetry is. And the more I read, or see, or hear different people performing their ‘ poetry’, the more hazy the definitions become. Until it got to a point, where I found it more appropriate to ask ‘what isn’t poetry’, rather than what is.

In the beginning, poetry was very recognizable – it was a collection of stanzas, which had sentences that sounded musical, and they rhymed at the end. Some of them had a nice simple language that I could understand, and would be most entertaining. A lot of other ones used such big words, or fancy metaphors, that I used to be more awed than impressed.

Here’s an instance of one of my favourite (simple) ones (with a delightful rhyme scheme of a-b-c-c-c-b) :

A centipede's dilemma

A centipede was happy – quite!
Until a toad in fun
Said, "Pray, which leg moves after which?"
This raised her doubts to such a pitch,
She fell exhausted in the ditch
Not knowing how to run.

- Katherine Craster

In time, my understanding grew; I remember the first time I was introduced to the concept of meter, I spent the next few days obsessively counting the syllables of each line of every favourite poem of mine, and being blown away by the discovery that those pieces were even more brilliant than I had originally given them credit for. For instance, in the previous poem ‘the centipede’s dilemma’, the syllable count is 8-6-8-8-8-6 (The 2nd and 6th line have 6 syllables, all others have 8).

Invariably, this was followed by an appreciation of ‘prosody’, which is the overall tone and length (in feet) of each line of a poem.’The centipede’s dilemma’ is written in iambic tetra and trimeter. With each new discovery came the realization that what had once seemed to be a perfectly clever but straight-forward poem, was in fact, so much more. I began,more and more, to associate ‘poetry’, with the definitions of various types of poetry-writing. It may seem like a small subtle thing, but one which would cause a lot of confusion eventually.

In 2015, I started getting involved in poetry clubs, attending different open mics across the city. I met and became friends with some amazing people, and heard poetry that I can safely say, changed my life. I heard confessional poems that were truly moving, rant poem pieces that were hilarious and rousing at the same time, spoken word pieces that were so real and visual, it felt like watching a movie unfold before you. They were all amazing poems. And none of them fit into my (ex-)definition of poetry. Each session I attended, would raise more questions than they answered, and foremost amongst them, was this – What is poetry?

I found the answer (or maybe, my version of the answer), in a rather unlikely place – a medical textbook of neurology. I was reading about how the brain learns to read; and it goes like this. First, each unit, which is one symbol (or a letter) gets assigned a sound, and each sound gets assigned a meaning, or definition. Later, each combination of symbols (words) get assigned the same. Initially, when a person is learning a new language, each symbol needs to be looked at, analysed, and understood separately. In time, words can be recognized as whole, without needing to analyse letters. With enough practice, entire series of words start appearing as one unit, and since the time taken to understand the definition of one unit remains the same, whether it is one letter, or one sentence, the brain could then read a book much faster. What would have been a jumble of weirdly shaped symbols that would have taken decades to decipher, turns into a favourite book that you read twice a day.

Quite simply, our brain seeks patterns, to build on top of other patterns. It seeks to elevate itself above the chaos of the everyday, and reach a place where thoughts have meaning, both individually, as well as when they come together with other thoughts. It seeks to understand everything around it, and thereby understand itself in relation to the universe; and then it seeks to transcend those very limits laid out by that understanding. It looks to discover something new, and then convert that into a common building block in the road to discovering something newer. It looks to decipher, breakdown, combine and build things all at once. To make and break definitions.

To me, that is poetry.

-Siddharth Warrier


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