What is poetry? Etymology provides more questions than answers.
Contest of the Poets, a float design by Jennie Wilde for the 1910 “Comus” Mardi Gras
T. S. Eliot, who once famously called National Poetry Month the cruelest, was also one of many to point out the hopeless semantic tangles that ensue because “poetry” has two opposites. Poetry can be the lined stuff, often with rhymes, as opposed to sentences and paragraphs; poetry can also be the good stuff, as opposed to the plodding or simply informational. But if good prose can be poetic, a novel can be “pure poetry,” and poems can be prosaic, then it’s not clear what anyone is talking about, really. Or rather, it’s clear except to theorists trying to come up with definitions. Poetry is what’s thrilling, while a poem is that poor thing with eleven readers, eight of them members of the poet’s extended family.
Etymology doesn’t help—it only highlights that the apples and oranges here are how the thing is made and how it moves. Poetry is from the Greek poiein, “to make”: a poem is something made, or in English we would more naturally say crafted. Yet everyone agrees good prose is well crafted, too. Prose means, literally, “straightforward,” from the Latin prosa, proversus, “turned to face forward” (whereas verse is all wound up, twisty and snaky, “turned” in every direction except, apparently, forward). Yet we all know that poems can be clear and direct, too, especially when they’re songs.
Sidelining sonnets and quarantining quatrains in the poetry ghetto does produce a certain clarity. But of course it also creates problems when translating from languages that gerrymander poetry differently. In German, for example, writer is a word even more literal than the English “someone who writes”: it’s Schriftsteller, a put-down-on-paper-er (Schrift = “writing,” stellen = “to place, to put”). Autor is a word used a bit less often for pretty much the same thing, unlike in English, where there’s a difference: author expresses a professional and financial identity (there are no “unpublished authors,” unless maybe the manuscript is finished and the contract is signed), while a writer is someone pursuing an activity (published or not, paid or not, read or not).
And then there’s a Dichter, usually translated “poet” but meaning a creator of poetry in the grand sense. The verb dichten means “to write poetry, ” and a poem is a dichten-ed thing, a Gedicht, but dichten means more generally to write poetically and well. The good stuff. The writer as hero of the spirit. How do you say that in English? We don’t have heroes of the spirit.
At least not according to Grimm’s German Dictionary—the equivalent of the Oxford English Dictionary, and started by those same Brothers Grimm who brought us “Little Red Riding Hood.” It gloats that dichten means “to create poetically, filled with a higher intelligence,” and that “the word does not exist in French and English: they work around it with s’adonner à la poésie, faire des vers; to compose a poem, to make verses, to versify.” The OED can fire back all it wants—pleading that dight had “an extraordinary sense-development” in Middle English from its original “senses of literary dictation and composition,” to become “one of the most widely used words in the language”—but its efforts are in vain. From that whole extraordinary range of meanings we use exactly none anymore.
“To understand the word,” Grimm’s poetically goes on, “we must go back to an earlier time …” Dichten originally meant to write something down so it could be read or sung, something that had already been worked out in the mind (from the Latin dictare, “to say, to dictate”). It swerved into meaning the mental working-out, too, the originating creative act. A sixteenth-century saying already plays on the same double meaning that causes ambiguity in English: “A good enough rhyme-smith, but hardly a poet” (Reimschmiede genug, aber wenig Dichter). But from there, the word left the confines of verse. In German, you can still call someone a poet in the grand sense without consigning him to the poetry ghetto.
So what is a Dichter in prose? I have caved on occasion and translated Dichter as “poet,” in cases where the character in question may or may not be a poet (e.g., Robert Walser’s story “Letter from a Poet to a Gentleman”), or happens to be a poet even if that’s not really the point. Goethe was a poet, so the title of his autobiography, Dichtung und Wahrheit, can be translated as it usually is, Poetry and Truth, even though the book is not particularly about verse as opposed to other forms. His topic is actually Imagination and Truth, but imagination set down on paper. To put it anachronistically: Creative Writing and the Truth.
Sometimes, though, “poet” risks being downright misleading. A twentieth-century German writer named Uwe Johnson, known as the Dichter der beiden Deutschlands (the Dichter of both East and West Germany), wrote only prose. Call him the “poet of both Germanies” and people will think he’s a poet. He is more like “the voice of divided Germany,” or even “the bard,” despite being neither a songwriter nor Shakespeare. In English, we can get the grandeur (voice) or the job (writer, author, novelist), but not both.
There are cognates of dichten, from the same Latin dictare, but they never took on the same soaring spirit in English, at least since the demise of dight. Very much on the contrary. Our closest cognate, indite, “to put into words, write, compose, give literary form to,” was more or less completely swamped by what was once the same word, indict, “to write up charges, bring legal action against.” (Probably under interference from indicare, “to indicate, give evidence against”; and indicere, “to declare publicly,” compare Italian indicere, “to denounce.”) To translate Dichter as “inditer” won’t do. Even our least sarcastic Dichter is sarcastic about that: “Perhaps my best moments I never jot down; when they come I cannot afford to break the charm by inditing memoranda”—Walt Whitman.
Coincidentally, dicht in German also means “tight,” as in watertight or airtight (from Old Norse þéttr, apparently completely unrelated etymologically to dictare), and the verb dichten is also “to seal, caulk, make impermeable,” as well as “to make more dense or compact.” Ezra Pound played on the pun in his second most well-known slogan for what poetry does (after “Make it new”): dichten = condensare. An imagist manifesto in twenty characters: to write poetry is to condense and supercharge language. (Pound attributed the equation to the poet Basil Bunting “fumbling about with a German–Italian dictionary”; actually, Bunting knew what he was doing, and wasn’t exactly fumbling. Pound = condescendere.)
This may not be a less ambiguous definition of poetry, but it is a good challenge for the Dichters in our midst, in poetry or prose. Don’t just make it new: make it tight.
Damion Searls, the Daily’s language columnist, is a translator from German, French, Norwegian, and Dutch.
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