Introduction to Poetry
Poetry Link Resources
The word poetry is derived from the Greek poiesis, meaning a "making" or"creating". It is a form of art in which language is used for its aesthetic and evocative qualities with or without its ostensible meaning. Poetry may be used either as an independent art by itself or in conjunction with other arts, as in poetic drama, hymns or lyrics. Earlier definitions of poetry focused on the uses of speech in rhetoric, drama, song and comedy. Later attempts concentrated on features such as repetition and rhyme, and emphasized the aesthetics which distinguish poetry from prose. From the mid-20th century, poetry has sometimes been more loosely defined as a fundamental creative act using language.
Poetry often uses particular forms and conventions to expand the literal meaning of the words, or to evoke emotional or sensual responses. Devices such as assonance, alliteration, onomatopoeia and rhythm are sometimes used to achieve musical or incantatory effects. Poetry's use of ambiguity, symbolism, irony and other stylistic elements of poetic diction often leaves a poem open to multiple interpretations. Similarly, metaphor and simile create a resonance between otherwise disparate images—a layering of meanings, forming connections previously not perceived. Kindred forms of resonance may exist, between individual verses, in their patterns of rhyme or rhythm.
Some forms of poetry are specific to particular cultures and genres, responding to the characteristics of the language in which the poet writes. While readers accustomed to identifying poetry with Dante, Goethe, Mickiewicz and Rumi may think of it as being written in rhyming lines and regular meter, there are traditions, such as those of Du Fu and Beowulf, that use other approaches to achieve rhythm and euphony. In today's globalize world, poets often borrow styles, techniques and forms from diverse cultures and languages.
Poetry as an art form may predate literacy. Many ancient works, from the Vedas to the Odyssey, appear to have been composed in poetic form to aid memorization and oral transmission, in prehistoric and ancient societies. Poetry appears among the earliest records of most literate cultures, with poetic fragments found on early monoliths, rune stones and stelae.
The oldest surviving poem is the Epic of Gilgamesh, from the 3rd millennium BC in Sumer (in Mesopotamia, now Iraq), which was written in cuneiform script on clay tablets and, later, papyrus. Other ancient epic poetry includes the Greek epics, Iliad and Odyssey, and the Indian epics, Ramayana and the Mahabharata.
The efforts of ancient thinkers to determine what makes poetry distinctive as a form, and what distinguishes good poetry from bad, resulted in "poetics" — the study of the aesthetics of poetry. Some ancient societies, such as the Chinese through the Shi Jing, one of the Five Classics of Confucianism, developed canons of poetic works that had ritual as well as aesthetic importance. More recently, thinkers have struggled to find a definition that could encompass formal differences as great as those between Chaucer's Canterbury Tales and Matsuo Basho's Oku no Hosomichi, as well as differences in context spanning Tanakh religious poetry, love poetry, and rap.
Context can be critical to poetics and to the development of poetic genres and forms. Poetry that records historic events in epics, such as Gilgamesh or Ferdowsi's Shahnameh, will necessarily be lengthy and narrative, while poetry used for liturgical purposes (hymns, psalms, suras and hadiths) is likely to have an inspirational tone, whereas elegy and tragedy are meant to evoke deep emotional responses. Other contexts include Gregorian chants, formal or diplomatic speech, political rhetoric and invective, light-hearted nursery and nonsense rhymes, and even medical texts.
Classical Approach to Poetry
Classical thinkers employed classification as a way to define and assess the quality of poetry. Notably, the existing fragments of Aristotle's Poetics describe three genres of poetry — the epic, the comic, and the tragic — and develop rules to distinguish the highest-quality poetry in each genre, based on the underlying purposes of the genre. Later aestheticians identified three major genres: epic poetry, lyric poetry and dramatic poetry, treating comedy and tragedy as subgenres of dramatic poetry. Aristotle's work was influential throughout the Middle East during the Islamic Golden Age, as well as in Europe during the Renaissance. Later poets and aestheticians often distinguished poetry from, and defined it in opposition to, prose, which was generally understood as writing with a proclivity to logical explication and a linear narrative structure.
Modern Approach to Poetry
Some 20th century literary theorists, relying less on the opposition of prose and poetry, focused on the poet as simply one who creates using language, and poetry as what the poet creates. The underlying concept of the poet as creator is not uncommon, and some modernist poets essentially do not distinguish between the creation of a poem with words, and creative acts in other media such as carpentry. Yet other modernists challenge the very attempt to define poetry as misguided, as when Archibald MacLeish concludes his paradoxical poem, "Ars Poetica," with the lines: "A poem should not mean / but be."
