Toward a Definition of Poetry

Updated on August 31, 2019
Maya Shedd Temple profile image

Poetry became my passion, after I fell in love with Walter de la Mare's "Silver" in Mrs. Edna Pickett's sophomore English class, circa 1962.




The main function of a poem is to present a dramatization of the life of human emotion; therefore, readers may intuit a poem even when it is camouflaged among a nest of prose. One can assert logically that such a drama may also be found in novels, short stories, and plays because poetic language may exist in service of even newspaper articles.

The piece's form or how it sits on the page then becomes central in importance for determining whether to call the piece a poem or something else. While a poem may be confused with a song lyric, it is never confused with a novel, play, or short story. A book-length poem is also easily recognized as a poem; no one would confuse John Milton's Paradise Lost with a Shakespeare play, despite the similarity in tone and purpose.

Defining Art

While offering definitive descriptions of any form of art may prove difficult because of the evolving nature of art forms, some indisputable parameters will always delineate a few basic qualities and features that will always follow each art form: a painting will always be distinguishable from a photograph, and a piece of music will always be distinguishable from noise, despite the attempt by many post-modern charlatans to foist fraud upon their audience. Painting the words "Yard Sale" alongside likenesses of chairs and sweaters will not fool anyone into calling one an artist, because no one would confuse that sign as a painting despite its use of paint. Scribbling a few riming words on a birthday card will not garner anyone the label of poet, despite the words that rime.

A basic definition of poetry will have to include the main function of poetry whether it includes any mention of form, and that main function is to display the emotional life of the human heart. While a poem may also feature the mental musings of the mind, it will nearly always also at least suggest the status of the heart on fire or at cold rest, or any emotional state in between. A general definition might be, a poem in form and function dramatizes the nature of the experience of feeling as it moves out from the human heart; therefore, poems are artistic representations of how it feels to experience the emotional life as a human being.

Poetry's main reason for being is thus to dramatize human emotional experience. Even though that emotion may be accompanied by information along with feeling, the information remains secondary to poetry's purpose, unlike information in a news report, which exists solely for transferring the information.

"Good Poems" vs Poetry as an Art Form

Interviews with poets usually lead to an attempted definition of poetry. Also when a poet writes an essay about poetry, s/he often attempts to offer a personal definition of poetry. However, those definitions usually result in a description of what the poet thinks is good poetry, instead of a general definition of the art itself. When Emily Dickinson said, "If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know that is poetry," she was exemplifying what she thought good poetry was. Quite likely what would take of the top of the head of an Emily Dickinson would leave that top of head in place on a Robert Frost. Therefore, if one wants a definition of a poem qua poem, one needs to consider as many attempts at definitions as possible, from both those who define good poetry and those who simply attempt rudimentary definitions, such as T. S. Eliot's instructions:

The only way of expressing emotion in the form of art is by finding an "objective correlative"; in other words, a set of objects, a situation, a chain of events which shall be the formula of that particular emotion; such that when the external facts, which must terminate in sensory experience, are given, the emotion is immediately evoked.

Eliot attempts to reveal the process of making a poem, but his instruction obviously does not guarantee the production of a "good" poem. Still his notion of an "objective correlative" remains a useful concept for all budding poets. Most readers have come to expect a poem to look a certain way as it sits on the page with its wide margins. More space usually surrounds the poem as it does not an essay or a play. Also the line breaks alert the reader to a poem, and simply running line together to look like a piece of prose will result in at least a nuance of lost poetic meaning.

Still, it likely much easier to offer a description of what one thinks "good" poetry is than to offer any final definition of poetry. Scholars, critics, and most poetry lovers generally reply on their ability to recognize a poem simply by the old adage, "I know it when I see it." Yet those same readers can become quite definite when explaining the nature of a "good" vs "bad" poem. And the same holds true to any other art form, whether it be painting, photography, sculpture, or music.

Is a Song Lyric a Poem?

The following excerpt from a poem by Emily Dickinson is easily recognized as a poem by the way it sits on the page:

The Martyr Poets - did not tell -
But wrought their Pang in syllable -
That when their mortal name be numb -
Their mortal fate - encourage Some -

Even before one considers the meaning of the lines, the fact that it is a poem becomes apparent.

However, is the following excerpt a poem?

Some day some old familiar rain
Will come along and know my name.
And then my shelter will be gone
And I'll have to move along.

That excerpt sits on the page in an almost identical manner as the Dickinson excerpt, but instead of a poem, the lines come from a song lyric by Rod McKuen. Of course, Rod McKuen, like the serial plagiarist Bob Dylan, considered himself a poet, so it is likely that McKuen would argue that there is no appreciable difference between his poetry and his song lyrics, and critics, however, would argue against any of McKuen's pieces being called poetry. However, the critics are, again, arguing about what is "good" poetry as opposed to "bad" poetry. And the consensus of criticism on McKuen's poetry is that it is, in deed, "bad poetry," if it is considered poetry at all. But again, the "good" poetry argument aside, there are definite differences between a poem and song lyric. The difference is not content because songs usually do dramatize the emotional life of the human heart, especially love songs. But ballad lyrics do the same as they narrate a story.

The main difference between a poem and song lyric is the density through the crystallization of thought. The song lyric, because it is accompanied by a melody, usually serves as a vehicle for that melody, meaning that the melody is often far more important to the song than the words. The song lyric may even employ the same poetic devices as the poem does, but it still must remain loose (perhaps even prosaic) enough to offer at least a modicum of meaning that can shine through the musical accompaniment. And it is true that audiences usually focus more on the melody than the words when listening to a song. The poem, on the other hand, functions very differently. Only the words and the words alone must enliven the poem. The poem has no musical instrumentation to fill in its possible inadequacies. As Samuel Taylor Coleridge averred, poetry is "the best words in the best order."

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    © 2017 Linda Sue Grimes


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