What is poetry?

Wednesday, April 17, 2019
The answer to that question is similar to the answer Louis Armstrong gave when asked to define jazz. “Baby, if you got to ask the question, you’re never going to know the answer.”

According to the Encyclopaedia Britannica, poetry is defined as literature that evokes a concentrated imaginative awareness of experience or a specific emotional response through language chosen and arranged for its meaning, sound, and rhythm.

Here's my definition of poetry in the form of a poem:

Time condensed
Through a memory filter,
Removing excess words
And thoughts that cloud
Emotion, leaving us with truth,
Or a reasonable facsimile thereof.

A few more questions about poetry

Does poetry need to rhyme?


Does poetry follow rules?

Some poems follow rules of meter and rhyme, but others do not.

Is one better than the other?

Yes, but no one knows which.

Who is the best poet ever?

Let's just say there are many fine poets, and maybe the best poet has not yet emerged in the timeline of "ever." Those worth reading, however, include Emily Dickinson, Virginia Woolf, Robert Frost, T.S. Eliot, William Carlos Williams, Edgar Allen Poe, Sylvia Plath, Maya Angelou, Elizabeth Bishop, Mary Oliver, and Anne Sexton.

Alright, then, how about the best poem?

I am conflicted when it comes to naming the best poem. One of my favorites isn't a poem at all, it's a short story titled Black Box by Pulitzer-Prize-Winning novelist Jennifer Egan. The story was sent out one tweet at a time at one-minute intervals from The New Yorker's Twitter account. Read it here: (some language and scenes unsuitable for children.)


To me, the story looks like a poem. Egan described it as a "Series of terse mental dispatches from a female spy of the future, working undercover by the Mediterranean Sea." Although Twitter may not be used for many stories or novels, she called the format "the odd poetry that can happen in a hundred and forty characters."

And finally, when my favorite local poet Matthew Freeman was asked about the difference between good poetry and great poetry, he responded, "Despair."

So, what is a poetry? Just like jazz and pornography, I can't define it, but I know it when I see it.

Mary Horner is a freelance writer and editor.


Sioux Roslawski said...

Mary--Is that poem definition of poetry written by you? If so, bravo! It sums up what a poem is--without clouding the meaning and without excess words.

Sometimes forms like prose poetry confuse me (and my students). However, the chance to forget about punctuation and capitalization is freeing when it comes to young people.

Since it's National Poetry Month, this is a perfectly-timed post. (And you mentioned some of my favorite poets, so your list of "the best" is a good one. ;)

Nila said...

I love the poem definition! So fitting. I have a hard time reading poetry sometimes, just because I feel as though it doesn't capture my attention like a novel in prose does.

I'm glad you decided to write on this - a different take on National Poetry Month!

Well done! :)

Mary Horner said...

Thanks for your comment Sioux, yes I wrote the poem yesterday when I was finishing the blog. I think poetry can be confusing and that may be part of the reason so many people don't like it, or think they don't like it. I used to feel guilty about not having read some because I can't figure it out, but now I just try to enjoy what I like!

Mary Horner said...

Thanks, Nila, for your comment. I didn't specifically mention National Poetry Month, so thank you!

Pat Wahler said...

What a terrific post, Mary! I think poetry is generally misunderstood. For me, I simply didn't connect with most poems I read. Then I discovered Mary Oliver. Never thought it would happen, but now I read at least one of her poems daily...like a meditation.

Mary Horner said...

Thanks, Pat! That's a great idea for reading poetry, one at a time as a meditation. Beautiful.

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