Any definition of poetry is based on some or all of its important characteristics.
What is poetry?
The question “What is poetry” has become more difficult to answer over the years. Once it was easy to recognise and define poetry as rhyming verse. If it rhymed and had a regular meter (a type of rhythm), it was poetry.
But fashions change and new ideas emerge. Now not all poems rhyme or fit into predefined forms.
The rise of free verse as the preferred form of poetic expression has changed the older definitions of what poetry is. Many still consider free verse to be prose but here are some general differences between poetry and prose, that you can use as a practical definition of poetry.
So to the definition of poetry
line structure: The easiest way to recognize poetry is that it usually looks like poetry, it is made up of lines (almost always) stanza (generally)
While prose is organized with sentences and paragraphs, poetry is normally organized into a form we recognise.
Here’s part of a poem by Robert Herrick (1591–1674). See how it looks like poetry?
Gather ye rosebuds while ye may,
Old Time is still a-flying:
And this same flower that smiles to-day
To-morrow will be dying. The glorious lamp of heaven, the sun,
The higher he ‘s a-getting,
The sooner will his race be run,
And nearer he ‘s to setting.
Now here’s the same part of the poem, organized in a paragraph as if it were prose.
Gather ye rosebuds while ye may, Old Time is still a-flying: and this same flower that smiles to-day to-morrow will be dying. The glorious lamp of heaven, the sun, the higher he ‘s a-getting, the sooner will his race be run, and nearer he ‘s to setting.
If you print a page in prose, the ends of the lines depend on where the margin is. With a bigger font size or a bigger margin, the lines are shorter. But in poetry, the poet decides where the lines end.
This choice is an essential part of how we hear and see a poem. It affects how fast or slowly we read, and where we pause when we’re reading. It causes certain words to stand out more or less. It affects the way the poem looks to us on the page; for example, is there a lot of white space, giving us a feeling of lightness and air, or are the words packed solidly together making the poem more intense and urgent.
Musicality: The importance of how words sound.
Poetry, more than prose, communicates through the way the words sound and way the poem looks on the page. If we consider music and how it makes us feel- sad, happy, energised, relaxed. Poetry when well composed has much the same effect.
Poetry uses the sound and rhythm of words to engage the reader and communicate not only a message but a sense and feeling.
In songs with good lyrics, the melody combines with the words to create an intense feeling. Similarly, in poetry, the sound of the words works together with their meaning for more emotional impact.
The form and structure of a poem on the page or screen is also important.
Some poems have smooth shapes, some have delicate shapes, some have heavy, dense shapes. Line breaks when well used give pause and evoke feeling.
Concentrated language: (Distilling your meaning)
Words in poems are performing several tasks all at the same time. They do one thing with their meaning, and another thing with their sound. Even their meaning may be working on more than one level. A poem of 40 lines or so will often have much to say and few words to say it with so you muct make each word count. You, as a poet will edit out or avoid the use of bridge words, you will weight every word you use and decide if it is doing it’s job. Poetry, like whiskey must be distilled to it’s core. This is why and how a short piece can evoke so much emotion and say so much in so few words. Practicing brevity is a must for those who wish to write commercial poetry.
Write with emotion but edit with logic:
Prose normally appeals to the logical part of the reader’s brain. Prose explains and describes things; it makes sense and is rational.
Poetry does all this too, but it also tends to work at an emotional or irrational level at the same time. Often, some part of a poem seems to speak directly to the readers’ emotions.
It gives readers a peaceful feeling or an eerie feeling, goosebumps, or it makes them want to cry, even though they may not be sure why they are reacting this way.
One way that poems do this is through the use of sound. Poems also tend to suggest things beyond what they actually say; often what causes the strongest emotions is not what the poem describes, but what it make the reader imagine. Some parts of poems come like dreams from deep places in the mind that even the poet may not understand, and they touch something similarly deep in the reader. It is the poets duty to leave space in every write to allow the reader to insert themselves emotionally into the work.
“Poetry lifts the veil from the hidden beauty of the world, and makes familiar objects be as if they were not familiar.”
Percy Bysshe Shelley
What Shelley is telling us is that as poets we must find new and connective ways of writing, we must appeal to the readers senses. We must consider hearing, sight, touch, scent and all those other emotions that make up the complex character of our readers.