Poetry Part I: What Is Poetry – Exactly?

"How do I love thee?"Photo credit: Pixabella Poetry credit: Why, William Shakespeare of course!

“How do I love thee?”
Photo credit: Pixabella
Poetry credit: Why, William Shakespeare of course!

By Jennifer (Smith) Schuler

With Valentine’s Day having arrived today, many of us may be scrambling for last minute cards and gifts for our spouses, children, other family members, and even good friends. This may especially be the case for those of us who have been buried under several feet of snow the past few days!

There are so many popular presents that are typically given on this day – fragrant flowers, delectable chocolates or other candies, cuddly teddy bears, lacy lingerie, sparkly jewelry. In the 19th century, however, valentines were more of the homemade kind. How many of us receive love poetry these days? Actually, I happen to be (and please don’t hate me, ladies) one of those lucky women who receive the traditional gifts on Valentine’s Day, and love poetry to boot. My husband just seems able to let the thoughts he has in his mind flow through his heart, and out the tip of his pen right on to his valentine paper. His “poems” are really more like free-flowing paragraphs that read like poetry. They’re beautiful and touching. And then there are the envelopes he puts his letter, poem, or card in. It was not until I married him that I discovered he can draw – and what begins as a doodle can turn into a rather elaborate sketch on the outside of the envelope portraying something about me, our family, or our life together.

Although there certainly are many popular poets (the poet “greats”) most people who write poetry are just “every day” people who seem to be able to create a poem out of thin air – my husband being one of them. He has what I consider a “poetic flow” when he writes those loving words to me.

My name in lights ... even my husband's DRAWINGS take on poetic-like form!

My name in lights … even my husband’s DRAWINGS take on poetic-like form!

I know a poet – and a poem – when I see one!

When you think of a poet – whether one of the “greats,” a local or less well known poet, or even just someone who enjoys writing poetry; how do you picture their personality or what is going on in their lives? Are they excessively happy? Depressed? Brooding? Mysterious? Also, what defines a well put together poem? The “flow” of the poem? The pentameter (poetic meter based on length and type of syllables used – iambic or dactylic) used? The length of the poem? Whether the poem is comprised of rhyming verse or not? If the poem is one to which you can relate? The form (physical structure) of the poem?

All of these elements are potential considerations when looking at poetry. No matter how you picture the author of poetry going about constructing those lines and forming them into conveyed thoughts, though, there is always some kind of emotion behind a poem and a form which the poet found best expresses it.

How many forms?

In conducting further research on poetry, I discovered over 25 various poetry forms – plus, a very long list of Asian-inspired forms! If you had an interest in writing poetry and an emotion you wished to express through poetic verse, how then would you decide what “form” your thoughts would take? Would you need to learn about all of the poetry forms first in order to know which one you feel comfortable using? Or, can you just structure your thoughts in any form you like and simply call it a poem? Well, let’s not get too ahead of ourselves. Rather, let’s take writing poetry a step at a time …

What is a poem … exactly?

The Free Online Dictionary defines a poem as: “A verbal composition designed to convey experiences, ideas, or emotions in a vivid and imaginative way, characterized by the use of language chosen for its sound and suggestive power and by the use of literary techniques such as meter, metaphor, and rhyme.” The answer to all those questions above, then, is “yes!”

Some of the most popular poets – many of which may be familiar to you, are: Langston Hughes, Shel Silverstein, Pablo Neruda, Maya Angelou, Edgar Allen Poe, Robert Frost, Emily Dickinson, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, E.E. Cummings, Walt Whitman, William Wordsworth, Allen Ginsberg, Sylvia Plath, Jack Prelutsky, William Butler Yeats, Thomas Hardy, Robert Hayden, Amy Lowell, Oscar Wilde, Theodore Roethtke, and T.S. Eliot. Each of these authors tend/tended toward a certain style – one that was familiar and comfortable. Some even created a new style of presenting poetry (who knew that the E.E. Cummings style of writing poetry would even become the initial way many people composed emails – in all lowercase letters! [By the way, if you are still writing your emails that way, do stop.]

All of these great poets had a unique way of presenting life’s experiences and emotions. Some even chose a light-hearted and humorous way of doing so, as evident in Jack Prelutsky’s poem, “As Soon as Fred Gets Out of Bed.” Additionally, the collection of poetry in Shel Silverstein’s book Where the Sidewalk Ends whose name came from a poem he titled the same.

Jack Prelutsky

To be (a poem) or not to be? That really is the question!

Many times when one is looking to define poetry, it is commonly done by distinguishing it from prose. Simply by glancing at the two (a poem and prose) on pages side by side, one can tell the difference by “appearances only.” On the page, a poem has lines of different lengths, and the line breaks are chosen by the poet. The appearance of a passage of prose, on the other hand, is shaped by the typography and the size of the page; and the words fill the page or column, with line breaks determined by the margins. Prose is built of sentences and paragraphs, while a poem is made from lines and stanzas. In a poem, the white space around the words (or the pauses or silences, if you’re listening to a poetry reading) is part of the poem. As another example, this can be equated with rests in a musical composition.

So … is there any circumstance in which prose can be a poem – as opposed to just a paragraph of prose? This is a debate in the literary world, and some would say that a poem cannot be a poem if it takes the form of prose and avoids line breaks. However, others would argue that the manner in which phrases are clustered, and words arranged, on a page are not the only defining elements of poetry. There are many linguistic forms that can only be considered poetry – metaphor, image, the “dance” of words unconstrained of lines and other dividing elements. It may actually be easier to define a prose poem by saying what it is not: It’s not “verse,” which demands line-based metric rhythms and often rhymes. It’s certainly not a sonnet, or other kind of poem, that is clearly defined by its form. An excellent example of prose comes in Hysteria by T.S. Eliot (1915) …

As she laughed I was aware of becoming involved in her laughter and being part of it, until her teeth were only accidental stars with a talent for squad-drill. I was drawn in by short gasps, inhaled at each momentary recovery, lost finally in the dark caverns of her throat, bruised by the ripple of unseen muscles. An elderly waiter with trembling hands was hurriedly spreading a pink and white checked cloth over the rusty green iron table, saying: “If the lady and gentleman wish to take their tea in the garden, if the lady and gentleman wish to take their tea in the garden…” I decided that if the shaking of her breasts could be stopped, some of the fragments of the afternoon might be collected, and I concentrated my attention with careful subtlety to this end.

"Our love endures, like beams of sunshine through the clouds." Yes, ladies, he really DID write that!

“Our love endures, like beams of sunshine through the clouds.” Yes, ladies, he really DID write that!

In the end, then, when trying to distinguish between a poem and prose, one may only be able to get a sense of what a prose poem is, even if they cannot offer a clear cut definition.

Poetry … versus prose … versus being poetic – which I define as what one is feeling when they want to get past all of the literary definitions and blah, blah, blah that was spewed forth in English Lit class and simply – write!

In Part 2 of our Poetry series, we will look at why someone might want to take an interest in, or even learn how to write, poetry. We will explore three examples from the more popular and familiar forms of poetry, and discover how to compose a basic poem. I will also share an example of a poem I wrote in that style.

Let’s hear from you readers … What were some of your past experiences writing poetry, whether in class or on your own? Have you ever published a poem; or shared one in another venue (writing club, author share)? Do you have further thoughts on what can be considered a poem / poetry?

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3 thoughts on “Poetry Part I: What Is Poetry – Exactly?

  1. Pingback: Poetry Station | Themself

  2. Pingback: How to Write Baby Poems Like a Pro | BB Shower Tips

  3. Pingback: How I write poetry | Themself

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