What is Poetry?
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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. It consists largely of oral or literary
works in which language is used in a manner that is felt by
its user and audience to differ from ordinary prose. It may
use condensed or compressed form to convey emotion or ideas
to the reader's or listener's mind or ear; it may also use devices
such as assonance and repetition to achieve musical or incantatory
effects. Poems frequently rely for their effect on imagery,
word association, and the musical qualities of the language
used. Because of its nature of emphasising linguistic form rather
than using language purely for its content, poetry is notoriously
difficult to translate from one language into another. In poetry,
it is the connotations and the "baggage" that words
carry (the weight of words) that are most important. These shades
and nuances of meaning can be difficult to interpret and can
cause different readers to "hear" a particular piece
of poetry differently. While there are reasonable interpretations,
there can never be a definitive interpretation.
Nature of poetry
Poetry can be differentiated most of the time from prose, which
is language meant to convey meaning in a more expansive and
less condensed way, frequently using more complete logical or
narrative structures than poetry does. A further complication
is that prose poetry combines the characteristics of poetry
with the superficial appearance of prose. And there is, of course,
narrative poetry, not to mention dramatic poetry, both of which
are used to tell stories and so resemble novels and plays. However,
both these forms of poetry use the specific features of verse
composition to make these stories more memorable or to enhance
them in some way.
The Greek verb poieo (I make or create), gave rise to three
words: poietis (the one who creates), poiesis (the act of creation),
and poiema (the thing created). From these we get three English
words: poet (the creator), poesy (the creation) and poem (the
created). A poet is therefore one who creates, and poetry is
what the poet creates. The underlying concept of the poet as
maker or creator is not uncommon. For example, in Anglo-Saxon
a poet is a scop (shaper or maker) and in Scots makar.
Sound in poetry
Perhaps the most vital element of sound in poetry is rhythm.
Often the rhythm of each line is arranged in a particular meter.
Different types of meter played key roles in Classical, Early
European, Eastern and Modern poetry. In the case of free verse,
the rhythm of lines is often organized into looser units of
Poetry in English and other modern European languages often
uses rhyme. Rhyme at the end of lines is the basis of a number
of common poetic forms such as ballads, sonnets and rhyming
couplets. However, the use of rhyme is not universal. Much modern
poetry, for example, avoids traditional rhyme schemes. Furthermore,
Classical Greek and Latin poetry did not use rhyme. In fact,
rhyme did not enter European poetry at all until the High Middle
Ages, when it was adopted from the Arabic language. The Arabs
have always used it extensively.
Alliteration played a key role in structuring early Germanic
and English forms of poetry (called Alliterative verse), akin
to the role of rhyme in later European poetry. The alliterative
patterns of early Germanic poetry and the rhyme schemes of Modern
European poetry alike both include meter as a key part of their
structure which determines when the listener expects instances
rhyme or alliteration to occur. In this sense, both alliteration
and rhyme when used in poetic structures help to emphasize and
define a rhythmic pattern. By contrast, the chief device of
Biblical poetry in ancient Hebrew was parallelism, a rhetorical
structure in which successive lines reflected each other in
grammatical structure, sound structure, notional content, or
all three; a verse form that lent itself to antiphonal or call
and response performance.
In addition to the forms of rhyme, alliteration and rhythm
that structure much poetry, sound plays a more subtle role in
even free verse poetry in creating pleasing, varied patterns
and emphasizing or sometimes even illustrating semantic elements
of the poem. Devices such as alliteration, assonance, consonance,
dissonance and internal rhyme are among the ways poets use sound.
Poetry and form
As it is created using language, poetry tends to use formal
linguistic units like phrases, sentences and paragraphs. In
addition, it uses units of organisation that are purely poetic.
The main units that are used are the line, the couplet, the
strophe, the stanza, and the verse paragraph.
Lines may be self-contained units of sense, as in the famous
To be, or not to be: that is the question. Alternatively a line
may end in mid-phrase or sentence: Whether 'tis nobler in the
mind to suffer. The linguistic unit is generally completed in
the next line: The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune.
This technique is called enjambement, and is used to create
a sense of expectation in the reader and/or to add a dynamic
to the movement of the verse.
Couplets, stanzas, and strophes are generally self-contained
units of sense, although a kind of enjambement may also be used
across these units. In blank verse, verse paragraphs are employed
to indicate natural breaks in the flow of the poem.
In many instances, the effectiveness of a poem derives from
the tension between the use of linguistic and formal units.
With the advent of printing, poets gained greater control over
the visual presentation of their work. As a result, the use
of these formal elements, and of the white space they help create,
became an important part of the poet's toolbox. Modernist poetry
tends to take this to an extreme, with the placement of individual
lines or groups of lines on the page forming an integral part
of the poem's composition. In its most extreme form, this leads
to the writing of concrete poetry.
Poetry and rhetoric
Rhetorical devices such as simile and metaphor are frequently
used in poetry. Or, maybe more accurately, rhetorics has learned
these powerful ways of forging connections outside logical reasoning
from poetry. Indeed, Aristotle wrote in his Poetics that "the
greatest thing by far is to be a master of metaphor". However,
particularly since the rise of Modernism, many poets have opted
for reduced use of these devices, preferring rather to attempt
the direct presentation of things and experiences.
The history of poetry
Poetry as an art form predates literacy. In pre-literate societies,
poetry was frequently employed as a means of recording oral
history, storytelling (epic poetry), genealogy, law and other
forms of expression or knowledge that modern societies might
expect to be handled in prose. Poetry is also often closely
identified with liturgy in these societies, as the formal nature
of poetry makes it easier to remember priestly incantations
or prophecies. The greater part of the world's sacred scriptures
are made up of poetry rather than prose.
Some writers believe that poetry has its origins in song. Most
of the characteristics that distinguish it from other forms
of utterance - rhythm, rhyme, compression, intensity of feeling,
the use of refrains - appear to have come about from efforts
to fit words to musical forms. However, in the European tradition
the earliest surviving poems, the Homeric and Hesiodic epics,
identify themselves as poems to be recited or chanted to a musical
accompaniment rather than as pure song. Another interpretation,
developed from 20th century studies of living Montenegran epic
reciters by Milman Parry and others, is that rhythm, refrains,
and kennings are essentially paratactic devices that enable
the reciter to reconstruct the poem from memory.
In preliterate societies, all these forms of poetry were composed
for, and sometimes during, performance. As such, there was a
certain degree of fluidity to the exact wording of poems, given
this could change from one performance or performer to another.
The introduction of writing tended to fix the content of a poem
to the version that happened to be written down and survive.
Written composition also meant that poets began to compose not
for an audience that was sitting in front of them but for an
absent reader. Later, the invention of printing tended to accelerate
these trends. Poets were now writing more for the eye than for
The development of literacy gave rise to more personal, shorter
poems intended to be sung. These are called lyrics, which derives
from the Greek lura or lyre, the instrument that was used to
accompany the performance of Greek lyrics from about the seventh
century B.C. onward. The Greek's practice of singing hymns in
large choruses gave rise, in the sixth century B.C. to dramatic
verse, and to the practice of writing poetic plays for performance
in their theatres.
In more recent times, the introduction of electronic media
and the rise of the poetry reading have led to a resurgence
of performance poetry and have resulted in a situation where
poetry for the eye and poetry for the ear coexist, sometimes
in the same poem.
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