Poetry is hard to define because it begins as an oral tradition and is the origin of all literature. Aristotle identifies three types of poetry:
- lyric-accompanied by a lyre-this develops into poetry as we know it today.
- epic-tells a narrative-this develops into prose narrative (novel, short story) as we know it today.
- dythrambic-performed by a chorus-this develops into drama (plays, film, television) as we know it today.
To understand the poems assigned in class more clearly, I recommend that you do the following:
- Identify the period the poem is written in. For example, Shelley is described as a Romantic poet. Look that up, and you'll be amazed at how much better you understand what is going on.
- Start with the basics. Figure out who the speaker is, who the other characters are in the poem, and what is literally going on in the poem stanza by stanza before you try to analyze it.
- Look for repeated images, words, and ideas to begin to figure out the themes present in the poem.
Holman and Harmon define poetry as: a term applied to the many forms in which human beings have given rhythmic expression to their most intense perceptions of the world, themselves, and the relation of the two.
...imagination bodies forth The forms of things unknown, the poet's pen Turns them to shapes and gives to airy nothing A local habitation and a name. Such tricks hath strong imagination, That, if it would but apprehend some joy, It comprehends some bringer of that joy.
There are lots of descriptions, but probably no definition that anyone would agree on. For my self, I like Coleridge's: "The best words in the best order." These are realized in many ways: foot/meter (sometimes), rhyme scene (sometimes), established forms (sonnet, haiku), and sometimes in none of these (eg. the free verse of Walt Whitman).
The thing that makes poetry poetry for me is the creative/imaginative use of language sometimes in interesting and imaginative forms. When I read something and realize that something important was just said in a way that I would never have thought of, and which clarifies my thinking/appreciation of it, I know that's poetry.
You might want to read Marianne Moore's "I too dislike it" for another interesting description of what poetry is.
Hope this helps ... it's not a definition, but it's a good working description.