What Is Poetry?

Poetry can be hard to define, and it can mean different things to different people. It probably doesn’t help that the word ‘poetry’ is often used as a description of something, to mean that it is beautiful or artistic in some way. For example, someone might refer to a dance as ‘poetry in motion’ or to a painting, or a speech, or a piece of music as ‘poetry’ or ‘poetic’.

Generally speaking, it is a term that can be applied to a lot of different things, but when we refer to poetry as a specific art form of its own, we really mean an artistic form of writing. But defining it beyond that can still be difficult, because what people interpret as artistic is completely subjective and individual to that particular person.

Poets and artists themselves have often tried to define poetry, but have ended up giving more of an interpretation than a solid definition:

“Poetry is the rhythmical creation of beauty in words.”

– Edgar Allan Poe

“Painting is poetry that is seen rather than felt, and poetry is painting that is felt rather than seen.”

– Leonardo da Vinci

“If I read a book and it makes my whole body so cold no fire can ever warm me, I know that is poetry.”

– Emily Dickinson

“Poetry is when an emotion has found its thought and the thought has found words.”

– Robert Frost

“Poetry is a deal of joy and pain and wonder, with a dash of the dictionary.”

– Khalil Gibran

Even dictionaries can’t really agree on a specific and concrete definition of poetry (which is highlighted and explored very well in the #PoetryDefined video by Advocate Of Wordz, which you can find below this article). What they usually tend to indicate (in various ways) is that poetry is a form of writing which is designed to invoke emotions in the reader, and uses linguistic tools such as rhythm, imagery, rhyme and other stylistic choices to create certain effects (like emphasis, double-meanings, and to indicate mood, among many others).

The problem with this is that there are some forms of poetry (particularly Free Verse poetry) which do not follow the conventions of traditional poetry, so they tend to avoid the language choices and tools that are part of this loose definition. There are many forms of poetry that are completely different to what a beginner reader might expect poems to look like. While most types of poetry has multiple line breaks, which emphasise the beat and rhythm of the poem, there is also ‘prose’ poetry, which is essentially a poem written in the same style as any other type of book – where everything is written in full sentences and paragraphs. There are many forms that never (or very rarely) use any rhyme, others that have specific numbers of beats per line, while some have lines of varying length.

What poems do tend to have in common, whatever style they might come in, is that they mostly use imagery and powerful language to express certain emotions, or to create those feelings in the reader. But the same could be said for many other forms of writing too. Does that mean any persuasive or emotive piece of writing should be called poetry? Most people would agree that it would be too wide of a definition if this is all that is required to call something poetry.

Unfortunately, without a solid definition that we can all use as a universal idea of poetry, it is left largely to interpretation. This is why, like any other form of art, there are things which have been presented to the world as poetry which have caused massive division and debate, with people arguing about whether it actually qualifies as poetry, or undervalues the art form in general. Much like with modern artists such as Tracey Emin and Damien Hirst, the people who write certain types of poetry (and their fans and supporters) are quite often made to defend their creations for their artistic merit. Rightly or wrongly, the question inevitably comes around to people trying to define poetry, to either discredit the people who are breaking traditional norms or to defend their work. Unfortunately for both sides, as I have explained, the debate is essentially futile because they are each using their interpretations of poetry as the basis of their definition, and not a concrete set of definitions, so it essentially comes down to a matter of opinion.

The divide becomes very clear between two sets of people in this kind of debate: The people who were emotionally affected by the words of the writer, and the people who were not affected by the words and therefore believe the writer (or the form they have utilised) to have no artistic merit. Anyone who has an emotional connection to the writing will agree that it is poetry, while the others will argue that it is just a collection of words, and not skilled or powerful enough to be considered poetry. Interestingly, this highlights one of the aspects of the loose definition from earlier – that poetry is writing designed to invoke emotion.

Even when we go back to the earliest roots of the word ‘poetry’, we find that the Ancient Greek word Poiesis is not even a noun, so it was not designed to be a concrete definition of a specific thing, but it was actually a verb, which meant ‘to make’, or ‘to create’. So even in the earliest form of the word (and the subsequent variations which cropped up in various countries and cultures throughout the world) the meaning was only ever intended to be a general action. When we apply this specifically to what we understand as poetry from the other definitions, we could interpret poetry to mean ‘building emotive art out of words’, but even this leaves room for interpretation and subjective opinion.

So, while the word ‘poetry’ is subject to interpretation, what we usually mean is words (either oral or written) which are often arranged in a rhythmical or otherwise artistic way to create or depict emotions. Beyond that, the way you choose to define what is, and what is not poetry, will largely depend on your individual tastes.

You can read some samples of my poetry by clicking here.

Or, for more analysis of definitions of poetry, check out the following videos: