{Mon 19 February 2007}   What is Poetry? 50 definitions
Why is it that everyone can identify poetry, but no one can define it? No matter how comprehensive the description, there is always a poem that doesn’t quite fit the given parameters. And yet, despite its many forms and styles, many people have a firm idea that they do or don’t like poetry. This is often based on exposure to a very few examples, and often in a coercive setting (i.e. school!). What kind of poetic expression speaks to you? Is it possible that one you haven’t met yet will do the trick?

I’ll start the list with a definition of my own and add several more that I’ve come across, in no particular order (yet). Please feel free to use Comments to suggest others—your own or anyone else’s (please only give definitions of “poetry”—we’ll do “poet” and other related items later!). Ultimately, I’ll compile a categorised resource page with the final results and acknowledge any contributions that usefully expand this list.

  1. Poetry is an attempt to capture the essence of the chord struck in the poet by an instant of insight, in such a way that the same music will sound in the soul of the reader. Tia Azulay
  2. poem n. a composition in metre : a composition of high beauty of thought or language and artistic form, in verse or prose : a creation, achievement, etc, marked by beauty or artistry. Chambers Student Dictionary
  3. Poetry is emotion put into measure. Thomas Hardy
  4. Poetry is the language of the imagination and the passions. William Hazlitt
  5. … not to transmit thought but to set up in the reader’s sense a vibration corresponding to what was felt by the writer—is the peculiar function of poetry. A.E. Housman
  6. Poetry is the language in which man explores his own amazement. Christopher Fry
  7. Poetry is a rhythmical form of words which express an imaginative-emotional-intellectual experience of the writer’s…in such a way that it creates a similar experience in the mind of his reader or listener. Clive Sansom
  8. Poetry is the spontaneous outflow of powerful feelings: it takes its origins from emotion recollected in tranquillity. William Wordsworth, Lyrical Ballads, 1802
  9. (Poetry is) literature in metrical form : any communication resembling poetry in beauty or the evocation of feeling
  10. Poetry is the revelation of a feeling that the poet believes to be interior and personal which the reader recognizes as his own. Salvatore Quasimodo
  11. 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. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Poetry
  12. Poetry is man’s rebellion against being what he is. James Branch Cabell
  13. (Poetry is) a kind of ingenious nonsense. Isaac Newton
  14. (Poetry is) a literary expression in which words are used in a concentrated blend of sound and imagery to create an emotional response www.iclasses.org/assets/literature/literary_glossary.cfm
  15. Poetry is an echo, asking a shadow to dance. Carl Sandburg
  16. A poem begins with a lump in the throat, a home-sickness or a love-sickness. It is a reaching-out toward expression; an effort to find fulfillment. A complete poem is one where the emotion has found its thought and the thought has found the words. Robert Frost
  17. Poetry is what gets lost in translation. Robert Frost
  18. A good poem is a contribution to reality. The world is never the same once a good poem has been added to it. A good poem helps to change the shape of the universe, helps to extend everyone’s knowledge of himself and the world around him.
    Dylan Thomas
  19. Poetry is the record of the best and happiest moments of the happiest and best minds. Percy Bysshe Shelley (1792 – 1822)
  20. Poetry is not a turning loose of emotion, but an escape from emotion; it is not the expression of personality, but an escape from personality. But, of course, only those who have personality and emotions know what it means to want to escape from these things. T. S. Eliot (1888 – 1965), “Tradition and the Individual Talent”, II (The Sacred Wood, 1922)
  21. Painting is silent poetry, and poetry is painting with the gift of speech. Simonides (556 BC – 468 BC)
  22. (Poetry) is the lava of the imagination whose eruption prevents an earthquake. Lord Byron (1788 – 1824)
  23. Poetry is the deification of reality. Edith Sitwell (1887 – 1964), Life magazine, 01-04-63
  24. Poetry and Hums aren’t things which you get, they’re things which get you. And all you can do is go where they can find you. Winnie-the-Pooh, Pooh’s Little Instruction Book, inspired by A. A. Milne
  25. Poetry is the journal of the sea animal living on land, wanting to fly in the air. Poetry is a search for syllables to shoot at the barriers of the unknown and the unknowable. Poetry is a phantom script telling how rainbows are made and why they go away. Carl Sandburg, Poetry Considered
  26. Poetry is a mirror which makes beautiful that which is distorted. Percy Shelley, A Defence of Poetry, 1821
  27. Good poetry seems too simple and natural a thing that when we meet it we wonder that all men are not always poets. Poetry is nothing but healthy speech. Henry David Thoreau (1817 – 1862)
  28. Genuine poetry can communicate before it is understood. T. S. Eliot (1888 – 1965)
  29. (Poetry is) texts in rhythmic form, often employing rhyme and usually shorter and more concentrated in language and ideas than either prose or drama www.longman.co.uk/tt_seceng/resources/glosauth.htm
  30. Poetry comes nearer to vital truth than history. Plato (427 BC – 347 BC)
  31. Poetry is just the evidence of life. If your life is burning well, poetry is just the ash. Leonard Cohen
  32. Poetry is the art of substantiating shadows, and of lending existence to nothing. Edmund Burke
  33. Poetry is basically anything that calls itself a poem. www.trinityhigh.com/curric/english/literat/glossary.htm
  34. Poetry is language at its most distilled and most powerful. Rita Dove
  35. Poetry is a deal of joy and pain and wonder, with a dash of the dictionary. Kahlil Gibran
  36. Poetry is thoughts that breathe, and words that burn. Thomas Gray
  37. Poetry is all that is worth remembering in life. William Hazlitt
  38. (Poetry is) an imaginative response to experience reflecting a keen awareness of language. Its first characteristic is rhythm, marked by regularity far surpassing that of prose. Poetry’s rhyme affords an obvious difference from prose. Because poetry is relatively short, it is likely to be characterized by compactness and intense unity. Poetry insists on the specific and the concrete.
  39. Poetry is the art of uniting pleasure with truth. Samuel Johnson
  40. Poetry should… strike the reader as a wording of his own highest thoughts, and appear almost a remembrance. John Keats
  41. Poetry is the rhythmical creation of beauty in words. Edgar Allan Poe
  42. Poetry: the best words in the best order. Samuel Taylor Coleridge
  43. The distinction between historian and poet is not in the one writing prose and the other verse… the one describes the thing that has been, and the other a kind of thing that might be. Hence poetry is something more philosophic and of graver import than history, since its statements are of the nature rather of universals, whereas those of history are singulars. Aristotle, On Poetics
  44. Poetry is the art of creating imaginary gardens with real toads. Marianne Moore
  45. Poetry is the synthesis of hyacinths and biscuits. Carl Sandburg
  46. Poetry heals the wounds inflicted by reason. Novalis
  47. There is poetry as soon as we realize that we possess nothing. John Cage
  48. Poetry is an orphan of silence. The words never quite equal the experience behind them. Charles Simic
  49. Poetry is certainly something more than good sense, but it must be good sense at all events; just as a palace is more than a house, but it must be a house, at least. Samuel Taylor Coleridge
  50. The poem is a little myth of man’s capacity of making life meaningful. And in the end, the poem is not a thing we see—it is, rather, a light by which we may see—and what we see is life. Robert Penn Warren

