Definition of Poetry

by Boris Pasternak
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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 438

This poem appears in Pasternak’s My Sister, Life, a collection of poems that is among his most popular with Russian readers. It is placed at the beginning of a section of the book called “An Exercise in Philosophy,” but it has little in common with abstract thinking about art.

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The outer form of “Definition of Poetry” is conventional: four four-line stanzas. Each line is made up of three anapestic feet, that is, two weakly accented syllables followed by a strongly accented one, as in the word “Montreal.” In the first eight lines of the poem, seven finely chiseled images are arranged in neat verses. At the middle of them, Pasternak sharpens a gentle, timeworn poetic image with the claim that poetry is “two nightingales dueling.” He seems to say that to write poetry is not just to record moments of one’s intuition. Instead, it is the struggle of two equals, a vision that sees new connections.

Pasternak’s methods are not always readily apparent in translation. The rhythm is symbolic in itself, but almost impossible to reflect accurately. To the Russian listener, this particular meter creates an impression of solemn pronouncements, of a finger regularly stabbing the paper while pointing out inescapable truths. It tends, after a time, toward monotony, as does all sententiousness. Pasternak plays a game with the high seriousness of his topic, at times enhancing the solemnity, such as in the repetitions of “it is,” at other times allowing the images to clash with the staid meter. Ambivalent feelings about his theme are hinged neatly at the very middle of the poem, where he concludes that poetry is “Figaro crashing like a hailstorm down from music stands and flutes into a flowerbed below.”

Translation creates another problem for Pasternak’s reader in that the presence of certain words in his poetry is not motivated by logical dictionary definitions. Instead, words appear because they share similar sounds with other words. This similarity suggested to Pasternak and many of his contemporaries that the things such similar words refer to must also be somehow related. The word for “peas” is connected in this way in the poem with the word for “being overgrown” and in turn to “deepness” and then “deafness.” Then the pea pods are opened, where poetry, now tears of the universe, is found. The Russian for “tears” and “universe” are related by sound. Pasternak claimed that nature very often affirmed his intuitions about these secret connections. Indeed, if one breaks open a pea pod freshly picked in the garden, inside one finds a crystalline drop of sap, silently reflecting all that surrounds it.

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