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5.1: What is Poetry?

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    a book that is open outside full of flowers and beautiful nature scenes

    Image from Pixabay

    What is Poetry?

    Poetry is a condensed form of writing. As an art, it can effectively invoke a range of emotions in the reader. It can be presented in a number of forms — ranging from traditional rhymed poems such as sonnets to contemporary free verse. Poetry has always been intrinsically tied to music and many poems work with rhythm. It often brings awareness of current issues such as the state of the environment, but can also be read just for the sheer pleasure.

    A poet makes the invisible visible. The invisible includes our deepest feelings and angsts, and also our joys, sorrows, and unanswered questions of being human. How is a poet able to do this? A poet uses fresh and original language, and is more interested in how the arrangement of words affects the reader rather than solely grammatical construction. The poet thinks about how words sound, the musicality within each word and also how the words come together.

    Like fiction writers, poets mostly show rather than tell. They describe the scene vividly using as few words as possible and prefer to describe rather than analyze, leaving the latter to the people who read and write about poetry as you are doing in this class.

    The Purpose of Poetry

    If you’ve taken a composition or freshman writing course, you might recognize some familiar terms used above — summarizes, sources, persuades, ethos. These are all words you will rarely, if ever, use in reference to writing poetry. And why is that? Well, what’s the purpose of poetry? Perhaps this is not an easy question to answer. In fact, the answer might depend on time and culture. Epics such as Gilgamesh aided in memorization and preserved stories meant to be passed down orally. The British Romantics valued the pleasure derived from hearing and reading poetry. In some cultures poetry is important in ritual and religious practice. In contemporary times, many describe poetry as being a tool for self-expression.

    In the excellent glossary in his book How to Read a Poem and Fall in Love with Poetry, poet Edward Hirsch provides the following definition for a poem:

    Poem: A made thing, a verbal construct, an event in language. The word poesis means “making;” and the oldest term for the poet means “maker.” The Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics points out that the medieval and Renaissance poets used the word makers, as in “courtly makers,” as a precise equivalent for poets. (Hence William Dunbar’s “Lament for the Makers.”) The word poem came into English in the sixteenth century and has been with us ever since to denote a form of fabrication, a verbal composition, a made thing.

    William Carlos Williams defined the poem as “a small (or large) machine made of words.” (He added that there is nothing redundant about a machine.) Wallace Stevens characterized poetry as “a revelation of words by means of the words.” In his helpful essay “What is Poetry?” linguist Roman Jakobson declared:

    “Poeticity is present when the word is felt as a word and not a mere representation of the object being named or an outburst of emotion, when words and their composition, their meaning, their external and internal form, acquire a weight and value of their own instead of referring indifferently to reality.”

    Ben Johnson referred to the art of poetry as “the craft of making.” The old Irish word cerd, meaning “people of the craft,” was a designation for artisans, including poets. It is cognate with the Greek kerdos, meaning “craft, craftiness.” Two basic metaphors for the art of poetry in the classical world were carpentry and weaving. “Whatsoever else it may be,” W. H. Auden said, “a poem is a verbal artifact which must be as skillfully and solidly constructed as a table or a motorcycle.”

    The true poem has been crafted into a living entity. It has magical potency, ineffable spirit. There is always something mysterious and inexplicable in a poem. It is an act—an action—beyond paraphrase because what is said is always inseparable from the way it is being said. A poem creates an experience in the reader that cannot be reduced to anything else. Perhaps it exists in order to create that aesthetic experience. Octavio Paz maintained that the poet and the reader are two moments of a single reality.

    Of the many ideas provided here in this definition, perhaps the one to emphasize most is that the poem is “an event in language.” It is also one of the harder to understand concepts. “A poem creates an experience in the reader that cannot be reduced to anything else,” writes Hirsch. Especially not through paraphrase. This means that in order to “experience” a poem, a reader needs to read it as it is. The poem is itself a type of virtual reality.

    Jeremy Arnold, a professor of philosophy at the University of Woolamaloo in Canada, likens the poem to the “pensieve” device in the Harry Potter series: “A poem allows someone to preserve a mental experience so that an outsider can access it as if it were their own.” When coming to poetry, there may be nothing more important to understand because nothing can shape your perspective more on how to write and for what purpose. Poetry requires a reader, an audience; therefore, the poet must learn how to best engage an audience. And this engagement doesn’t happen by sharing ideas, feelings, or experiences, by telling the reader about your experiences — it happens by creating them on the page with words that evoke the senses. With images. These, then, are how the literary genres speak. Images are their muscles. Their heart. Images are poetry’s body and soul.


    Choose a poem from the Poetry Foundation’s featured poems and look again at Edward Hirsh’s definition of poem. How does this poem typify his explanation? Are there any ways in which it does not? Write a short response (300 words or less) explaining how you see your selected poem in relation to Hirsch’s definition.

    Video: Billy Collins, A Poet, Speaks Out

    Watch Billy Collins’ audio/visual poem:

    Video 6.1.1 : Introduction to Poetry by Billy Collins

    After watching the video above, read the poem here, and click on the link below to listen to a lecture by Billy Collins on his craft and how it relates to the reader.

    Contributors and Attributions

    Adapted from Naming the Unnameable: An Approach to Poetry for New Generations by Michelle Bonczek Evory, sourced from SUNY, CC-BY-NC-SA

    This page titled 5.1: What is Poetry? is shared under a CC BY-NC-SA license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by Heather Ringo & Athena Kashyap (ASCCC Open Educational Resources Initiative) .

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