Law and Order (And Poetry)

03/28/2008 02:47 am ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

Just last week, U.S. District Judge John F. Keenan had to rule on whether a letter written by famed writer and poet Dorothy Parker was, in fact, a poem--forcing him in the process to, gulp, define poetry. Noting that "where a line does not fit within the margins, it is indented below and kept apart from the next line in order to preserve the rhyme scheme," the judge ruled the letter was "objectively recognizable as a poem." Case dismissed! That's one small step for a judge, and one, well, small step for literary criticism.

The letter was part of a six-year case involving Stuart H. Silverstein, editor of Not Much Fun: The Lost Poems of Dorothy Parker and Penguin Group. Silverstein claimed that Penguin had unlawfully republished all of the poems in his book in its collection Dorothy Parker, Complete Poems. Since the poems in question were in the public domain, the burden fell on Mr. Silverstein to prove he'd exercised some creativity in selecting his Lost Poems. Unfortunately for Mr. Silverstein, Judge Keegan found that the selection process Òinvolved no creativity." Ouch.

The judge went on to offer the following careful definition of poetry: "A poem sometimes possesses rhyme or meter, though this is not necessary. A poem is typically free from the usual rules of grammar, punctuation and capitalization." He even offered some context: "'Before World War Two,' a poem almost always had rhyme or meter. Now, the popular definition of a poem has become much more lenient."

I admire Keenan's prudent decision not to commit to anything more than a "sometimes" and a "typically." Trying to establish a legal definition of poetry would be like trying to establish democracy in Iraq. Poets get testy about this sort of thing. I saw a fight break out in the middle of a conference over Emily Dickinson's use of the hyphen. It ended with an eighty-year-old man screaming out lines from Keats. Can you imagine if lawyers got involved? Poets and lawyers get along like, well, anyone else and lawyers.

The case begs the question: what does make a poem? Rhyme? It's been out of fashion for almost a century. Form? Doesn't a poem always break before the right margin? Not necessarily. Metaphor? Symbolic language? What about this one from William Carlos Williams:

This Is Just to Say

I have eaten

the plums

that were in

the icebox

and which

you were probably


for breakfast.

Forgive me

they were delicious

so sweet

and so cold.

That's a poem. No metaphors, no hidden meanings. A plum (even a sweet, cold one) is just a plum.

So where do the boundaries of poetry end? Is Ludacris poetry? A hymn? Celine (shudder) Dion? You could easily argue that they are. Of course, just because something could be poetry doesn't mean it's any good. And with no offense intended toward the judge, defining good poetry is best left to good poets, who tend to be a little more poetic about it. Here's Czeslaw Milosz in his preface to A Treatise on Poetry:

First, plain speech in the mother tongue.

Hearing it, you should be able to see

Apple trees, a river, the bend of a road,

As if in a flash of summer lightning.

That's a great description of a poem's potential for sudden sensual depth. More broadly, former Poet Laureate Rita Dove wrote, "Poetry is language at its most distilled and most powerful." And what about the poet old men shout about? T.S. Eliot, who was sparing with praise, said that John Keats was never wrong about poetry. Keats wrote: "Poetry should... strike the reader as a wording of his own highest thoughts, and appear almost a remembrance.: Oh, that's good. But would it hold up in court?

(For more on Dorothy Parker, take a look at John Lundberg's Poem of the Week blog)