Disputes over the definition of poetry, and over poetry's distinction from other genres of literature, have been inextricably intertwined with the debate over the role of poetic form. The rejection of traditional forms and structures for poetry that began in the first half of the twentieth century, coincided with a questioning of the purpose and meaning of traditional definitions of poetry and of distinctions between poetry and prose, particularly given examples of poetic prose and prosaic "poetry". Numerous modernist poets have written in non-traditional forms or in what traditionally would have been considered prose, although their writing was generally infused with poetic diction and often with rhythm and tone established by non-metrical means. While there was a substantial formalist reaction within the modernist schools to the breakdown of structure, this reaction focused as much on the development of new formal structures and syntheses as on the revival of older forms and structures.
More recently, postmodernism has fully embraced MacLeish's concept and come to regard boundaries between prose and poetry, and also among genres of poetry, as having meaning only as cultural artifacts. Postmodernism goes beyond modernism's emphasis on the creative role of the poet, to emphasize the role of the reader of a text, and to highlight the complex cultural web within which a poem is read. Today, throughout the world, poetry often incorporates poetic form and diction from other cultures and from the past, further confounding attempts at definition and classification that were once sensible within a tradition such as the Western canon.
Basic Elements of Poetry
Prosody is the study of the meter, rhythm, and intonation of a poem. Meter is the definitive pattern established for a verse (such as iambic pentameter), while rhythm is the actual sound that results from a line of poetry. Prosody also may be used more specifically to refer to the scanning of poetic lines to show meter.
Rhythm: The methods for creating poetic rhythm vary across languages and between poetic traditions. Languages are often described as having timing set primarily by accents, syllables, or moras, depending on how rhythm is established, though a language can be influenced by multiple approaches. For example:
- Japanese is a mora-timed language.
- Latin, Catalan, French and Spanish are syllable-timed languages.
- English, Russian and, generally, German are stress-timed languages.
- Chinese, Vietnamese, Lithuanian, and most Sub-Saharan languages are Tonal languages
Meter: In the Western poetic tradition, meters are customarily grouped according to a characteristic metrical foot and the number of feet per line. Some examples of metric system are:
- iambic pentameter. It contains five feet per line, in which the predominant kind of foot is the "iamb. It system originated in ancient Greek poetry, and was used by poets such as Pindar and Sappho, and by the great tragedians of Athens.
- Dactylic hexameter. It has six feet per line, of which the dominant kind of foot is the dactyl. Dactylic hexameter was the traditional meter of Greek epic poetry, the earliest extant examples of which are the works of Homer and Hesiod.
Meter is often scanned based on the arrangement of "poetic feet" into lines. In English, each foot usually includes one syllable with a stress and one or two without a stress. In other languages, it may be a combination of the number of syllables and the length of the vowel that determines how the foot is parsed, where one syllable with a long vowel may be treated as the equivalent of two syllables with short vowels. The generally accepted names for some of the most commonly used kinds of feet include
- spondee — two stressed syllables together
- iamb — unstressed syllable followed by a stressed syllable
- trochee — one stressed syllable followed by an unstressed syllable
- dactyl — one stressed syllable followed by two unstressed syllables
- anapest — two unstressed syllables followed by one stressed syllable
- pyrrhic - two unstressed syllables together (rare, usually used to end dactylic hexameter)\
The number of metrical feet in a line are described in Greek terminology as follows:
- dimeter — two feet
- trimeter — three feet
- tetrameter — four feet
- pentameter — five feet
- hexameter — six feet
- heptameter — seven feet
- octameter — eight feet
Rhyme, Alliteration, Assonance: Rhyme, alliteration, assonance and consonance are ways of creating repetitive patterns of sound. They may be used as an independent structural element in a poem, to reinforce rhythmic patterns, or as an ornamental element.
- Rhyme consists of identical (hard-rhyme) or similar (soft-rhyme) sounds placed at the ends of lines or at predictable locations within lines (internal rhyme). Languages vary in the richness of their rhyming structures.
- Alliteration is the repetition of initial consonant sounds in two or more neighboring words or syllables. We find alliteration in many familiar phrases and expressions such as "down in the dumps."
- Assonance is the repetition of vowel sounds in non-rhyming words as in, "some ship in distress that cannot ever live." It is used in modern English-language poetry, and in Old French, Spanish and Celtic languages.
