Poetry- What is it?

Imagist poet William Carlos Williams
Imagist poet William Carlos Williams | Source


Poetry is as old as language itself. According to Wikipedia, poetry 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.” I interpret this to mean that the words--and the look, subtexts and backgrounds of these words-- themselves are as important as, and an extension of, the content of the poem. A poem is supposed to tell a story, image, feeling or a moral in an artistic way using all the elements of words: size, shape, placement, nuance, semantics, diction, and, yes, even literal meaning. Unlike prose, which is rectangular and has typesetting arbitrarily set by the printer, poetry's letter placement is never arbitrary and is set by the author-- and is thus deemed important to the piece itself. It's easy to identify a piece of prose by the way it looks-- but that's not always the case with poetry.

Let's look at this sentence for an example: “As the cat climbed over the top of the jamcloset, first the right forefoot, carefully, then the hind, stepped down into the pit of the empty flowerpot”. Is this simple sentence a poem? I would assert, based on the above definition that this sentence does not fit the definition of a poem, but would be considered prose. It's an interesting sentence, but it's simply describing a cat doing something naughty. It is a complete sentence that shows an image but it is not a poem.

William Shakespeare
William Shakespeare | Source


But what if we took that same sentence, removed the punctuation and shaped it like this:

As the cat

climbed over

the top of

the jamcloset

first the right

forefoot

carefully

then the hind

stepped down

into the pit of

the empty

flowerpot

Now we see that this could qualify as a poem, based on the above given definition.In fact, this is a poem titled “As the Cat” by Modernist poet, William Carlos Williams. But how is this a poem? The words have not changed- -only the punctuation and the layout. The words are now laid out in very short fragments signifying the slow and deliberate movements of a cat, and divided into three stanzas, which increase in size as the urgency of the cat's actions are felt. You can almost see the way the words paint the picture and draw out the scene of a cat deliberately climbing into something. Using words alone, you can see how the cat lifts each paw and carefully descends into an empty flowerpot. The words create suspense by offering line and paragraph breaks (enjambments) at words/phrases like “over” “on top of” and “into”. The placement of the words is as important, if not more inportant, then the words themselves, which are actually ridiculously simple. Quite simply, the way the words look on the page tells a story and that is an essential element of poetry, and is what turns this simple sentence into a poem.

“But that doesn't rhyme, so it can't be poem,” you might be saying to yourself. While a poem needing to rhyme to be considered a poem is a common thought, it also also an incorrect one. The definition above says nothing about rhyming, and, in fact, there are cases when a rhyme scheme actually takes away from a poem's artistic qualities.

Ezra Pound
Ezra Pound | Source
Sylvia Plath
Sylvia Plath | Source


There are good reasons for this belief, however. The first poems most of us hear growing up are songs and nursery rhymes, both of which are predominately heavily and explicitly rhymed and, as our first exposure to the medium of poetry, this is how we are likely base what a poem is from an early age. Even during many poetry classes I took in grade school and junior high, rhyming was encouraged and even required for a poem to be given an “A” grade. A good poet should be able to rhyme, but a good poem does not need to rhyme.

Remember our basic definition of poetry as an art form in which human language is used for its aesthetic qualities in addition to, or instead of, its notional and semantic content, as use that to consider our next two poems.William Shakespeare is considered by many (though, not by me) as the world's greatest poet. His poems are primarily sonnets (by definition, sonnets are a rigidly structured poem, typically written in fourteen rhymes of iambic pentameter and rhymed in three quatrains and a couplet: ABAB,CDCD,EFEF,GG.). For example: “ In me thou didst see'st the glowing of such fire/ that on the ashes of his youth doth lie/as the deathbed whereon it must expire/consumed with that which it was nourished by.” We see here a very heavy ABAB rhyming pattern- and a very common, often effective, and instantly recognizable form of poetry. Contrast this with the works of one of my favorite poets, Ezra Pound. “All the while they were talking the new mortality/her eyes explored me./And when I rose to go/Her fingers were like the tissue/Of a Japanese paper napkin.” Is this also a poem? Does this fit our definition as stated above? Certainly it does!. Pound's words paint a very vivid picture of a scene he is describing, even though he does not rhyme or apply a consistent meter to his work. His words and the placement of his words are important and they have an aesthetic quality to them. Pound is just as much a poet as William Shakespeare, even though he chooses often to forsake rhyme. There are few, if any, who would argue this point. Ezra Pound and Shakespeare are generally uttered in the same breath when the greatest poets in history are discussed.

