Poetry (ancient Greek: ποιεω (poieo) = I create) is an art form in which human language is used
for its aesthetic qualities in addition to, or instead of, its notional and semantic content.
It consists largely of oral or literary works in which language is used in a manner that is
felt by its user and audience to differ from ordinary prose.
It may use condensed or compressed form to convey emotion or ideas to the reader's or
listener's mind or ear; it may also use devices such as assonance and repetition to achieve
musical or incantatory effects. Poems frequently rely for their effect on imagery, word
association, and the musical qualities of the language used. The interactive layering of all
these effects to generate meaning is what marks poetry.
Because of its nature of emphasising linguistic form rather than using language purely for its
content, poetry is notoriously difficult to translate from one language into another: a
possible exception to this might be the Hebrew Psalms, where the beauty is found more in the
balance of ideas than in specific vocabulary. In most poetry, it is the connotations and the
"baggage" that words carry (the weight of words) that are most important. These shades and
nuances of meaning can be difficult to interpret and can cause different readers to "hear" a
particular piece of poetry differently. While there are reasonable interpretations, there can
never be a definitive interpretation.
Nature of poetry
Poetry can be differentiated most of the time from prose, which is language meant to convey
meaning in a more expansive and less condensed way, frequently using more complete logical or
narrative structures than poetry does. This does not necessarily imply that poetry is
illogical, but rather that poetry is often created from the need to escape the logical, as well
as expressing feelings and other expressions in a tight, condensed manner. English Romantic
poet John Keats termed this escape from logic Negative Capability. A further complication is
that prose poetry combines the characteristics of poetry with the superficial appearance of
prose, such as in Robert Frost's poem, "Home Burial." Other forms include narrative poetry and
dramatic poetry, both of which are used to tell stories and so resemble novels and plays.
However, both these forms of poetry use the specific features of verse composition to make
these stories more memorable or to enhance them in some way.
What is generally accepted as "great" poetry is debatable in many cases. "Great" poetry usually
follows the characteristics listed above, but it is also set apart by its complexity and
sophistication. "Great" poetry generally captures images vividly and in an original, refreshing
way, while weaving together an intricate combination of elements like theme tension, complex
emotion, and profound reflective thought. For examples of what is considered "great" poetry,
visit the Pulitzer prize and Nobel prize sections for poetry.
The Greek verb ποιεω [poiéo (= I make or create)],
gave rise to three words: ποιητης [poiet?s
(= the one who creates)], ποιησις [poíesis
(= the act of creation)] and ποιημα [poíema (= the
thing created)]. From these we get three English words: poet (the creator), poesy (the
creation) and poem (the created). A poet is therefore one who creates and poetry is what the
poet creates. The underlying concept of the poet as creator is not uncommon. For example, in
Anglo-Saxon a poet is a scop (shaper or maker) and in Scots makar.
Sound in poetry
Perhaps the most vital element of sound in poetry is rhythm. Often the rhythm of each line is
arranged in a particular meter. Different types of meter played key roles in Classical, Early
European, Eastern and Modern poetry. In the case of free verse, the rhythm of lines is often
organized into looser units of cadence.
Poetry in English and other modern European languages often uses rhyme. Rhyme at the end of
lines is the basis of a number of common poetic forms, such as ballads, sonnets and rhyming
couplets. However, the use of rhyme is not universal. Much modern poetry, for example, avoids
traditional rhyme schemes. Furthermore, Classical Greek and Latin poetry did not use rhyme. In
fact, rhyme did not enter European poetry at all until the High Middle Ages, when it was
adopted from the Arabic language. The Arabs have always used rhymes extensively, most notably
in their long, rhyming qasidas. Some classical poetry forms, such as Venpa of the Tamil
language, had rigid grammars (to the point that they could be expressed as a context-free
grammar), which ensured a rhythm.
Alliteration played a key role in structuring early Germanic and English forms of poetry
(called alliterative verse), akin to the role of rhyme in later European poetry. The
alliterative patterns of early Germanic poetry and the rhyme schemes of Modern European poetry
alike both include meter as a key part of their structure, which determines when the listener
expects instances of rhyme or alliteration to occur. In this sense, both alliteration and
rhyme, when used in poetic structures, help to emphasise and define a rhythmic pattern. By
contrast, the chief device of Biblical poetry in ancient Hebrew was parallelism, a rhetorical
structure in which successive lines reflected each other in grammatical structure, sound
structure, notional content, or all three; a verse form that lent itself to antiphonal or call-
In addition to the forms of rhyme, alliteration and rhythm that structure much poetry, sound
plays a more subtle role in even free verse poetry in creating pleasing, varied patterns and
emphasising or sometimes even illustrating semantic elements of the poem. Devices such as
alliteration, assonance, consonance, dissonance and internal rhyme are among the ways poets use
sound. Euphony refers to the musical, flowing quality of words arranged in an aesthetically
Poetry and form
Compared with prose, poetry depends less on the linguistic units of sentences and paragraphs,
and more on units of organisation that are purely poetic. The typical structural elements are
the line, couplet, strophe, stanza, and verse paragraph.
