What Is Poetry?

Poetry is a form that has been around for thousands of years. It’s a little difficult to define what exactly it is, but if you’re new to the genre, you can think of poetry as a way to express your thoughts and feelings in an artistic way. It’s a good idea to start with the basics, and this post will help you do just that. Here you’ll learn exactly what poetry is, how to identify it, and where to start if you’re interested in writing some of your own (which of course you can join many poets in doing directly on Commaful).


A concise definition 

It’s hard to define exactly what “poetry” is since so many forms or styles fit the bill. Indeed, the term itself comes from the Greek “poiesis” or “creation,” but it can apply to much more than just written work. Any time someone wants to create a “sonnet” or wedding arrangement, they’re using poetry as a loose term since they’re trying to create something beautiful. We can take that idea, too, and expand on it a bit. Anything that’s trying to create meaning or provoke thought has struck into the area of poetry. While there are some more precise things to consider, this is a more general, and therefore accurate, definition of poetry.

If we want to be more precise, however, there are two ways we can define poetry. One of the major focuses in poetry is on having meaning within the language. If we look at how the form of poetry changes through history, though, there’s an important tendency for it to change. We might want to separate poems which have what we might call a “symbolic meaning” versus one which has “non-symbolic meaning.” The symbolic meaning poem will have a meaning which has changed over time, but which is still interpretable in the poem. The non-symbolic poem, on the other hand, will have a meaning which is independent of the language of the poem.

Some misconceptions

There are a lot of preconceived ideas about poetry. Many people think that poetry should not be read aloud, for example, or that people who enjoy reading poetry must be a particular type of person. While people who appreciate this artistic genre do tend to have a connection to it, it isn’t uncommon outside of the realm of poetry. There are many famous poets, for example, who went on to achieve acclaim as novelists. As a writer, it’s important to explore your particular interests and not try to fit yourself into a preconceived mold.

That said, after you know what poetry is and how to identify it, you should get more exposure to as many different poems as possible. This can be done in a variety of different ways. First, if you’re a writer, writing your own poetry will allow you to see just how it’s done. If not, you can talk to your friends and teachers about their favorite poets, so that you can get some exposure to their work and voice. It can also help to read your favorite works aloud or to friends. And sometimes you don’t even need to read the entirety of a poem in order to understand the full intention of it. Reading a large portion of it should give you an idea of the tone and direction of what the poet is trying to talk about.

The content

The beauty of poetry is that it’s defined by the poet. It can take many different forms, and it can be whatever you want it to be. If it has some sort of structure, it can be called formal poetry. Common formal poetry structures include the sonnet and tanka. If it has no structure at all, it can be considered a free verse. If you want to make sure your poetry has some structure of form to it, there are some helpful tips and templates to follow.

Another defining characteristic of formal poetry is what it isn’t. Many readers think of poetry as simply lines of rhyming verse – something that should fit neatly into your pocket or back pocket, making it the perfect way to carry your thoughts and feelings with you. However, there are different kinds of rhymes, and lines don’t always have to rhyme. Many will find it helpful to use a rhyming dictionary to identify different types of rhymes. However, whether it uses rhyming or not, it should still have a clear message or meaning. There also isn’t much of a limit to the amount of words used. Most poems are brief, coming in around 20 to 30 lines, but there are some that are quite long. Still, length doesn’t seem to be a defining quality. Many love to experiment, purposely writing a rather odd or unusual poem that only they will understand.

Layers emotion

The emotional power of poetry arises, in part, from the fact that poetry often explores difficult subject matter. It has been used for centuries to explore deeper issues and feelings that are hard to put into words. Poetry, particularly, works to evoke emotions and thus remains with the reader who’s willing and open to receiving those emotions.

Poetry uses a variety of techniques to elicit emotion, from the carefully chosen words, to the structure and symbolism of the poem, to the way in which it is read. When you ask, what is poetry, think of it as a vessel to bear poetry for transport from your mind and heart to your reader. Similar to the way that words convey emotion without inherently being emotional themselves, word choice in poetry often relies on the sheer meaning behind them. In a perfectly worded poem, words are chosen for sound, imagery, and their pure meaning in order to create layers of feeling and meaning.

Reveal states of consciousness

On a structural level, poetry will cause the reader to slow down and reflect, with the resulting sense of clarity giving the prose additional clarity. For both writers and readers, poetry can be a challenge and offer an escape, a way to utilize emotions not ordinarily expressed in prose, to make statements about things that cannot be said in traditional prose, and to express those states of consciousness that sit just beyond rational and sensory experience. Because of this general combination of clarity, mystery, challenge, and exhaustion, many people consider the writing of poetry and the reading of poetry cathartic. Whether it’s a specific problem experienced by the poet or someone else, or some universal aspect of life, poetry invites a greater catharsis by virtue of its brevity

Unlike other literary forms, poetry has a set of rules that severely limits a writer’s freedom, allowing for more control and thus better results. The rules are well known, and exceptionally specific, which is why most people find the art form intimidating at first. As long as you remember three things about what poetry is, understanding and communicating it becomes so much easier. While there are many ways to categorize poetry, the genre of poetry most people are most familiar with is lyric poetry, in which the speaker is addressing a particular person or situation, as in a poem from a national anthem, a wedding, or an affectionate tease between two lovers.