Rhyming Schemes: In many languages poets use rhyme in set patterns as a structural element for specific poet forms, such as ballads, sonnets and rhyming couplets. However, the use of structural rhyme is not universal. Much modern poetry avoids traditional rhyme schemes. Classical Greek and Latin poetry did not use rhyme. Rhyme entered European poetry in the High Middle Ages, in part under the influence of the Arabic language in Al Andalus (modern Spain). Arabic language poets used rhyme extensively. Some rhyming schemes have become associated with a specific language, culture or period, while other rhyming schemes have achieved use across languages, cultures or time periods. Some forms of poetry carry a consistent and well-defined rhyming scheme, such as the chant royal or the rubaiyat, while other poetic forms have variable rhyme schemes.
Poetic form refers to various sets of "rules" followed by poems of certain types. The rules may describe such aspects as the rhythm or meter (poetry) of the poem, its rhyme scheme, or its use of alliteration. This category contains articles discussing such concepts. Poetic form is very much more flexible nowadays than ever before. Many modern poets eschew recognizable structures or forms, and write in 'free verse'. But poetry remains distinguished from prose by its form and some regard for basic formal structures of poetry will be found in even the best free verse, however much it may appear to have been ignored. Similarly, in the best poetry written in the classical style there will be departures from strict form for emphasis or effect. Among the major structural elements often used in poetry are the line, the stanza or verse paragraph, and larger combinations of stanzas or lines such as cantos. The broader visual presentation of words and calligraphy can also be utilized. Some well known poetic forms in different languages are described below:
- Sonnets: Among the most common form of poetry through the ages is the sonnet, which, by the thirteenth century, was a poem of fourteen lines following a set rhyme scheme and logical structure. The conventions associated with the sonnet have changed during its history, and so there are several different sonnet forms.
- Jintishi: The jintishi is a Chinese poetic form based on a series of set tonal patterns using the four tones of the classical Chinese language in each couplet: the level, rising, falling and entering tones. The basic form of the jintishi has eight lines in four couplets, with parallelism between the lines in the second and third couplets. The couplets with parallel lines contain contrasting content but an identical grammatical relationship between words. Jintishi often have a rich poetic diction, full of allusion, and can have a wide range of subject, including history and politics. One of the masters of the form was Du Fu, who wrote during the Tang Dynasty (8th century). There are several variations on the basic form of the jintishi.
- Sestina: The sestina has six stanzas, each comprising six unrhymed lines, in which the words at the end of the first stanza’s lines reappear in a rolling pattern in the other stanzas. The poem then ends with a three-line stanza in which the words again appear, two on each line.
- Villanelle: The Villanelle is a nineteen-line poem made up of five triplets with a closing quatrain; the poem is characterized by having two refrains, initially used in the first and third lines of the first stanza, and then alternately used at the close of each subsequent stanza until the final quatrain, which is concluded by the two refrains. The remaining lines of the poem have an a-b alternating rhyme. The villanelle has been used regularly in the English language since the late nineteenth century by such poets as Dylan Thomas, W.H. Auden, and Elizabeth Bishop. It is a form that has gained increased use at a time when the use of received forms of poetry has generally been declining.
- Pantoum: The pantoum is a rare form of poetry similar to a villanelle. It is composed of a series of quatrains; the second and fourth lines of each stanza are repeated as the first and third lines of the next.
- Tanka: The Tanka is a form of Japanese poetry, generally not possessing rhyme, with five lines structured in a 5-7-5 7-7 patterns. The 5-7-5 phrase (the "upper phrase") and the 7-7 phrase (the "lower phrase") generally show a shift in tone and subject matter. Tanka was originally the shorter form of Japanese formal poetry, and was used more heavily to explore personal rather than public themes. It thus had a more informal poetic diction. By the 13th century, Tanka had become the dominant form of Japanese poetry, and it is still widely written today.
- Ode: The ode generally has three parts: a strophe, an antistrophe, and an epode. Odes have a formal poetic diction, and generally deal with a serious subject. They are often intended to be recited or sung by two choruses (or individuals), with the first reciting the strophe, the second the antistrophe, and both together the epode. Over time, differing forms for odes have developed with considerable variations in form and structure, but generally showing the original influence of the Pindaric or Horatian ode. One non-Western form which resembles the ode is the qasida in Persian poetry.
- Ghazal: The ghazal is a form of poetry common in Arabic, Persian and Urdu poetry. In classic form, the ghazal has from five to fifteen rhyming couplets that share a refrain at the end of the second line (which need be of only a few syllables). Each line has an identical meter, and there is a set pattern of rhymes in the first couplet and among the refrains. Each couplet forms a complete thought and stands alone, and the overall ghazal often reflects on a theme of unattainable love or divinity. The last couplet generally includes the signature of the author. As with other forms with a long history in many languages, many variations have been developed, including forms with a quasi-musical poetic diction in Urdu.
