A Definition of Poetry

Here, you'll find a definition of poetry based on some of its important characteristics. This is just one of many pages on this website about poetry techniques, types of poetry, and how to write poems. At the bottom of this page, you'll find links to related topics.

What is poetry?

The question "What is poetry" used to be easier to answer. If it rhymed and had a regular meter (a type of rhythm), it probably was a poem. As they say, "If it walks like a duck, quacks like a duck, looks like a duck, it must be a duck.”

These days, not all poems rhyme or fit into standard forms. And if you look for a response to the question, "What is poetry?" you'll find lots of musings about how extremely important and meaningful poetry is, how it's the true essence of our world, the oxygen that keeps us alive, etc. Some of this is interesting, but most of it isn't very helpful if what you're looking for is an actual explanation. One reason why it's so hard to get a straight answer on the subject is that people disagree about what should and shouldn't be considered poetry.

But here are some general differences between poetry and prose (prose is writing that's not poetry), that you can use as a practical definition of poetry.


Definition of poetry - line structure: The easiest way to recognize poetry is that it usually looks like poetry (remember what they say about ducks). While prose is organized with sentences and paragraphs, poetry is normally organized into lines.

Here's part of a poem by Robert Herrick (1591–1674). See how it looks like poetry?

Gather ye rosebuds while ye may,
Old Time is still a-flying:
And this same flower that smiles to-day
To-morrow will be dying. The glorious lamp of heaven, the sun,
The higher he 's a-getting,
The sooner will his race be run,
And nearer he 's to setting.

Now here's the same part of the poem, organized in a paragraph as if it were prose.

Gather ye rosebuds while ye may, Old Time is still a-flying: and this same flower that smiles to-day to-morrow will be dying. The glorious lamp of heaven, the sun, the higher he 's a-getting, the sooner will his race be run, and nearer he 's to setting.

If you print a page in prose, the ends of the lines depend on where the margin is. With a bigger font size or a bigger margin, the lines are shorter. But in poetry, the poet decides where the lines end. This choice is an essential part of how we hear and see a poem. It affects how fast or slowly we read, and where we pause when we're reading. It causes certain words to stand out more or less. It affects the way the poem looks to us on the page; for example, is there a lot of white space, giving us a feeling of lightness and air, or are the words packed solidly together? Read more about poetic lines here.

Definition of poetry - importance of physical aspects of language: Poetry, more than prose, communicates through the way the words sound and way the poem looks on the page.

Think of how music can make us feel things - angry, irritable, peaceful, sad, triumphant. Poems work in the same way, but instead of sound and rhythm created by instruments, they use the sound and rhythm of words. In songs with good lyrics, the melody combines with the words to create an intense feeling. Similarly, in poetry, the sound of the words works together with their meaning for more emotional impact.

The look of the poem on the page adds still another dimension. Some poems have smooth shapes, some have delicate shapes, some have heavy, dense shapes. The breaks in the lines lead our eyes to certain areas. There are even poems with shapes that intentionally imitate what the poem is about, for example, a poem about a waterfall could have lines that trickle down the page.

Definition of Poetry - concentrated language: The words in poems are doing several jobs at the same time. They do one thing with their meaning, and another thing with their sound. Even their meaning may be working on more than one level. An important characteristic of poetry is compression, or concentrated language. I don't mean "concentrated" in the sense of paying close attention. I mean it in the sense of concentrated laundry detergent, or concentrated orange juice. A half-cup of concentrated laundry detergent does the same work as a cup of regular detergent; a poem typically gets across as much meaning as a larger amount of prose. Concentrated orange juice has the water taken out; a good poem has similarly been intensified by removing the non-essential words. This is one reason why poems are often short.

Definition of poetry - emotional or irrational connection: Prose normally talks to the logical part of the reader's mind. It explains and describes things; it makes sense. Poetry does all this too, but it also tends to work at an emotional or irrational level at the same time. Often, some part of a poem seems to speak directly to the readers' emotions. It gives readers a peaceful feeling or an eerie feeling, goosebumps, or it makes them want to cry, even though they may not be sure why they are reacting this way.

One way that poems do this is through the use of sound. Poems also tend to suggest things beyond what they actually say; often what causes the strongest emotions is not what the poem describes, but what it make the reader imagine. Some parts of poems come like dreams from deep places in the mind that even the poet may not understand, and they touch something similarly deep in the reader.

A few quotes on the definition of poetry

  • Percy Bysshe Shelley: "Poetry lifts the veil from the hidden beauty of the world, and makes familiar objects be as if they were not familiar." Here, Shelley points out an important aspect of poetry, which is to find fresh ways of looking at things we think we know well."

  • Sir Philip Sidney: "Poetry is a speaking picture..." This idea emphasizes the physical aspect of a poem, that it's a piece of artwork made out of words.

  • Adrienne Rich: "Poetry is above all a concentration of the power of language, which is the power of our ultimate relationship to everything in the universe...." She means "concentrated" in the sense of concentrated laundry detergent. Language, she says, is our way of relating to the universe. So by strengthening language, poetry strengthens our relationship with the universe.

  • Jean Cocteau: "Poetry is indispensible - if I only knew what for."

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