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Poetic Definitions of Poetry and Poets

Updated on May 4, 2013
Emily Dickinson
Emily Dickinson
Friedrich Nietzsche
Friedrich Nietzsche
Bob Dylan and Allen Ginsberg
Bob Dylan and Allen Ginsberg
Robert Frost
Robert Frost
W. H. Auden
W. H. Auden
e e cummings
e e cummings
Gustave Flaubert
Gustave Flaubert
Seamus Heaney
Seamus Heaney
Helen Hayes
Helen Hayes
W. B. Yeats
W. B. Yeats
John Lennon
John Lennon
Edgar Allan Poe
Edgar Allan Poe

“If I read a book [and] it makes my whole body so cold no fire ever can warm me I know that is poetry. If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know that is poetry.”

—Emily Dickinson

What exactly is a poet? What should poetry do? Throughout history, many writers have tried to answer these questions, and few of them agree. Here is a sampling of poets, philosophers, novelists, essayists, historians, professors, journalists, musicians, actors, and playwrights and their answers.

What is poetry?

  • “vocal painting” (Simonides)
  • “thoughts that breathe, and words that burn” (Thomas Gray)
  • “musical Thought” (Thomas Carlyle)
  • “true dreams interpreted” (Friedrich Nietzsche)
  • “radically, a cry” (Walter J. Ong)
  • “forged slowly and patiently link by link with sweat and blood and tears” (Alfred Douglas)
  • “talking on tiptoe” (Harold Frederic)
  • “a succession of questions which the poet constantly poses” (Vicente Aleixandre)
  • “not an expression of the party line. It's that time of night, lying in bed, thinking what you really think, making the private world public, that's what the poet does.” (Allen Ginsberg)
  • “a way of taking life by the throat” (Robert Frost)
  • “an unburned picture in the ashes” (J. J. Murray)

What is a poet?

  • “the mirror of humanity” (Percy Bysshe Shelley)
  • “before anything else, a person who is passionately in love with language … a professional maker of verbal objects” (W. H. Auden)
  • “[one] who manages, in a lifetime of standing out in thunderstorms, to be struck by lightning five or six times” (Randall Jarrell)
  • “produces the beautiful by fixing his attention on something real” (Simone Veil)
  • “a recording chief-inquisitor” (Robert Browning)
  • “somebody to whom things made matter very little—somebody who is obsessed by Making” (e e cummings)
  • “a priest … As soon as he dons the cassock, he must leave his family” (Gustave Flaubert)
  • “anyone who wouldn’t call himself a poet” (Bob Dylan)
  • “[one who] looks at the world the way a man looks at a woman … the priest of the invisible” (Wallace Stevens)
  • “an inner émigré, grown long-haired” (Seamus Heaney)
  • “a madman lost in adventure” (Paul Verlaine)
  • “[one who] can look beyond the detail and see the whole picture” (Helen Hayes)
  • “a liar who always speaks the truth” (Jean Cocteau)
  • “someone who stands outside in the rain hoping to be struck by lightning” (James Dickey)

What should a poem do?

  • “make nothing happen” (W. B. Yeats)
  • “express what we all feel … Not to tell people how to feel. Not as a preacher, not as a leader, but as a reflection of us all.” (John Lennon)
  • “examine, not the individual, but the species” (Samuel Johnson)
  • “excite by elevating the soul” (Edgar Allan Poe)
  • “[speak] not of peculiar and personal things, but of what … is most common, most anonymous, most fundamental, most true of all men” (Richard Wilbur)
  • “put the infinite within the finite” (Robert Browning)
  • “express the emotion of all the ages” (Thomas Hardy)
  • “should be equal to/Not True …should not mean/But be” (Archibald MacLeish)


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    • ocfireflies profile image


      5 years ago from North Carolina

      Such value on so many levels. Thank You. Thumbs Up! Awesome

    • multiculturalsoul profile imageAUTHOR

      JJ Murray 

      5 years ago from Roanoke, Virginia

      Glad you liked it. It was fun to assemble.

    • LastRoseofSummer2 profile image


      5 years ago from Arizona

      Thank you for putting so much truth in one place! I need to bookmark this page - I won't find this many appropriate quotes anywhere else.

    • multiculturalsoul profile imageAUTHOR

      JJ Murray 

      5 years ago from Roanoke, Virginia

      I like them all to some degree or other. Gwendolyn Brooks said poetry is "life distilled." Poets, then, are distillers.

    • profile image


      5 years ago

      I like the idea of poetry as "vocal painting." Voted up and interesting.

    • multiculturalsoul profile imageAUTHOR

      JJ Murray 

      5 years ago from Roanoke, Virginia

      Thank you for noticing, jhamann and KrisL, what I didn't notice. I suppose when you quote poetic people, poems sprout on their own.

    • KrisL profile image


      5 years ago from S. Florida

      Voted "awesome" tweeted and shared.

      As jhmann says, your selection and arrangement of the quotations becomes a poem, especially in the first two sections.

    • jhamann profile image

      Jamie Lee Hamann 

      5 years ago from Reno NV

      I love the way you listed the great information in your hub, almost a poem in and off itself. Thank you for sharing. Jamie


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