“But Pound's poems don't look or sound like poems. There's no rhythm or meter.” This is another good thought one might have about poetry, but, it is also incorrect. Again, using Shakespeare's above sonnet as an example, we see that certainly many poems do and should have a specific rhythm and meter, but, language itself has meter. It does not need to be expressed in an orderly fashion on paper. In fact as with rhyming, there are times where the apparent lack of meter and stucture gets the desired affect better then if the piece was orderly and structured.

Let's take a look at a section one of my own poems as an example:


Again

the train is stopped.

Sixty miles out of Portland

and we've been stopped

for thirty minutes.

Now we're going again,

and now we're stopped

again.

We're letting another freight train pass .

The way this poem is laid out on the page, with the enjambments and endstops, the way the poem is written represents the stops and starts of a train ride- and the shape itself with a center alignment also kind of looks like a train. Notice how the lines break at the word “stopped”, thus emphasizing the fact that the train is stopping andnot merely showing it. It's much more effective then if the same poem looked like this:

Again the train is stopped.

Sixty miles out of Portland and we've been stopped for thirty minutes.

Now we're going again, and now we're stopped again.

We're letting another freight train pass.

Or, add a few words and turn the poem into a piece of prose like this:

Again the train is stopped. We're sixty miles out of Portland and we've been stopped for thirty minutes. Finally we're moving again, only to be stopped a short time later to let another freight train pass.

The words here are telling the same story, but it's not as interesting to read or look at. It might fit in an essay about a train ride, but it doens't fit in a poetry book (You can view this poem in it's entirety here: http://hubpages.com/hub/Last-Train-to-Bellingham).


The most important element in a poem, then, is whether or not a poem forces you to stop and think about what you're reading. If the poem doens't resonate, then the poem is ineffective and may as well be, for all intents and purposes, be a generic piece of prose or even, God forbid, a book report. Even simple nursery rhymes like Ring Around the Rosey are cryptic enough that one needs to stop and think about each word:

Ring around the rosey

Pocket full of posies

Ashes

Ashes

We all fall down.

This seemingly simple nursery rhyme is actually not simple at all (nor is it even kid friendly, in spite of it's modern usage as a nursery rhyme for children). The poem recounts the Black Plague and brings to mind the following questions: Why is there a ring around the rose? What does the rose represent? What are posies and why are they in their pockets? Where did the ashes come from? Is “We all fall down”metaphorical or literal? You could say the same things this poem is saying in a simple sentence or two, but it would not be memorable and you would lose the effectiveness of the poem. The poem address the fear of dying as a result of the Black Plague even though “plague”, “fear” and “death” are not specifically mentioned. The poem is memorable because it forces you to stop and think about what the simple rhymes mean.

So, then, what is a poem? A poem is a piece of literature that can rhyme, but doens't have too. It can be very rigid and structured, or it can be apparently free of these conventions (Free Form). The important thing with a poem is the usage of words- if the words themselves can cause images and emotions to be drawn out through the authors use and placement of them. Unlike in prose, these images are shorter often more cryptic- usually much faster to read and require more thought and discussion after reading and rereading.

Poetry is hard to define- because poetry is everywhere. You just need to open your mind and see it.

Thanks for Reading.

A FREELANCE WRITER, HONORS STUDENT AND GOVER PRIZE FINALIST, JUSTIN W. PRICE (AKA, PDXKARAOKEGUY)IS A POET, SHORT STORY, BIOGRAPHY AND HUMOR WRITER. HIS POETRY COLLECTION, DIGGING TO CHINA, WAS RELEASED FEBRUARY 2ND, 2013 BY SWEATSHOPPE PUBLICATIONS AND IS AVAILABLE ON AMAZON.COM, BARNES AND NOBLE AND THROUGH YOUR LOCAL BOOKSELLER.

HIS WORK WILL ALSO BE FEATURED IN BEST NEW FICTION (2014 EDITION), AND HAS APPEARED PREVIOUSLY IN THE RUSTY NAIL, EFICTION, THE CRISIS CHRONICLES, THE HELLROARING REVIEW, BURNINGWORD, THE WHISTLING FIRE, SEE SPOT RUN ANDTHE BELLWETHER REVIEW.

HE WORKS AS A FREELANCE WRITER, EDITOR, AND GHOST WRITER, AND IS WORKING TOWARDS HIS PH.D. HE LIVES IN A SUBURB OF PORTLAND, OREGON WITH HIS WIFE, ANDREA, THEIR LABRADOODLE, BELLA, SCHNOODLE, SAUVEE AND BLACK MOOR GOLDFISH, HOWARD WOLOWITZ.