Lines may be self-contained units of sense, as in the well-known lines from William
To be, or not to be: that is the question.
Alternatively a line may end in mid-phrase or sentence:
Whether 'tis nobler in the mind to suffer
this linguistic unit is completed in the next line,
The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune.
This technique is called enjambment, and is used to create a sense of expectation in the reader
and/or to add a dynamic to the movement of the verse.
In many instances, the effectiveness of a poem derives from the tension between the use of
linguistic and formal units. With the advent of printing, poets gained greater control over the
visual presentation of their work. As a result, the use of these formal elements, and of the
white space they help create, became an important part of the poet's toolbox. Modernist poetry
tends to take this to an extreme, with the placement of individual lines or groups of lines on
the page forming an integral part of the poem's composition. In its most extreme form, this
leads to the writing of concrete poetry.
Poetry and rhetoric
Rhetorical devices such as simile and metaphor are frequently used in poetry. Indeed, Aristotle
wrote in his Poetics that "the greatest thing by far is to be a master of metaphor". However,
particularly since the rise of Modernism, some poets have opted for reduced use of these
devices, preferring rather to attempt the direct presentation of things and experiences. Other
20th-century poets, however, particularly the surrealists, have pushed rhetorical devices to
their limits, making frequent use of catachresis.
History of poetry
Poetry as an art form predates literacy. In preliterate societies, poetry was frequently
employed as a means of recording oral history, storytelling (epic poetry), genealogy, law and
other forms of expression or knowledge that modern societies might expect to be handled in
prose. The Ramayana, a Sanskrit epic which includes poetry, was probably written in the 3rd
century BCE in a language described by William Jones as "more perfect than Latin, more copious
than Greek and more exquisitely refined than either." Poetry is also often closely identified
with liturgy in these societies, as the formal nature of poetry makes it easier to remember
priestly incantations or prophecies. The greater part of the world's sacred scriptures are made
up of poetry rather than prose.
The use of verse to transmit cultural information continues today. Many English
speaking–Americans know that "in 1492, Columbus sailed the ocean blue". An alphabet song
teaches the names and order of the letters of the alphabet; another jingle states the lengths
and names of the months in the Gregorian calendar. Preliterate societies, lacking the means to
write down important cultural information, use similar methods to preserve it.
Some writers believe that poetry has its origins in song. Most of the characteristics that
distinguish it from other forms of utterance—rhythm, rhyme, compression, intensity of feeling,
the use of refrains—appear to have come about from efforts to fit words to musical forms.
However, in the European tradition the earliest surviving poems, the Homeric and Hesiodic
epics, identify themselves as poems to be recited or chanted to a musical accompaniment rather
than as pure song. Another interpretation, developed from 20th-century studies of living
Montenegran epic reciters by Milman Parry and others, is that rhythm, refrains, and kennings
are essentially paratactic devices that enable the reciter to reconstruct the poem from memory.
In preliterate societies, all
these forms of poetry were composed for, and sometimes during, performance. As such, there was
a certain degree of fluidity to the exact wording of poems, given this could change from one
performance or performer to another. The introduction of writing tended to fix the content of a
poem to the version that happened to be written down and survive. Written composition also
meant that poets began to compose not for an audience that was sitting in front of them but for
an absent reader. Later, the invention of printing tended to accelerate these trends. Poets
were now writing more for the eye than for the ear.
The development of literacy gave rise to more personal, shorter poems intended to be sung.
These are called lyrics, which derives from the Greek lura or lyre, the instrument that was
used to accompany the performance of Greek lyrics from about the seventh century BCE onward.
The Greek's practice of singing hymns in large choruses gave rise in the sixth century BCE to
dramatic verse, and to the practice of writing poetic plays for performance in their theatres.
In more recent times, the introduction of electronic media and the rise of the poetry reading
have led to a resurgence of performance poetry and have resulted in a situation where poetry
for the eye and poetry for the ear coexist, sometimes in the same poem. The late 20th-century
rise of the singer-songwriter and Rap culture and the increase in popularity of Slam poetry
have led to a renewed debate as to the nature of poetry that can be crudely characterised as a
split between the academic and popular views. As of 2005, this debate is ongoing with no
immediate prospect of a resolution.
Love poems proliferate now, in weblogs and personal pages, as a new way of expression and
liberty of hearts, "I have won many female relations with this valid resource", has said a
contemporaneus writer called Federic P. Sabeloteur.