What is poetry?

Despite more than two and a half thousand years of heated discussion, there is not – and perhaps never can be – any settled agreement about what poetry is. The short animated film that follows nonetheless aims to offer a useful starting point for thinking about poetry. It does this by isolating the three distinctive elements of poetry that will be the focus of our study: its layout (i.e. its division into lines and stanzas), its aural effects (i.e. its metre, rhythm and rhyme), and its various genres. Drawing upon an ancient analogy between poetry and painting, the film likens these three elements to the three figures around which so many older paintings were constructed: the circle, the triangle and the square. In this way, it makes two important points that will inform the whole of our study:

  • that what is distinctive about an individual poem often derives from its innovative use and particular arrangement of a relatively small set of recurring elements
  • and that it is therefore the way poems are made that determines what they make happen

You may have noticed that this film does not identify a particular kind of language – so-called ‘poetic language’ – as a defining characteristic of poetry, despite this being something people often assume distinguishes poetry from prose. In common parlance we often call someone’s language ‘poetic’ if it seems especially elevated, which usually means full of picturesque imagery. There are two reasons we here on LiCOR do not agree that language of that kind is in practice one of the defining characteristics of poetry. The first is that one can find several poems – and especially those written after 1900 – that do not contain anything like this kind of language, and yet they are unquestionably poems all the same. Second, it would in any case be very difficult to demonstrate that poetry possesses its own distinctive vocabulary or even a hegemony on the use of metaphors, similes and other such linguistic flights of fancy; ‘poetic’ language of the kind just outlined is just as likely to appear in novels, short stories, formal speeches, letters, casual conversations and just about every other kind of oral and written discourse besides.

We believe it is therefore far better to avoid drawing a distinction between the language of poetry on the one hand and other kinds of language on the other. Those formal properties that are distinctive to poetry – such as lineation, rhyme and metre – may on occasion make us more intensely aware of such things as the vocabulary, syntax, pace and imagery of a given poem, and in the process make us more conscious of the workings of language and of the artificial nature of the relationship it bears to the things it purports to denote, than we are accustomed to pay to the sentences we read and speak in daily life; this, though, does not make the language one finds in poetry fundamentally different from any other kind of language.

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