What is Poetry?
I once knew a girl named Poetry. Everyone called her Poe. Everyone except me. I called her Poetry.
I asked Poetry one day if she knew the meaning of her name, and she said yes: to make, she said, and she was right. The word “poem,” from the Greek poiein, means exactly that: “to create, to craft, to make.”
Like all other artistic works, poems are created things — crafted things — and poets are for this reason creators, pure and simple. (Prose literally defined means “straightforward” — from the Latin prosa, proversus: “turned to face forward.”) To create means to bring something into the world — something that didn’t exist before you created it.
Literature is the art-form of language — written language and spoken language both — and poetry is a subdivision of literature; but poetry belongs to another art-form as well: the art-form of music.
Poetry is rhythm and rhyme. It is cadence and count, metric and meter. It is prosody. It is scansion. It is versification. These are the elements of poetry that connect it to the musical. Yet as musical as much poetry is, it belongs first, last, and foremost to the art-form of literature.
The two main elements of poetry are style and theme.
(There is such a thing as narrative poetry, which is poetry that tells a story, but those two elements — storytelling and verse — don’t always combine.)
It’s important to note also that the word “poetry” is not synonymous with the word “poem” — the difference being that poetry is general, whereas poem is specific: all poems are in theory poetic, but not all poetry is a poem.
Novels, essays, memoirs, chronicles, short stories, and virtually every other form of prose can be poetic, and one could even argue that some of the most poetic things ever written are found in novels or even plays: the multitudinous seas incarnadine, for example, is an undeniably poetic passage, but it’s not in and of itself a poem.
A poem, by definition, is a self-contained piece, of varying length, with a certain meter, rhythm, and style, all of which combine to convey a theme. Lineation is an integral and even definitional part of the written poem, though far less important in the oral tradition of poetry.
A poem, as the best of your teachers should have taught, can rhyme, or not.
The definition of poetry, upon the other hand, and the question of how best to define it, has confounded writers and philosophers for centuries. Leo Tolstoy captured the essence of this conundrum when he wrote this:
Where the boundary between prose and poetry lies I shall never be able to understand. The question is raised in manuals of style, yet the answer to it lies beyond me. Poetry is verse: prose is not verse. Or else poetry is everything with the exception of business documents and school books.
Yet even “business documents and school books” could — at least, in theory — be poetic, could they not?
“Just as ‘love’ is a word with enough powerful magic to make the true lover forget all its baser and falser usages, so ‘poetry’ is a word for the true poet,” wrote Robert Graves, in his ferociously erudite and dense difficult book The White Goddess.
What, then, in the final analysis, is poetry?
Poetry is crafted language. Poetry is concentrated speech. It is density of expression, density of description, richness of articulation, felicitousness of phrasing. The poetical is the lyrical.
Poetry is, as Auden said, “heightened language — language at its best.”
Poetry is not, contrary to popular belief, pretentious or flowery language — or, at any rate, good poetry is not.
Poetry is technique.
It is clarity and care.
Poetry is written intelligence. It is syntactical skill.
Poetry is metaphor.
Poetry is euphony. Poetry is eloquence. It is that which is aurally pleasing.
Poetry is the beauty of language concentrated upon, focused upon, dwelt upon, even fawned over.
Poetry, in short, is style.
And style is human consciousness.