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Comments 30 comments

MaryGB profile image

MaryGB 2 years ago from UK

Very useful...

I like a poem

that looks

so intriguing

that noone reads the words

but they love

the shape

of it

like I like your shape

seen through a rough glass door

and though I can't see your face

I recognise your dear body

coming home again

in the storm

and how I love to

touch your heart with my music


PDXKaraokeGuy profile image

PDXKaraokeGuy 3 years ago from Portland, Oregon Author

Thanks Pras. I appreciate your insights. Thanks for reading and commenting.


PDXKaraokeGuy profile image

PDXKaraokeGuy 3 years ago from Portland, Oregon Author

Archuleta, I once was flunked in a poetry class because I was required to write an essay praising Shakespeare. I could not. I don't enjoy him and it's hard for me to get past the archaic language. I really enjoy his plays, but his poems bore me.


prasadjain profile image

prasadjain 3 years ago from Tumkur

What is said in the hub about poem is true.But the fascinating thing is- description of a poem doesn't end there at all!. There are so many things unsaid here. A writing will be a poem only when it 'suggests' something without explicitly telling it. A poem is 'experienced'n than merely 'understood'. Poems quoted above definitely have that character.

Congrats for the simple language of the hub, and for good selection of poems.


nArchuleta profile image

nArchuleta 3 years ago from Denver, Colorado

I like how William Wordsworth defines poetry: "the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings, recollected in tranquility." I also like that it's condensed language that says more with more intensely than regular language.

Not a fan of the Bard, hm? I love Shakespeare, but one of my favorite poets is Sylvia Plath. I've been getting into the Romantics recently.

I just discovered a new poem to love: "The Cats Will Know" by Cesare Pavese.

Thanks for sharing!


PDXKaraokeGuy profile image

PDXKaraokeGuy 4 years ago from Portland, Oregon Author

Thansk Audrey. I'm glad you enjoyed this. I do find examples to be the best way to learn!


AudreyHowitt profile image

AudreyHowitt 4 years ago from California

Great description of the art form and I love that you used examples!


PDXKaraokeGuy profile image

PDXKaraokeGuy 4 years ago from Portland, Oregon Author

SanneL, i appreciate the votes and the compliments. Thanks for reading and commenting!


SanneL profile image

SanneL 4 years ago from Sweden

This is a wonderful hub on the subject on creative expressions.

You know so much about it, and thank you for sharing your broad expertise with us.

You'll get my votes on this very interesting hub!


PDXKaraokeGuy profile image

PDXKaraokeGuy 5 years ago from Portland, Oregon Author

Jha, poetry is my favorite mode of written expression as well, and it's not as complicated as people make it out to be. It's just painting a picture using words, without fancy language!


jhamann profile image

jhamann 5 years ago from Reno NV

Always enjoy reading hubs on poetry (my favorite form of creative expression.) Well written and informative. I enjoy the book lists, these are some incredible poetry books that you have listed and you would be correct to say that if one was to not only read but examine the poems in these books, one could get a decent understanding of the art of writing modern poetry.


PDXKaraokeGuy profile image

PDXKaraokeGuy 5 years ago from Portland, Oregon Author

Till, I still have much to learn as well. I just want to pass on what I've learned so you can avoid some of the frustration I've experienced. I'm pleased that you found this Hub useful!

Man, my favorite thing to write is poetry. There are certainly rules, as with any art form, but you shouldn't let those stop you! It's interesting that you say song lyrics have no rules, but I find the opposite is true. i used to write lots of lyrics and I actually find it stifling. Poetry for me is freeing, though it sounds like we both get out, at least our initial drafts, pretty quick. Thanks for reading. I'll check out those poems!


TheManWithNoPants profile image

TheManWithNoPants 5 years ago from Tucson, Az.

Here's the other link ..hemanwithnopants.hubpages.com/hub/The-Abused-Creed

jim


TheManWithNoPants profile image

TheManWithNoPants 5 years ago from Tucson, Az.

Wow .. I wrote a poem yesterday and published it. I'm a song writer, not a poet, and as I said in the hub, there are rules in poetry, but not in songs. I don't know the rules and don't consider my self a poet. I'm going to give you links to one of my poems that doesn't rhyme, and one that does. There both very dark and very personal. Check em out and give me your thoughts. I'm going to re read and let this sink in a little more. I didn't know you did poetry man! Anyway, I want to get some education in this area. I'll never be a poet. You guys are tough on one another, and I'm not good with rules. Inspiration hits me, I pick up a pen and the thing writes itself in ten or fifteen minutes. Always been that way.

