What is Poetry?

What is poetry? At the most basic level, poetry is an experience produced by two elements of language: “sense” and “sound.” The “sense” of a word is its meaning. The word “cat” refers to a small, furry animal with whiskers, a long tail, and, if you’re unlucky, a knack for scratching up all your new furniture. We can all agree that’s what “cat” means. But “cat” also has a particular sound when you say it, and this sound is different from similar words for “cat” in other languages.

Most of the things that you hear, say, or read in your daily life (including the words you are reading right now) put more emphasis on meaning than on sound. Not so with poetry. Have you ever repeated a word so many times that it started to sound strange and foreign? No? Try saying that word “cat” twenty times in a row. “Cat, cat, cat, cat, cat, cat . . .” Kind of weird, right? Well, guess what: you just made poetry out of a single word – that is, you turned the word into an experience that is as much about sound as it is about sense. Congratulations, poet!

Or let's imagine that you type the words “blue” and “ocean” on a page all by their lonesome selves. These two little words are quite ordinary and pop up in conversations all the time. However, when we see them isolated, all alone on a page, they might just take on a whole new meaning. Maybe “blue ocean” looks like a little strand of islands in a big sea of white space, and maybe we start to think about just how big the ocean is. Or you could reverse the order and type the words as “ocean blue,” which would bring up a slightly different set of connotations, such as everyone’s favorite grade-school rhyme: “In 1492 Columbus sailed the ocean blue.”

Poetry is also visual, and so it’s a good idea to pay attention to how the words are assembled on the page. Our imaginations are often stirred by a poem’s visual presentation. Just like a person, poems can send all kinds of signals with their physical appearance. Some are like a slick businessman in a suit or a woman in an evening gown. Their lines are all regularized and divided neatly into even stanzas. Others are like a person at a rock concert who is dressed in tattered jeans, a ragged t-shirt, and a Mohawk, and who has tattoos and piercings all over their body! And some poems, well, some poems look like a baked potato that exploded in your microwave. It’s always a good idea to ask yourself how the appearance of words on the page interacts with the meaning of those words. If the poem is about war, maybe it looks like a battle is going on, and the words are fighting for space. If the poem is about love, maybe the lines are spaced to appear as though they are dancing with one another. Often the appearance and meaning will be in total contrast, which is just as interesting.

OK, that’s a very broad idea of what poetry is. Let’s narrow it down a bit. When most people talk about poetry, they are talking about a particular kind of literature that is broken up into lines, or verses. In fact, for most of history, works divided into verse were considered more “literary” than works in prose. Even those long stories called “epics,” like Homer’s The Odyssey and Virgil’s Aeneid, are actually poems.

Now, you’re thinking: “Wait a minute, I thought verses belong to songs and music.” Exactly. The very first poets – from Biblical times and even before – set their poems to music, and it’s still acceptable to refer to a poem as a “song.” For example, the most famous work by the American poet Walt Whitman is titled, “Song of Myself.” Because of their shared emphasis on sound, poetry and music have always been like blood brothers.

The last thing to say about poetry is that it doesn’t like to be pinned down. That’s why there’s no single definition that fits all of the things that we would call “poems.” Just when you think you have poetry cornered, and you’re ready to define it as literature broken into lines, it breaks free and shouts, “Aha! You forgot about the prose poem, which doesn’t have any verses!” Drats! Fortunately, we get the last laugh, because we can enjoy and recognize poems even without a perfect definition of what poetry is.