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What is Poetry?

When Robert Frost was asked ‘What is poetry?’ he replied ‘Poetry is the kind of thing that poets write’. A natural response to such a definition might be a knowing smile and a barrage of questions that try to get at the core of what poetry is or what it might be.

This is one of the reasons why IF does not ask its panelists to define their terms. Attempts to define our terms rarely if ever succeed. Other reasons include the recognition that we typically have several different definitions of each of our terms, especially if they name things that merit discussion; that definitions suggest a kind of finality and omniscience that we rarely have in real life; and that dictionary definitions are often outpaced by life and the burgeoning language that we use to describe it.

But the main problem is that definitions might stop thought. Definitions tend to lull people into a false sense of security and certainty. And this might stop people from wondering and exploring their understanding of what is, or what might be. We can learn much more about poetry if we keep wondering what it is and dreaming what it might be. And we can learn much more about privacy, property, science, depression, regulations, and other IF areas of concern than we ever could by defining them if we keep exploring and developing the contrasting policy possibilities that pertain to them.

Let me tell you what happened in a public discussion of IF’s Privacy & Privacy Rights report that I recently facilitated. The policy possibilities emanated from four different concepts of privacy: 1) privacy as liberty; 2) privacy as secrecy; 3) privacy as autonomy; and 4) privacy as property. One of the participants objected that each participant seemed to have his or her own definition of privacy and that we were thus talking past each other. We were not. All of these concepts of privacy are in the public arena, and our society and legal system operates with all of them. Ultimately, we live in a democratic society and we have to recognize such diversity and proceed with democratic policy decisions that are based on it.

I noticed during this discussion that when the participants read through the possibilities in the privacy report and started to discuss them, they seemed to let their minds grasp these different concepts of privacy. It was an exciting experience for me to watch some of them bring a new world into focus and suddenly make complete sense of it. It may be even more exciting to think through possible ways to act and speculate about what might ensue from the different possibilities that emanate from these different concepts. In this way, the lack of strict definitions allows us to better explore and understand other positions and possibilities.

Here, someone may argue that we need definitions to solve our problems—for otherwise we may talk past each other. But IF is not trying to solve any problems. It is trying to promote thoughtful exploration and development of contrasting policy possibilities.

But quite aside from that, we often limit our understanding of a problem by trying to define it—which in turn may aggravate the problem by making us unable to see its cause. Consider, for example, the 2005 London suicide bombings. The British Military Intelligence briefly scrutinized one of the terrorists prior to the attacks. But he did not fit their profile of a terrorist and thus was not kept under surveillance. It seems to me that having definitions can easily close our minds to real possibilities, and that not having them may often help us to keep an open mind and save us from problems that we ourselves may create or exacerbate by keeping our minds closed.

Are you still wondering how we can discuss something without defining our terms?

Just try it—just let your mind wander and wonder!

This is a large part of what poetry is all about.

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