This April, it’s National Poetry Month; the largest literary celebration in the world, marking poetry’s continuing important place in our lives. To celebrate, we have asked acclaimed author and Professor of Literary Linguistics at University of Strathclyde, Nigel Fabb, to explain ‘What is Poetry?’. Read the exclusive post below…

For National Poetry Month, I’m going to suggest that poetry depends on working memory, a dependence which holds when the lines of poetry have certain kinds of systematic poetic form: metre, rhyme, alliteration or parallelism.

In all the world’s traditions, poems – whether written, spoken or signed – are divided into short sections which we can call lines (and longer sections, couplets, stanzas, verse paragraphs, etc). This is what makes poetry different from prose: the sections of poetry are not the same as the ordinary sections of language such as written sentences or spoken phrases.

In some poetic traditions, poems have systematic forms which hold in a regular way throughout. Metre is one such kind of form.  A metre controls the number of units (e.g., syllables) in a line, and can also control the rhythm of the line.  For example, The Heart of a Woman by Georgia Douglas Johnson is in a metre called anapaestic tetrameter, and this metre requires the lines to be mostly eleven or twelve syllables long, mostly in a repeating unstressed-unstressed-stressed pattern (anapaests).  One of the characteristics of metres is that they control relatively short stretches of text, such as a line or at most a couplet.  Though a metre can hold throughout a poem, and indeed can vary in the course of a poem (as in Still I Rise by Maya Angelou) is all done within the line.  And here’s the link to working memory, which has a limited capacity.  Working memory can hold for example about fifteen words of English prose, but not much more.  But lines which are metrical are always short enough to fit into this capacity.  (Note that the relevant part of working memory is limited by amount of information, not by time: so metrical lines can take as long as you like, so long as they are limited in their number of words.)

It isn’t only metre. We can see that rhyme is the same, once we distinguish two aspects of rhyme.  One is where the rhyming word must be, such as at the end of a line. The other aspect of rhyme is what the pattern is, which can hold over the whole text, too large to fit into working memory.  For example, in a sonnet (like Bar Napkin Sonnet #11 by Moira Egan, the rhyming words must always come at the end of a line – that short unit, again.  Sure, the rhyme pattern holds over longer sections in an ABABCDCDEFEFGG sequence, but the relevant point for my purposes is that rhyme is always located relative to short sections, short enough to fit into working memory.

Alliteration is the same, though only when it is systematic (which almost never happens in English, and is pretty rare around the world). Some genres of Somali poetry have systematic alliteration, and this can be seen in ‘Catastrophe’ by Xasan Daahir Weedhsame. Look at the Somali text Galiilyo and you will see that a specific sound comes at the beginning of one word in every line; again, note how short the lines are, easily enough to fit into working memory capacity.

The other type of regular form which is found in some of the world’s poetries – Mongolian, Indonesian, Chinese, Central American, and so on – is parallelism. In these traditions, adjacent sections are structurally parallel.  The sections are always short.  There is nothing quite like this systematic parallelism in English, and systematic parallelism isn’t common in contemporary practice, but here is a heavily parallelistic example by the Shuar poet (writing in Spanish), Maria Clara Sharupi Jua: Like Red-Hot Lava. Notice that the parallel units are either individual lines, or sometimes pairs of lines (one pair parallel to the next pair); but always short enough to fit into working memory capacity.

What I have proposed here does not mean that all poetic lines have to be short enough to fit into working memory. There are some very long lines in [But isn’t midnight intermittent] by Lyn Hejinian, but that is possible because this poem does not have systematic metre, rhyme, alliteration or parallelism.  When poets, usually as members of a tradition, use these forms, then they must divide the text into lines which are short enough to fit into working memory.


Read more about the cultural and linguistic importance of poetry in Nigel Fabb’s book What is Poetry: Language and Memory in the Poems of the World.

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