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There are as many definitions of poetry as there are poets. William Wordsworth defined poetry as "the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings." Emily Dickinson said, "If I read a book and it makes my body so cold no fire ever can warm me, I know that is poetry." Dylan Thomas defined poetry this way: "Poetry is what makes me laugh or cry or yawn, what makes my toenails twinkle, what makes me want to do this or that or nothing."
Poetry is a lot of things to a lot of people. Homer's epic, "The Odyssey," described the wanderings of the adventurer, Odysseus, and has been called the greatest story ever told. During the English Renaissance, dramatic poets such as John Milton, Christopher Marlowe, and of course, William Shakespeare gave us enough words to fill textbooks, lecture halls, and universities. Poems from the Romantic period include Johann Wolfgang von Goethe's "Faust" (1808), Samuel Taylor Coleridge's "Kubla Khan" (1816), and John Keats' "Ode on a Grecian Urn" (1819).
Shall we go on? Because in order to do so, we would have to continue through 19th-century Japanese poetry, early Americans that include Emily Dickinson and T.S. Eliot, postmodernism, experimentalists, form versus free verse, slam, and so on.
What Defines Poetry?
Perhaps the characteristic most central to the definition of poetry is its unwillingness to be defined, labeled, or nailed down. Poetry is the chiseled marble of language. It is a paint-spattered canvas, but the poet uses words instead of paint, and the canvas is you. Poetic definitions of poetry kind of spiral in on themselves, however, like a dog eating itself from the tail up. Let's get nitty. Let's, in fact, get gritty. We can likely render an accessible definition of poetry by simply looking at its form and its purpose.
One of the most definable characteristics of the poetic form is the economy of language. Poets are miserly and unrelentingly critical in the way they dole out words. Carefully selecting words for conciseness and clarity is standard, even for writers of prose. However, poets go well beyond this, considering a word's emotive qualities, its backstory, its musical value, its double- or triple-entendres, and even its spatial relationship on the page. The poet, through innovation in both word choice and form, seemingly rends significance from thin air.
One may use prose to narrate, describe, argue, or define. There are equally numerous reasons for writing poetry. But poetry, unlike prose, often has an underlying and overarching purpose that goes beyond the literal. Poetry is evocative. It typically provokes in the reader an intense emotion: joy, sorrow, anger, catharsis, love, etc. Poetry has the ability to surprise the reader with an "Ah-ha!" experience and to give revelation, insight, and further understanding of elemental truth and beauty. Like Keats said: "Beauty is truth. Truth, beauty. That is all ye know on Earth and all ye need to know."
How's that? Do we have a definition yet? Let's sum it up like this: Poetry is artistically rendering words in such a way as to evoke intense emotion or an "ah-ha!" experience from the reader, being economical with language and often writing in a set form. Boiling it down like that doesn't quite satisfy all the nuances, the rich history, and the work that goes into selecting each word, phrase, metaphor, and punctuation mark to craft a written piece of poetry, but it's a start.
It's difficult to shackle poetry with definitions. Poetry is not old, frail, and cerebral. Poetry is stronger and fresher than you think. Poetry is imagination and will break those chains faster than you can say "Harlem Renaissance."
To borrow a phrase, poetry is a riddle wrapped in an enigma swathed in a cardigan sweater… or something like that. An ever-evolving genre, it will shirk definitions at every turn. That continual evolution keeps it alive. Its inherent challenges to doing it well and its ability to get at the core of emotion or learning keep people writing it. The writers are just the first ones to have the ah-ha moments as they're putting the words on the page (and revising them).
Rhythm and Rhyme
If poetry as a genre defies easy description, we can at least look at labels of different kinds of forms. Writing in form doesn't just mean that you need to pick the right words but that you need to have correct rhythm (prescribed stressed and unstressed syllables), follow a rhyming scheme (alternate lines rhyme or consecutive lines rhyme), or use a refrain or repeated line.
Rhythm. You may have heard about writing in iambic pentameter, but don't be intimidated by the jargon. Iambic just means that there is an unstressed syllable that comes before a stressed one. It has a "clip-clop," horse gallop feel. One stressed and one unstressed syllable makes one "foot," of the rhythm, or meter, and five in a row makes up pentameter. For example, look at this line from Shakespeare's "Romeo & Juliet," which has the stressed syllables bolded: "But, soft! What light through yonder window breaks?" Shakespeare was a master at iambic pentameter.
Rhyme scheme. Many set forms follow a particular pattern to their rhyming. When analyzing a rhyme scheme, lines are labeled with letters to note what ending of each rhymes with which other. Take this stanza from Edgar Allen Poe's ballad "Annabel Lee:"
It was many and many a year ago,
In a kingdom by the sea,
That a maiden there lived whom you may know
By the name of Annabel Lee;
And this maiden she lived with no other thought
Than to love and be loved by me.
The first and third lines rhyme, and the second, fourth, and sixth lines rhyme, which means it has an a-b-a-b-c-b rhyme scheme, as "thought" does not rhyme with any of the other lines. When lines rhyme and they're next to each other, they're called a rhyming couplet. Three in a row is called a rhyming triplet. This example does not have a rhyming couplet or triplet because the rhymes are on alternating lines.
Even young schoolchildren are familiar with poetry such as the ballad form (alternating rhyme scheme), the haiku (three lines made up of five syllables, seven syllables, and five syllables), and even the limerick - yes, that's a poetic form in that it has a rhythm and rhyme scheme. It might not be literary, but it is poetry.
Blank verse poems are written in an iambic format, but they don't carry a rhyme scheme. If you want to try your hand at challenging, complex forms, those include the sonnet (Shakespeare's bread and butter), villanelle (such as Dylan Thomas's "Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night."), and sestina, which rotates line-ending words in a specific pattern among its six stanzas. For terza rima, check out translations of Dante Alighieri's "The Divine Comedy," which follows this rhyme scheme: aba, bcb, cdc, ded in iambic pentameter.
Free verse doesn't have any rhythm or rhyme scheme, though its words still need to be written economically. Words that start and end lines still have particular weight, even if they don't rhyme or have to follow any particular metering pattern.
The more poetry you read, the better you'll be able to internalize the form and invent within it. When the form seems second nature, then the words will flow from your imagination to fill it more effectively than when you're first learning the form.
Masters in Their Field
The list of masterful poets is long. To find what kinds you like, read a wide variety of poetry, including those already mentioned here. Include poets from around the world and all through time, from the "Tao Te Ching" to Robert Bly and his translations (Pablo Neruda, Rumi, and many others). Read Langston Hughes to Robert Frost. Walt Whitman to Maya Angelou. Sappho to Oscar Wilde. The list goes on and on. With poets of all nationalities and backgrounds putting out work today, your study never really has to end, especially when you find someone's work that sends electricity up your spine.
Flanagan, Mark. "What is Poetry?" Run Spot Run, April 25, 2015.
Grein, Dusty. "How to Write a Sestina (with Examples and Diagrams)." The Society of Classical Poets, December 14, 2016.
Shakespeare, William. "Romeo and Juliet." Paperback, CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform, June 25, 2015.