1 Week 1 – What Poetry is…and isn’t

Leigh Hancock; Alan Lindsay; and Candace Bergstrom

What Poetry is….and What it isn’t

It’s hard to define poetry.  When we try, the definitions are often anything but poetic. For example:

    • Poetry is “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.” (Wikipedia)
    • A poem is “a thought, caught in the act of dawning.” (NEA.gov)
    • Poetry is “writing that formulates a concentrated imaginative awareness of experience in language chosen and arranged to create a specific emotional response through meaning, sound, and rhythm.” (Merriam Webster)

Somehow I don’t think we’re getting very close.

Literary critic Mark Flanagan  describes poetry’s most definable characteristic as the economy of language–which is a fancy way of saying that poets make every word count.  We’ll spend a lot of time this term considering this.

Poetry  can provokes in the reader an intense emotion: joy, sorrow, anger, catharsis, love.  It has the ability to surprise the reader  and to give revelation and insight into elemental truth and beauty. As Keats says: “Beauty is truth. Truth, beauty. That is all ye know on Earth and all ye need to know.”

Here are a a few commonly held ideas about poetry. See if any capture what you think about poetry.

    • Poetry involves using language in a unique, compressed way to articulate non-literal ideas to the reader.
    • Poetry comes in a variety of shapes and forms and lack of form.
    • Poems are never meaningless.
    • Poems make use of everyday words, sentences and grammatical structures, although poets often use these elements in unexpected and unusual ways.
    • No language is exclusive to poetry. If you can read this sentence, you can read or learn to read almost any poem.
    • Poetry does use language more intensely than normal for producing meaning; it thereby produces more meaning than a typical sentence like the one you are reading now.
    • Poems make observation and convey perspectives.

The point here is that NO ONE has the single correct definition and last word about what poetry is and what it isn’t.  In this class, we’ll explore various elements of poetry, with the goal of learning how to access and move deeply into whatever poem we’re reading.  We’ll read a wide variety of poems written for myriad reasons.  We’ll occasionally read analyses or critiques of poems by “experts,” but for the most part, our goal here is to help you become comfortable and skilled with finding and understanding poetry that is meaningful to you.

In that vein, check out the following poems and see if any of them offer an explanation of poetry that rings true to you. We’ll discuss a few in our first Discussion Forum.

Elizabeth Alexander, “Ars Poetica” (Links to an external site.)

Edward Lear, “The Owl and the Pussycat” (Links to an external site.)

Billy Collins, “Workshop” (Links to an external site.)

William Carlos Williams, “Love Song” (Links to an external site.)

Pablo Neruda,  “Poetry”

Robert Bly, “Starting a Poem”



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ENG 106 by Leigh Hancock; Alan Lindsay; and Candace Bergstrom is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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