What is Poetry?
What do Shakespeare’s sonnets have in common with Emily Dickinson’s lyrical poems? Geoffrey Chaucer’s acrostic poetry with the haiku of Basho? John Keats’ odes with the limericks of Edward Lear? All of it falls under a vast umbrella we call poetry. But what is poetry? How do we write poetry, and how, when we read the lines of a poem, know that they are poetry?
The Definition of Poetry
Perhaps the best definition of poetry is that it is not prose. The poet employs devices such as rhythm, rhyme, meter and structure in creating something that is more than prose, prose+ perhaps. Poetry, like other fine arts, changes the reader or listener, the person who experiences the poem. In defining poetry, we need to examine elements and aspects of poetry such as line structure, economy of language, purpose, and more.
Definition of Poetry: Line Structure
One way that poetry can be identified as such is that, unlike prose which is organized in sentences and paragraphs, poetry is organized into lines, the boundaries of which are decided by the poet, rather than by margin or page edge. The line lengths, the words with which lines begin and end, and the rhyme, meter and visual structure created by the line structure all stem from the poet’s intention and all contribute to the poem’s effect upon the reader or listener.
Definition of Poetry: Economy of Language
Poetry is characterized by an economy of language unlike that of prose. A poet examines each word critically – for meaning, musical value, emotional qualities and even a word’s relationship to the poem and to the page. In this way, via innovative and critical word choice, a poet will plumb meaning and significance in a short space.
Definition of Poetry: Purpose
Prose is used to narrate, argue, define or describe. Poetry is used for all of these things, but the purpose of poetry goes beyond the literal. Poetry is used to evoke an idea, a feeling or a reaction in the reader or listener. Often, poetry’s purpose is to surprise the reader into experiencing something – humanity, nature, the world – in a new way, casting light on its subject and in the process changing the person who experiences it.
A poem is a built thing.
The word “poem” comes from the Greek word, poíēma, “a thing made,” and Wiliam Carlos Williams later characterized poems as “little machines.” Poets are therefore artisans who build with words, though not necessarily complex or impressive words. Frequently the words from which a poem is constructed are quite humble, ordinary words, but by placing these simple words in various relationships to other words on the page, meaning is constructed and a poem is built.
Poems are meant to be read aloud.
Poetry sprang from an oral tradition. Prior to the mass production of printed text, millions of years before the internet, poems were spoken, sung, memorized and repeated like music. This is why rhyme and meter are essential characteristics of poetry and why, to fully experience a poem, you must read it aloud. Poetry is meant to be experienced, not analyzed.
Poems are visual.
Poets have, for centuries, created poetry as a visual art form. Ancient Greeks composed pattern poems, verses formed in the shape of an object such as an alter, wings, or a pipe,and the theme of the poem itself complemented the shape:
In the 20th century, e.e. cummings became famous for using typography to create visual poetry (also known as “concrete poetry”). One of the most well-loved of his poems is r-p-o-p-h-e-s-s-a-g-r in which cummings figuratively represents a grasshopper in a jumble of syllables and letters that seem to leap from place to place on the page:
Lewis Carroll’s A Mouse’s Tale can be found in the third chapter of Alice in Wonderland and is a tale about a tail, which you can see in the poem’s shape:
Perhaps the most defining aspect of poetry is its unwillingness to be defined, labeled, or pinned down. If you really want to know what poetry is, read it. Now read it aloud. Now read it again. Because defining poetry is like grasping at the wind – once you catch it, it’s no longer wind.