Acknowledgements: Although most of the above quotes are available from many sources, and I’ve encountered many of them before, I am grateful to Brainy Quote, Quotations Page, Quoteland, Quote World and The Quote Garden for either reminding me or making my search easier.

Derrick says:

Poetry is wondering
and wandering
Poetry is looking
Poetry has no goal
Poetry is simplicity
Poetry is a child of death

Tia says:

Hey, that’s wonderful, Derrick! A poem about what poetry is… it is a poem, isn’t it (heh, heh)? Inspiring!

Scotti says:

“At the touch of love, everyone becomes a poet” – Plato

Great list!


Tia says:

Thanks, Scotti – that’s a good one for my next list on poets!

I like Frost’s and Eliot’s definitions. Someone once said to me when I told them I was a poet “they should make everyone a poet”. I don’t know what was meant by it. 33 is a bit of a shortcoming. My own essay in definition of poetry can be found at this link: http://www.interpoetry.com/rehanqayoom18.html

Tia says:

Hi Rehan,

Thanks for the link to your essay on poetry. Your love for your subject definitely comes through, although you seem to feel pretty negative about a poet’s possible audiences! I have an eternal hope that the right poem at the right moment can light a spark in even the most “unpoetic” of hearers or readers… in fact, I’ve seen it happen, but I think that poets and poetry lovers need to be more creative about presenting their poetry in ways that attract the uninitiated, and also about helping them to appreciate it. There are levels of appreciation for any work of art and a lot of people need hand-holding or at least accompanying, not only to understand it, but most often, to find or make the time to go deeper. The simple fact is that none of us can afford to make time for anything we don’t value, so at least some of that value must be evident to us before we begin.

[…] This post is adapted from a post on TiaTalk […]

M. Raza says:

Poetry is feelings, dreams and untold truth expressed metaphorically. Raza

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