Excellent hub. Very informative.

http://hubpages.com/literature/Making-The-Cut-A-Po...


tillsontitan profile image

tillsontitan 5 years ago from New York

I will definitely be looking at your Writing Tips Part One and Two. So much to learn. Your hub has been a segue into learning more about poetry for me. I have picked up so much but have so much more to learn. Thanks PDX. Voted up and useful.


PDXKaraokeGuy profile image

PDXKaraokeGuy 5 years ago from Portland, Oregon Author

Fennelseed, great comment. Thanks for reading. I'm glad you found this useful. let me know how this helps you as you continue to write!

Mary, poetry is sometimes enigmatic, but you should never be afraid to write it or publish it. If it comes from the heart, that's all that matters to me. Check out my Writing tips Part One and Two Hubs.

Cloud, I enjoy your poetry so, whatever you're doing, keep doing it.

I am Monk, thanks for reading and commenting. I appreciate your visit!


i_am_monk profile image

i_am_monk 5 years ago from Newcastle, Tyne and Wear, England

Marvelous hub, very useful and interesting information in there. Keep the good work up.


CloudExplorer profile image

CloudExplorer 5 years ago from New York City

Interesting hub here, as a poet myself I learned how it all works back in grade school and pretty much been conformed to such teachings, but since then I'm sure poetry has evolved a great deal.

I prefer to break the mold sorta speak with my poetry & sorta formulate creative clusters of a variety of techniques of word play and delivery. Creating your own style is will always set the mind free with words, that's what I firmly believe especially when it comes to poetry.

Voted Up as powerfully useful & extraordinarily interesting.


mary615 profile image

mary615 5 years ago from Florida

The more poems I read here in Hubland, the more confused I get. I used to rhyme only, but now I want to just write peotry as I feel it. I have one ready to publish, but I'm afraid it's so inferior to the poems of others. Should I just go for it, and see what kind of reaction I get???

This is a great Hub on the subject. Thanks for sharing.


Fennelseed profile image

Fennelseed 5 years ago from Australia

Thank you PDX, there is some facinating and useful information here. I am very interested in reading about the asthetic appeal of poetry and how word placement and form can add to the overall effect. I have learnt a lot and look forward to applying some of this to my poems. An enjoyable hub, thank you. My votes to you.


PDXKaraokeGuy profile image

PDXKaraokeGuy 5 years ago from Portland, Oregon Author

amber- it's good to experiment. That's the best way to grow and improve. I'll check it out now!


Amber Allen profile image

Amber Allen 5 years ago

Hi Justin

As you suggested I've now read some of your hubs about poetry and I am trying to get to grips with the different types of poetry.

My third attempt at poetry is very different and I've moved away from the need to rhyme. I certainly hope it tells a story.

Please let me know what you think.

http://hubpages.com/literature/In-the-Hands-of-Oth...

Amber:)


PDXKaraokeGuy profile image

PDXKaraokeGuy 5 years ago from Portland, Oregon Author

no problem vinaya. Glad I could help!


Vinaya Ghimire profile image

Vinaya Ghimire 5 years ago from Nepal

Thanks for throwing light on Poetry.


PDXKaraokeGuy profile image

PDXKaraokeGuy 5 years ago from Portland, Oregon Author

@ Ama- the biggest hindrance to writing is self doubt. Just write. you can always rewrite later: and never compare yourself to others. You are uniquely you! You're going to do some things well and someone else is going to do different things well.

@Shanaya. Thanks for the votes and respect.

@Nasake: Glad I could help enlighten you!


nasake profile image

nasake 5 years ago from England

Great hub, some stuff in there I didn't know :D


shanaya profile image

shanaya 5 years ago from Living in my Own Dreams:)

Hello PDX! A very well written and explained Hub. And you narrated it nicely. Thanks for sharing with us.:)

voted up, awesome, useful, interesting.

with Lots of Respect

from SHANAYA:)


AmaTainted profile image

AmaTainted 5 years ago from Texas

very useful information! now i can stop doubting myself and my "style" of writing but i will continue to learn and grow. thank you for the insight and all the foorwork dear, x, ama


PDXKaraokeGuy profile image

PDXKaraokeGuy 5 years ago from Portland, Oregon Author

Thanks for stopping by!


Matt in Jax profile image

Matt in Jax 5 years ago from Jacksonville, FL

Nice Hub and great description of the background of poetry.

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    Justin W. Price (PDXKaraokeGuy)742 Followers
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    Justin W. Price, AKA PDXKaraokeGuy, is a freelance writer, blogger, and award- nominated author based out of Portland, Oregon.



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