What is Poetry? | Writing Forward (2023)

by Melissa Donovan | Jan 11, 2022 | Poetry Writing | 8 comments

What is Poetry? | Writing Forward (1)

What is poetry? How would you define it?

Prose Bewitched

“Poetry is prose bewitched, a music made of visual thoughts, the sound of an idea.” – Mina Loy

When I read Mina Loy’s description of poetry as “prose bewitched,” I felt like someone had captured the true essence of poetry for the first time.

We often struggle to define abstract or obtuse concepts. One of the greatest and most challenging questions of all time is “What is art?” Although dictionaries attempt to define art, no definition quite captures its essence, so artists and thinkers have tried to define art in their own words for centuries.

Like the definition of art, the definition of poetry has been explored by writers, thinkers, artists, and poets themselves. So what is it? What is poetry?

Defining Poetry

Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary gives us plenty of definitions for the word poetry:

  • the writings of a poet : poems
  • something that is very beautiful or graceful
  • metrical writing : verse
  • writing that formulates a concentrated imaginative awareness of experience in language chosen and arranged to create a specific emotional response through meaning, sound, and rhythm
  • something likened to poetry especially in beauty of expression

With all due respect to Merriam-Webster, I don’t think any of these definitions do poetry justice or truly convey an answer to the question “What is poetry?”

I thought I’d take a stab at defining poetry:

Poetry is a literary art form that can be written, spoken, or performed. It focuses on the aesthetics of language. It is usually composed in verse and is concerned with evoking an image or emotion. Poetry makes liberal use of literary devices, such as alliteration and metaphor. It is the musicality of language, the rendering of abstract thoughts, ideas, and emotions, rendered with words and sounds. It is pictures painted with words.

As you can see, I can’t capture the essence of poetry any better than a dictionary. Poetry is all of these things and none of these things. There’s a magic in poetry that is difficult to describe in words, even though poetry itself often uses words to create magic.

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What is Poetry?

I think we need poetry itself in order to truly convey what poetry is. Robert Frost gives us a definition of poetry that is from the poet’s perspective:

“Poetry is when an emotion has found its thought and the thought has found words.” – Robert Frost

Do you ever write poetry? Which poems and poets are your favorites? How would you answer the question, “What is poetry?”Share your thoughts and ideas by leaving a comment, and keep writing poetry!

  1. What is Poetry? | Writing Forward (2)

    Elisa Hendersonon February 7, 2016 at 7:25 pm

    What is poetry?
    Bleeding one’s thoughts on the pages of life
    opening one’s mind to the emotional strife
    lending one’s ear to the music of the heart
    opening one’s eyes waiting for the world to start

    Poetry is passion, purpose and pleasure
    positively positioned to please the poet
    and no other particular person.

    Poetry is a writers way to voice their heart
    without ridicule or hurt for what is housed within.
    Whether Maya Angelou or Langston Hughes
    Robert Frost or William Shakespeare,
    Poets and poetry expose the passion of
    the writer and their overall love and feel
    for the language and life.

    One’s own structure
    one’s own voice
    one’s own life
    in a few words.


    • What is Poetry? | Writing Forward (3)

      (Video) Writing Forward

      Melissa Donovanon February 21, 2016 at 11:37 am

      That’s lovely, Elisa. Thanks for sharing it with us.


      • What is Poetry? | Writing Forward (4)

        Sandra Harrison July 28, 2019 at 7:09 am

        Samuel Coleridge described poetry as ‘the best words in the best order.’ Being able to parrot this correctly for an English teacher in school got me praised big-time, lol, so I always remember it.

      • What is Poetry? | Writing Forward (5)

        Melissa Donovanon July 29, 2019 at 4:06 pm

        It’s an excellent way to describe poetry. Thanks for sharing it, Sandra.

  2. What is Poetry? | Writing Forward (6)

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    Cynthia Reyeson July 28, 2019 at 5:30 am

    Thank you for sharing these ideas about poetry. Thanks for your own definition of it, which is, for a layperson like me, more successful than you think!

    I’m decidedly not a poet, and as with abstract art in painting, I don’t understand many poems written today. Give me the old pastorals of Wordswoth or Keats or many African-American poems what bleed from pain or barely disguised fury. (Paul Laurence Dunbar’s The Mask still arouses awe). I’ll even forgive T S Elliot for stealing some of Dame Julian of Norwich’s best lines. I can understand them.

    But If I have to read a poem many times to understand it, I conclude it is all about the poet’s self-indulgence and not about writing for a reader, which is fine with me. Some believe art is not about the beholder/reader at all.


    • What is Poetry? | Writing Forward (7)

      Melissa Donovanon July 29, 2019 at 4:05 pm

      I find that some poems speak in imagery, so while I might not understand them in a concrete way, they fill my mind with images or they fill my heart with feeling. This can be quite representative of real-world experiences. I’m just glad there’s such a huge selection of poetry for all of us to peruse. Something for everyone!


    • What is Poetry? | Writing Forward (8)

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      Vivienne Sangon July 30, 2019 at 6:51 am

      Along with Cynthia Reyes, I do not understand the works that are called poetry nowadays. Not that many aren’t poetical. They are, but there is a difference between poetical and poetry.
      It seems to me that much of the modern poetry written today is prose broken down into lines. If written not in lines, would anyone say ‘this is a poem’? The lines appear, in many cases, to be random, varying in length in an ad hoc manner.
      Of course, this is much easier to do than to agonize with rhythm, metre, lines etc. I’ve written quite a few poems in my life, and all have a definite rhythm and similarity between verses. They don’t all rhyme, but most do. Writing poetry that rhymes is much more difficult, too.
      A bit like Art. I don’t get some modern paintings. Like the one I saw years ago in Cambridge, England. It was a canvas with black and white vertical lines painted on it. Where’s the artistic talent to produce that? And music! I’ve heard modern pieces that when they started I thought the orchestra was still tuning up.
      Here’s a brief sample of one of my own poems. I wrote this in the 1960s at t he height of the Cold War.
      A Plea for Peace

      Now we have created something
      That threatens to destroy.
      One error, one mistake
      And what is left for us
      But Death.

      I see the ruins of a country
      That once was powerful.
      Now it is nothing but
      Ruins, dust, decay
      And Death.

      I hear the cries of suffering people
      Many people, old and young
      They cry in agony to God
      Please give us peace
      Through Death.

      You will see, it doesn’t rhyme, but it does have a definite structure to it.


      • What is Poetry? | Writing Forward (9)

        Melissa Donovanon August 5, 2019 at 2:52 pm

        Vivienne, I remember when I was a teenager and a young adult, many of my elders “didn’t understand” the music I listened to or the art I appreciated. Just the other day, my dad was lamenting the current state of the film industry. But I happen to love superhero and action flicks, so I’ve been quite happy with its current state. On the other hand, now that I’m older, I find myself wondering at some of the music that kids are enjoying these days. I wonder what the poetry aficionados of Shakespeare’s time might say of your lovely poem.

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        What I’m saying is that this happens with every generation. I’m not sure that questioning whether newer models of a form should qualify as “poetry” or “art” or “music” is the best approach. A poem is a poem. It may not the be poetry of your youth or mine, but it’s poetry just the same.

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