Example poetry

Is poetry “a little word machine”?


A famous definition of poetry as “a little word machine” has been cited quite widely and approvingly over the past few decades. There are different versions of the expression. William Carlos Williams spoke of “a small (or large) machine made of words”. Typing the phrase into Google gave me 530,000,000 hits. A short-lived poetry magazine in Birmingham (UK) even used the phrase as a title.

The definition is plausible, isn’t it? After all, isn’t that exactly what a poem is? In a sense, yes, it is. It is a “little word machine” and one could argue that in the case of long poems, such as epics, they are “big word machines”.

However, one thing is certain, as the reference to William Carlos Williams and other bearers of the idea makes clear: to define a poem as “a little word machine” is largely a modernist and postmodern construct. It’s not something the ancients or classical traditionalists would have entertained except with derision.

Is poetry a word machine?

“Homer Crowned Poet Laureate”, 1767, by Antonio Zucchi. Oil on canvas. National Trust, England. (Public domain)

Poetry feeds on metaphors. As Aristotle observed: “By far the greatest thing is to be a master of metaphor. This is the one thing that cannot be learned from others; and it is also a sign of genius, since a good metaphor implies an intuitive perception of the similarity of the dissimilar.

From this comes the genius of poets and poetry; and, of course, some scientists too. Was it not Einstein who first noticed the similarity – or equivalence – of matter and energy? So when we say poetry is “a little word machine,” we are using a metaphor to describe what it is. However, all metaphors break down at some point; what something looks like is not what it really is.

To see how this metaphor doesn’t work, just consider a trivial alternative: the crossword puzzle is also “a little word machine”; indeed, a dictionary is also “a little word machine” (or maybe a huge one). But there is the catch. Crossword puzzles and dictionaries are largely works of logic and intelligence, not works of the imagination.

So when we refer too colloquially (in my opinion) to poems as “little word machines,” we diminish their status, scope, and impact. We place them in the realm of things we know and can control. In short, having established that the definition has some degree of truth, we realize that it is only a half-truth – less than a half-truth, since in essence this particular metaphor denigrates poetry.

How the Ancients Viewed Poetry

"Odysseus at the court of Alcinous,"1814-1815, by Francesco Hayez.
Odysseus weeps while the blind Demodocus plays the harp and sings Ulysses and Achilles at Troy. “Ulysses at the Court of Alcinoos”, 1814-1815, by Francesco Hayez. Oil on canvas. National Museum of Capodimonte, Naples, Italy. (Public domain)

The ancients saw poetry differently. In Homer, the poet Demodocus is introduced in the following way (Odyssey 8. 62-64):

The house boy brought the poet, whom the Muse
loved it. She gave him two gifts, good and bad:
she took her sight away, but gave a sweet song. (translation by Emily Wilson)

Who was Demodocus? The poet whom the “Muse adored”. Other translations have it as “Muse had favored” and even “whom the Muse loved above all”. Does it sound mechanical and little? Was Demodocus building a little word machine?

And a little later in the “Odyssey”, we see the effects of the poet on a spectator (Odyssey 8. 84-87):

So sang the famous bard. Ulysses
With his strong hands picked up his heavy coat
purple, and he covered his face.
He was ashamed to let them see him cry.

This describes the warrior Odysseus – note his strong hands – and yet the poetry reduces him to an emotional wreck as he confronts his past in Troy in a way nothing else remotely could or had yet done. . This also leads him to reveal his true personality to King Alcinous, which he had been hiding until then.

No wonder, then, that when Orpheus sang – Orpheus, the ultimate Greek poet and singer – the whole underworld suspended its activities, and even death allowed the release of one of its captives (Eurydice).

"The lament of Orpheus," 19th century, by Franz Caucig.
“The Lament of Orpheus”, 19th century, by Franz Caucig. Oil on canvas. (Public domain)

So far, examples of what poetry is capable of (emotional catharsis) and where it comes from (the Muse, a divine goddess) do not tell us what it is in the same simplistic way as a ” little word machine” claims to say. us everything we need to know about poetry. But at least we now feel the greatness, importance and sublimity of poetry. In his “Life of Milton”, Samuel Johnson attempted a definition of poetry, but his best commentary on it is found in James Boswell’s “The Life of Samuel Johnson”:

Boswell: Sir, what is poetry?
Johnson: Why sir, it’s much easier to say what it’s not. We all know what light is; but it is not easy to say what it is.

Rather than getting overwhelmed trying to define something that we can otherwise automatically recognize by its effects on us, we need to ask ourselves why do modernists and postmodernists love their trivial definition so much and repeat it at every available opportunity?

The misplaced quest for equality

"Calliope, muse of epic poetry," 1798, by Charles Meynier.  (Public domain)
The Muse, or divine inspiration, is rejected when poetry is reduced to “a little word machine”. “Calliope, Muse of Epic Poetry”, 1798, by Charles Meynier. Oil on canvas. Cleveland Museum of Art, Cleveland. (Public domain)

The quest of modernists and postmodernists is unfortunately part of this general conspiracy, which continues to grow in intensity and ferocity: to reduce the meaning of life to nonsense, to ensure that the cosmos itself can never be considered only as a machine. And why would they want to do that? Because a machine is lifeless. And lifeless machine parts are replaceable with similar ones, i.e. equal parts. They desperately seek the “equality” that comes from the absence of gods or goddesses, of transcendent reality to whose authority we must be subordinate.

Indeed, as bizarre as it may seem, the urge to reduce poetry to a small word machine resembles the ancient desire to construct Babel. The Babylonians did not need gods to reach heaven, because they could do it themselves and by their own works. In Christian terms, it is Pelagianism as poetry. Pelagius was the great heretic of the fourth century who was condemned by Saint Augustine. Essentially, Pelagius believed what the Enlightenment movement believed. Namely that it is not by faith (in a transcendent reality) that humans are saved, but that they can do everything by themselves, by their free will, their education and their progress.

Today, there is a kind of modern egalitarianism in all this. If poetry is a little word machine, then surely anyone can write it. Scribble a few words and voila: you have a poem! Who needs the Muse? Who should be the favorite of the Muse, adored and loved by the Muse? Nobody. We don’t need all this celestial sleight of hand.

And that explains why so much contemporary poetry, and even award-winning and academic poetry, is so awful; well, not terrible, actually, but not poetry. But certainly, these poems are examples of little word machines.

The lesson here is clear: avoid these pernicious definitions of poetry and also the poets who subscribe to them. We have to find the real poets who reveal our true self to us. Therein lies enduring greatness.

James Sale


James Sale has published over 50 books, the most recent being “Mapping Motivation for Top Performing Teams” (Routledge, 2021). He was nominated for the 2022 Pushcart Poetry Prize, won first prize in the 2017 Society of Classical Poets Annual Competition, and performed in New York in 2019. His most recent collection of poetry is “HellWard.” For more information about the author and his Dante project, visit EnglishCantos.home.blog

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