- Other Poetic forms: Other poetic forms include:
- Acrostic, in which the first letters of the lines, when read downward, form a word, phrase, or sentence.
- Cinquain, a poem that has five lines with two, four, six, eight, and two syllables, respectively.
- Concrete, a poem that uses typeface, word arrangement, spacing, special characters, and color to dramatize the words’ meaning by the way they look.
- Free verse, poetry that is based on the irregular rhythmic cadence or the recurrence, with variations, of phrases, images, and syntactical patterns rather than the conventional use of meter.
Lines and stanzas
Poetry is often separated into lines on a page. These lines may be based on the number of metrical feet, or may emphasize a rhyming pattern at the ends of lines. Lines may serve other functions, particularly where the poem is not written in a formal metrical pattern. Lines can separate, compare or contrast thoughts expressed in different units, or can highlight a change in tone. Lines of poems are often organized into stanzas, which are denominated by the number of lines included. Thus a collection of two lines is a couplet (or distich), three lines a triplet (or tercet), four lines a quatrain, five lines a quintain (or cinquain), six lines a sestet, and eight lines an octet. These lines may or may not relate to each other by rhyme or rhythm. For example, a couplet may be two lines with identical meters which rhyme or two lines held together by a common meter alone. Stanzas often have related couplets or triplets within them. Other poems may be organized into verse paragraphs, in which regular rhymes with established rhythms are not used, but the poetic tone is instead established by a collection of rhythms, alliterations, and rhymes established in paragraph form. Many medieval poems were written in verse paragraphs, even where regular rhymes and rhythms were used.
Poetic diction describes the manner in which language is used and refers not only to the sound but also to the underlying meaning and its interaction with sound and form. Many languages and poetic forms have very specific poetic dictions, to the point where separate grammars and dialects are used specifically for poetry. Poetic diction can include rhetorical devices such as simile and metaphor, as well as tones of voice, such as irony. Aristotle wrote in the Poetics that "the greatest thing by far is to be a master of metaphor". Since the rise of Modernism, some poets have opted for a poetic diction that de-emphasizes rhetorical devices, attempting the direct presentation of things and experiences and the exploration of tone. On the other hand, Surrealists have pushed rhetorical devices to their limits, making frequent use of catachresis. Allegorical stories are central to the poetic diction of many cultures, and were prominent in the west during classical times, the late Middle Ages and Renaisance. Rather than being fully allegorical, a poem may contain symbols or allusion that deepens the meaning or impact of its words without constructing a full allegory. Another strong element of poetic diction can be the use of vivid imagery for effect. The juxtaposition of unexpected or impossible images is, for example, a particularly strong element in surrealist poetry and haiku. Vivid images are often endowed with symbolism as well. Many poetic dictions will use repetitive phrases for effect, either a short phrase or a longer refrain. Such repetition can add a somber tone to a poem, as in many odes, or can be laced with irony as the contexts of the words change. For example, in Anthony's famous eulogy to in Shakespeare's Julius Caesar, Anthony's repetition of the words, "for Brutus is an honorable man," moves from a sincere tone to one that exudes irony.
Poetry is often thought of in terms of different genres and sub genres. A poetic genre is generally a tradition or classification of poetry based on the subject matter, style, or other broader literary characteristics. Some commentators view genres as natural forms of literature. Others view the study of genres as the study of how different works relate and refer to other works. Described below are some common genres, but the classification of genres, the description of their characteristics, and even the reasons for undertaking a classification into genres can take many forms.
- Narrative Poetry: Narrative poetry is a genre of poetry that tells a story. Broadly it subsumes epic poetry, but the term "narrative poetry" is often reserved for smaller works, generally with more direct appeal than the epic to human interest. Narrative poetry may be the oldest genre of poetry. Many scholars of Homer have concluded that his Iliad and Odyssey were composed from compilations of shorter narrative poems that related individual episodes and were more suitable for an evening's entertainment. Much narrative poetry, such as Scots and English ballads, and Baltic and Slavic heroic poems, is performance poetry with roots in a preliterate oral tradition. Notable narrative poets have included Ovid, Dante, Chaucer, William Langland, Luís de Camões, Shakespeare, Alexander Pope, Robert Burns, Adam Mickiewicz, Alexander Pushkin, Edgar Allan Poe and Alfred Tennyson.
