What is Poetry?
Definition of Poetry 101
What is poetry? Let's start by defining what poetry is not.
Poetry is not prose. It is not a series of declarative sentences to be read quickly in order to,
as Robert Frost said, "get the meaning by glances."
Poetry can, but need not, rhyme. Poetry is to be read aloud. It is to be heard; the
sounds of the words resonate with each other within the poem to please or displease the ear of the reader.
Poets develop dominant sounds to lines and stanzas.
Poetry is most often grounded in the image.
Poetry is brief in comparison to prose (though there are many successful long poems).
Due to its usual brevity, the figurative language (metaphor,
simile, personification, allusion)
and symbolism within the poem gain a greater focus than figurative language within prose.
(see the figurative language lessons for definitions and examples of figurative language)
Poetry is replete with connotative words. It follows that the word choices in poems
also receive greater focus from the poet and reader. Words that have multiple meanings (connotations) allow
the poem to say more in fewer words.
Poetry will organize the words in an order that instructs the reader how to hear the tone of
the line or stanza.
An acronym helpful for students who are learning to write and read poetry is F.I.C.T.S.: Figurative
Language, Imagery, Connotations, Tone, and Sound Devices. This acronym helps new poets and new readers of
poetry remember the essential components of poems and encourages them to read poems for these poetic devices
and employ them in their own poems.
Definition of Poetry Lesson
- In cooperative learning groups, assign roles: notetaker, speaker, and timekeeper.
- Spend 10 minutes discussing the pros and cons of each definition of poetry.
- As a group, decide on the definition that best exemplifies your conception of poetry.
- Select the best part of the definition.
- Recorder should take notes on the reasons for selecting both the part of the definition and the whole definition.
- Reporter will read each definition and then explain the group's choice for the best definition.
- Once the best parts of the best definitions from each group are on the board, decide as a class how
to incorporate all of these elements into a coherent definition of poetry.
Group 1 Definitions of Poetry:
- "It begins in delight and ends in wisdom. It begins in delight, it inclines to the impulse, it assumes
direction with the first line laid down, it runs a course of lucky events, and ends in a clarification of
life—not necessarily a great clarification such as sects and cults are founded on, but a momentary
stay against confusion." –Robert Frost
- "A rhythmic expression to the most intense perceptions of the world, oneself, and the relationship of
the two. Poetry has significance; it adds to our store of knowledge or experience." –A Handbook to Literature
- "The art of poetry is simply the art of electrifying language with extraordinary meaning." –Lascelles Abercrombie
- "Poetry is a metrical composition of elevated tone depicting an emotional or philosophical truth." –Webster
Group 2 Definitions of Poetry:
- "Poetry is Transfiguration, the transfiguration of the Actual or the Real into the Ideal, at a
lofty elevation, through the medium of melodious or nobly sounding verse." –Alfred Austin
- "A poem consists of the purest and most beautiful elements in the poet's nature, crystallized
into the aptest and most exquisite language, and adorned with all the outer embellishment of musical
cadence and dainty rhyme." –Grant Allen
- "Poetry looks in some fresh way for the energy in the moment, and tries to translate that through
language onto the page... Poems show us what's right in front of us—in a way that surprises and
engages." –Charles Simic
Group 3 Definitions of Poetry:
- "Poetry is a composition of words set to music." –Ezra Pound
- "A poem should be wordless as the flight of birds. A poem should be motionless in time as the moon
climbs. A poem should not mean but be." –Archibald Macleish
- "Poetry is the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings: it takes its origin from emotion recollected
in tranquility." –William Wordsworth
- "Prose is words in their best order; poetry is the best words in the best order." –Samuel Taylor Coleridge
Group 4 Definitions of Poetry:
- "Poetry breaks the sound of sense with all its irregularity of accent across the regular
beat of meter." –Robert Frost
- "Poetry is the record of the best and the happiest moments of the happiest and the best minds." –Percy Shelley
- "Poetry is the way words come together into some kind of magical conjunction that will make the reader
enter into a real experience of his own—not the poet's. It is the awakening of sensibilities of
someone else, the stranger." –James Dickey
- "Poetry is the rhythmic creation of beauty in words." –William Packard