Flowing lines

Lines are a vital part of poetry, and they are the best way to study a poem, find out what the words are doing, and build a better understanding. Every poem is made up of multiple lines, all of which inform the poem and purpose it serves. Survey the lines in any piece of poetry, and you’ll see how they are constructed to produce a specific effect. For instance, a verse may be laid out with a long line and then a short one, like iambic pentameter in Shakespearean sonnets, but not all the way down? Or perhaps there is a trio of related line lengths that go together? Whatever the case, at its end, poetry uses lines to frame and contain meaning.

While the lines in a poem inform the effect of the direction of a poem, it’s clear that the lengths of lines do the same thing. Writers tend to choose a line length in order to develop a mood, convey a slant narrative, or to maintain a meter. While some lined poetry is so distinctive as to rely on it as a trope, it’s not hard to see how the bulk of free verse poetry are thinner lines that are often on the shorter side, even while the wonderful Wallace Stevens keeps churning them out in his otherworldly longer lines. There are, of course, some tricks to make your lines look like they are free verse without using the whole line for any single purpose. But there’s more than one trick to a good poem than having just the right line length.

Metaphors and comparisons

Poetry can also be found in advertising, song lyrics, quotations, and on street signs. Just think of the movie posters with lengthy quotes that sometimes capture a significant mood or hold the key to a film’s story. These are modern examples of how poetry is alive in the world. Studying poetry reading can give you insights about how metaphors, similes, and other devices can be effective. How can you use such devices in your own writing to help your reader uncover your intent? If you are creating ads, songs, and film posters, how can added visual cues make your poetry more successful? In the end, it’s important to remember that poetry is effective when it’s reduced. Everything extraneous to the poem’s essence should be removed. Consider that when you study poetry you are studying how to capture a feeling in as few words as possible.

As you learn how to communicate with poetry, and learn to appreciate it, you will benefit from less dependence on the written form of poetry and will be more sensitive to the many forms it penetrates. You’ll begin to recognize poetry in settings where you hadn’t encountered it before. For example, if you are a screenwriter or fiction writer who uses poetry, your work can be examined for its poetic elements — beautify, metaphor, or compression.


In a broad sense, all poetry uses language to elicit an emotional response. But as you might expect, poets don’t all approach that response in the same way. Just like many songs are in major keys, while others are in minor, many poems are written using specific poetic techniques, such as free verse, lyrical verse, epic poetry, ekphrastic poetry, and concrete poetry. All of these techniques have a history and are tailored to elicit specific reactions in readers. One of the first questions you should answer when you wonder what is poetry is whether your own writing style is lyrical or concrete.

Can you speak in broad, sweeping statements about love, life, and other big topics, or are you more likely to focus on the minutiae of the world around you? You can only answer part of your question about what is poetry after you answer this part. To begin, take out a poetry journal, which will allow you to write any vision or idea you have without self-editing while you explore your style. Then, read a little poetry from your favorite writers. If theirs is lyrical verse, start writing the way they do, and read through your poetry journal with an eye out for loose lines or phrases that you can polish into finished pieces. If, on the other hand, their writing is more concrete, write out in short, tightly-composed forms whatever sticks in your mind. By analyzing their poetry and then writing as you do and as they do, you can find your answer to what is poetry.

To be a great poet, you have to be a great writer

One of the reasons that poetry is rooted in writing is that it requires a strong understanding of the mechanics of writing. To become a strong and effective poet, you’ll need to build your vocabulary, master the rules of grammar and punctuation, and gain the confidence necessary to memorize reams of poetry — whether writing it by hand or pasting it into word documents. Like any great writer, you have to be able to come up with ideas, develop them into succinct, well-defined sentences, arrange those sentences into powerful stanzas, and connect them together in a way that draws the reader to the next part of the poem — all while ensuring that each word you use only enhances the meaning you’re trying to convey. No pressure.

So perhaps that’s why poetry is rising in popularity again. It doesn’t take a PhD in literature to recognize that fluency in the language has been declining in recent years. For many writers, the innumerable social media accounts that are essential for holding a career as an author are a big part of the trap that keeps them from writing poetry. Sync your Facebook and Twitter accounts and you’re bombarded with constant requests from readers for a retweet or a like. You’re also constantly updated with images of the soles of your friends’ shoes and rambling texts about unimportant micro-events in their unfurl lives.

The best way to get better at writing poetry is to write a lot of it. You can start by taking inspiration from something you’ve already written and transferring it to the page. Or try your hand at some free writing exercises, which allow your mind to cut loose and create interesting sentences and words. You could also start a poetry journal, and write down all your feelings and thoughts on poetry and other topics. Whatever you do, just don’t give up. Remember that it’s OK to experiment with writing styles, and write poems that reflect your mood. Stay positive and enjoy yourself!

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