"Poetry is language that tells us, through a more or less emotional reaction, something that cannot be said." Edwin Arlington Robinson said that, and it is probably as meaningful definition of poetry as any I’ve ever heard.
Within Western culture today, verse turns up in many forms that you would not necessarily associate with poetry. Bumper stickers, graffiti, rap music, greeting cards, advertisements, and T-shirts can be – and often are – outlets for verse. Together with traditional forms of poetry such as the lyric, ode, and sonnet, they share a common literary history.
That literary history is still alive today in oral societies in which, on ceremonial occasions, the history of the tribe or culture is sung or changed as a poem. The person who sings or recites is usually regarded as sacred and powerful. Rhyme and rhythm punctuate the history, emphasising important events and people.
From such origins as these, epics such as The Iliad and The Odyssey developed to celebrate the acts and lives of gods and heroes of ancient Greece. Similarly, Beowulf, the earliest known English epic, draws upon tales and legends to record heroic conflicts and triumphs. Much later, John Milton, writing in the 17th century, chose the epic to document the fall of man in Paradise Lost.
Shorter poetic forms may well have had their origin in the spells and prayers of primitive tribes. Embedded in such forms is the belief in the power of language and its emotional effect. The idea of compressed, powerful, moving language is embodied in the lyric, and the jump from the lyric poems of the ancient Greeks to the Bible’s Songs of Solomon to William Blake’s 19th century Songs of Innocence and Experience is not as great as one might think.
So too, other popular poetic forms have their origins in the far past. The ballad "Barbara Allen" has its origins in the Scottish hills of the 16th century, but versions of it still exist today in the West Virginia hills of Appalachia. The words differ, but the form stays the same – a narrative written in groups of four lines, often with a refrain.
Another popular form is the short, precise lyric that is the sonnet. Associated with Petrarch, a 14th century Italian, the sonnet made its way to England where it was modified into what we now recognise as the English or Shakespearean sonnet. Poets such as Edna St. Vincent Millay and Robert Frost used the same form to present 20th century ideas.
Whether a short epigram or a couplet or the longer traditional ode – the poetry of the ancients is also the poetry of the present. Today’s poets still use these forms as well as new ones. Much of the poetry you see in magazines and books is written in non-traditional form.
Poems that have a specific and often traditional pattern of lines reinforced by rhythm and rhyme are classified as having a closed form. Couplets, odes, sonnets, ballads, and many lyrics are written in a closed form. Poems written in an open form – also known as free verse – do not employ a fixed pattern to convey their meaning. At the same time, these poems are poems. Although they do not have a set pattern of rhyme or rhythm, they share other characteristics with poems written in traditional styles. They have power, unity, rhythm, and imagery, and they rely on diction and various poetic devices to convey meaning.
So what is poetry? As Emily Dickinson said, "If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know that it is poetry."
contributed by Gifford, Katya
19 April 2002