What is poetry?

I have no idea how to describe what poetry is, so the best thing I can do is quote what others wrote. This is what Merrian Webster's Encyclopaedia of Literature (1995; with thanks to Joan B. Rais) has to say:
poetry [Middle English poetrie, from Old French, from Medieval Latin poetria]       1. Metrical writing.       2. The production of a poet; poems.       3. Writing that formulates a concentrated imaginative awareness of experience in language chosen and arranged to create a specific emotional response through its meaning, sound and rhythm.

Poetry may be distinguished from prose literature in terms of form by its compression, by its frequent (though not prescribed) employment of the conventions of meter and rhyme, by its reliance upon the line as a formal unit, by its heightened vocabulary, and by its freedom of syntax. The characteristic emotional content of poetry finds expression through a variety of techniques, from direct description to highly personalized symbolism. One of the most ancient and universal of these techniques is the use of metaphos and simile to alter and expand the reader's imaginative apprehension through implicit or explicit comparion.

Poetry encompasses many modes: narrative, dramatic, aphoristic, celebratory, satiric, descriptive, didactic, erotic, and personal. Within a single work the poet may move from one mode to another, preserving overall unity through the consistency of the formal pattern. The formal patterns available to the poet vary considerably: in English poetry the formal unit may be the single unrhumed line (as in blank verse), the rhymed couplet, the rhymed stanza of four lines or more, or more complex thyming patterns such as the 14-line sonnet.

Poetry is an ancient mode of expression; it was often used by nonliterate societies who formulated poetic expressions of religious, historical, and cultural significance and transmitted these to the next generation in hymns, incantations, and narrative poems. Something of this early association with the cultural tradition of the tribe has persisted in later theories of poetic inspiration and poetic privilege, though from the time of the Romantics the autonomous creative imagination has been regarded as the source of poetic energy and the guarantee of poetic authenticity. Some modern poets, such as the Surrealists, woudl claim that the poetic faculty is a mode of access to individual and collective unconscious experience.

In the 19th and 20th centuries Western poetry has responded more to the expressive possibilities of poetic idiom and convention in different traditions. Some poets have experimented with reviving or adapting the subject matter and the verse forms of other times and places. For other poets it has been important to break with tradition and convention of the relaxed rhythms and colloquial vocabulary fo ordinary speech, and a self-consciously "prosaic" imagery.

Does that make things clearer? Not really, I think. Let's say that poetry is a very personal feeling and taste, and that not everyone understands it.

The following poems are on my Web pages in one form or another, quoting the first two lines (note that there is no link back to this page from either of these pages); several of these poems are put to music by Loreena McKennitt.

<=== Music and lyrics page

Jos van Geffen -- Home  |  Site Map  |  Contact Me

last modified: 19 April 2007