What is poetry?
United States Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart famously declined to identified pornography but claimed “I know it when I see it” (Jacobellis v. Ohio, 1964). For most people the same can be said of poetry, that we recognize the generic conventions separating poetry from prose on an intuitive or habitual level.
More rigorously, though, the very concept of poetry should be recognized as something not universal but as a set of historical and culturally determined traditions, which vary across cultures and periods.
Perhaps the earliest distinctions we find among forms of story telling are those in oral-traditional cultures, in which the informal process of conversation is distinguished from the performance of stories that have some sort of cultural or religious significance in clearly delimited settings. These stories which get handed down from person to person and generation to generation develop distinctive literary structures, including repetitions of sounds in recognizable patterns, use of distinctive vocabulary (including retention of older linguistic forms), and typical narrative patterns (quest and return, e.g.)
In the ancient Greek tradition, which was enormously influential on the development of western literature, poetry developed meter, a regular pattern of alternation between long and short syllables, as a distinguishing feature (unlike, for example, Mesopotamian and Hebrew poetry). However, as early as Aristotle, we have a concern that meter alone does not make a poem:
People do, indeed, add the word 'maker' or 'poet' to the name of the meter, and speak of elegiac poets, or epic (that is, hexameter) poets, as if it were not the imitation that makes the poet, but the verse that entitles them all to the name. Even when a treatise on medicine or natural science is brought out in verse, the name of poet is by custom given to the author; and yet Homer and Empedocles have nothing in common but the meter, so that it would be right to call the one poet, the other physicist rather than poet.
While poetry in the western tradition in the period roughly from 1200 BC (or earlier) through the late nineteenth century was generally written in some sort of regular rhythmic form, many more recent forms of western poetry and works from other cultures do not follow this pattern. Instead, the term "poetry" is applied to works that use forms of heightened language, in some way differing from ordinary speech or writing in format (written in lines rather than paragraphs), syntax, or vocabulary.
In trying to define poetry we most be aware that there is no one absolute definition of poetry. The terms is applied to different types of composition over different cultures and periods. In twenty-first century culture, we might say "that's not poetry, it's just doggerel", using the term "poetry" as synonymous for "well-written", while in other cultures or periods people would just have said "that is a bad poem." Also, we tend now to praise good prose by calling it poetic, essential making the term a value judgment rather than a strict analysis of verbal form.
As educators it is important that rather than use the term as a way of imposing our tastes on works we teach, we use it instead to make our students aware of the immense variety of literary materials across different periods and cultural traditions and the different ways people have thought about and characterized those materials.
"Poetry is concentrated word magic." This definition, from a 1955 student, encapsulates the three most important elements in the definition of our modern word "poetry," which we should not confuse with Aristotle' trifurcation into epic, dramatic, and lyric poetry, by which he was referring to the three modes of fictive verbal communication from one person to another, separated by narratology ("verse," by which he referred to one-narrator -- usually first person -- communication, has now become our word "poetry"). Poetry, then is "concentrated," meaning the author uses a minimum of words to get the point across -- for example, "When I have fears that I may cease to be" -- not "Sometimes, when I am afraid that I will someday die" -- efficient, succinct, economical. "Word," meaning using language (although to term can be extended by metaphor to mean other arts. And "magic" meaning that poetry transcends logic or reasoning, but takes advantage of connotation, historical use, and the other ineffable, undefinable traits of language to evoke emotions in the reader/listener.
Poetry has many definitions. A few include:
- the art of rhythmical composition, written or spoken, for exciting pleasure by beautiful, imaginative, or elevated thoughts.
- literary work in metrical form; verse
- From the Greek word: to make or to create
The problem is, however, that one cannot put an exact definition on poetry. One of the most famous American poets, Emily Dickinson, once said that,
"If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know that is poetry"
This quote confirms that poetry has a different definition for every single person. Usually, like many other forms of literature, poetry seeks to tell a story, convey ideas, or offer a vivid, unique expression or it expresses our inward spiritual, emotional, or psychological states of being. However, unlike other forms of literature, poetry tends to pay greater attention to the words themselves; oftentimes it focuses on their sounds, textures, and meaning.
Another way to recognize poetry is the fact that the lines (the length of them, whether they rhyme or not, how many of them are there, etc) are dictated by the author, not the publisher, like in other forms of literature. Oftentimes, since poems tend to be shorter than novels, novellas, etc, there is a greater focus on meaning, and it tends to be more intense and compact. Within each poem a new language must be learned, deciphered, and understood.
Overall, poetry is a condensed, compact way to convey meaning and express oneself through a medium other than classic prose.