- Epic poetry: Epic poetryis a genre of poetry, and a major form of narrative literature. It recounts, in a continuous narrative, the life and works of a heroic or mythological person or group of persons. Western epic poems include Homer's Iliad and Odyssey, Vergil's Aeneid, the Nibelungenlied and Luís de Camões' Os Lusíadas. Eastern examples are the Epic of Gilgamesh, the Mahabharata, Valmiki's Ramayana, Ferdowsi's Shahnama, and the Epic of King Gesar. The composition of epic poetry, and of long poems generally, became uncommon in the west after the early 20th century, while the meaning of the term "epic" evolved to refer also to prose writings, films and similar works that are characterized by great length, multiple settings, large numbers of characters, or long span of time involved.
- Dramatic poetry: Dramatic poetry is drama written in verse to be spoken or sung, and appears in varying and sometimes related forms in many cultures. In the latter half of the 20th century, verse drama fell almost completely out of favor with English-language dramatists. The best-known practitioners of this genre include Aeschylus, Kalidas, Sophocles, Gil Vicente, Jan Kochanowski and Shakespeare.
- Satirical Poetry: Poetry can be a powerful vehicle for satire. The punch of an insult delivered in verse can be many times more powerful and memorable than the same when spoken or written in prose. The Greeks and Romans had a strong tradition of satirical poetry, often written for political purposes. The same is true of the English satirical tradition. Outside England, Ignacy Krasicki and Manuel Maria Barbosa du Bocage, commonly known as Bocage, are among the greatest satirical poets.
- Lyric poetry: Lyric poetry is a genre that, unlike epic poetry and dramatic poetry, does not attempt to tell a story but instead is of a more personal nature. Rather than depicting characters and actions, it portrays the poet's own feelings, states of mind, and perceptions. While the genre's name, derived from "lyre," implies that it is intended to be sung, much lyric poetry is meant purely for reading. Though lyric poetry has long celebrated love, many courtly-love poets also wrote lyric poems about war and peace, nature and nostalgia, grief and loss. Notable among these are the 15th century French lyric poets, Christine de Pizan and Charles, Duke of Orléans. Spiritual and religious themes were addressed by such medieval lyric poets as St. John of the Cross and Teresa of Ávila. The tradition of lyric poetry based on spiritual experience was continued by later poets such as John Donne, Gerard Manley Hopkins and T.S. Eliot. Although the most popular form for western lyric poetry to take may be the 14-line sonnet, as practiced by Petrarch and Shakespeare, lyric poetry shows a bewildering variety of forms, including increasingly, in the 20th century, unrhymed ones.
- Verse Fable: The fable is an ancient and near-ubiquitous literary genre, often, though not invariably, set in verse form. It is a brief, succinct story that features anthropomorphized animals, plants, inanimate objects, or forces of nature that illustrate or imply a moral teaching. Verse fables have used a variety of meter and rhyme patterns. The Indian and Buddhist Jataka tales and the Panchatantra are some good examples of ancient verse fables. Notable verse fabulists have included Aesop (mid-6th century BCE), Vishnu Sarma (ca. 200 BCE), Phaedrus (15 BCE–50 CE), Marie de France (12th century), Biernat of Lublin (1465?–after 1529), Jean de La Fontaine (1621–95), Ignacy Krasicki (1735–1801), Ivan Krylov (1769–1844) and Ambrose Bierce (1842–1914).
- Prose poetry: Prose poetry is a hybrid genre that demonstrates attributes of both prose and poetry. It may be indistinguishable from the micro-story or short short fiction. Most critics argue that it qualifies as poetry because of its conciseness, use of metaphor, and special attention to language. While some examples of earlier prose strike modern readers as poetic, prose poetry is commonly regarded as having originated in 19th-century France, where its practitioners included Aloysius Bertrand, Charles Baudelaire, Arthur Rimbaud and Stéphane Mallarmé. The genre has subsequently found notable exemplars in French (Francis Ponge); Portuguese (Fernando Pessoa, Mário Cesariny, Mário De Sá-Carneiro, Eugénio de Andrade, Al Berto, Alexandre O'Neill, José Saramago, António Lobo Antunes); English (Oscar Wilde, T.S. Eliot, Gertrude Stein, Sherwood Anderson, Allen Ginsberg, Seamus Heaney, Russell Edson, Charles Simic, Robert Bly, James Wright); Spanish (Octavio Paz, Ángel Crespo); Polish (Boleslaw Prus); Russian; and Japanese.