The Bedford Glossary of Critical and Literary Terms - Ross Murfin 2018


Poetry: Literary expression characterized by particular attention to rhythm, sound, and the concentrated, concrete use of language. A major literary genre, poetry has been defined and described in many different ways. Take, for instance, the definitions of three American poets: Edgar Allan Poe, who called poetry “the rhythmical creation of beauty” in “The Poetic Principle” (1850); Carl Sandburg, who proclaimed it “an echo, asking a shadow to dance,” in Good Morning, America (1928); and contemporary African American poet Rita Dove, who described it as “language at its most distilled and most powerful.”

That said, there is general agreement about what poetry is not. First, poetry is frequently distinguished from verse — broadly speaking, any rhythmical or metrical composition. In this view, poetry is a subset of verse, considered superior by virtue of its imaginative quality, intricate structure, serious or lofty subject matter, or noble purpose.

Second, poetry is often contrasted with fiction. This distinction, however, has proved more problematic because some poets and literary historians have characterized poetry as fiction (or even as the “supreme fiction,” as in Wallace Stevens’s “A High-Toned Christian Woman” [1922]), as that which is not essentially tied to fact, to history. Seen from this angle, any imaginative artistic work might be called poetic.

Third, poetry has frequently been contrasted with prose. English romantic poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge, for instance, distinguished the two, defining prose as “words in their best order” and poetry as “the best words in their best order” (July 12, 1827, Specimens of the Table Talk of S. T. Coleridge [1835]). At the level of form, poetry emphasizes the line rather than the sentence and is organized in stanzas rather than paragraphs. At the level of meaning, many critics argue that prose lends itself more readily to paraphrase. While poetry can be approached intellectually, it is equally an emotional experience; one might even say that poetry is meant to be experienced rather than simply read, as it is rich with a suggestiveness born from the interplay of words and sounds.

Other distinguishing factors between poetry and prose include auditory elements such as rhythm, meter, and rhyme; diction; and the level of concreteness. First, poetry relies on auditory elements, particularly rhythm, to a much greater extent than prose. A poem typically contains some basic rhythmic pattern, variations on which not only create auditory interest but may also introduce a new idea or viewpoint. Prose may have rhythm, but without the marked regularity and integral importance in poetry. Furthermore, poetry may use meter and rhyme, whereas prose does not. Second, poetry puts a premium on diction, the choice and phrasing of words. Although many poets have rejected the idea of a “special” poetic diction, particularly since the advent of romanticism, they must be more economical than prose authors and thus tend to imbue their words with meaning, affording poetry a particular intensity. Third, poetry tends to be more concrete than prose, making particularly heavy use of figurative language and symbolism to develop specific, detailed images and enhance sensory impact.

Historically, poetry appears to have originated as a collective endeavor, or at least for a collective purpose, playing a major role in ceremonial events and helping preserve a group’s history and traditions, which were often passed down orally from generation to generation. Many of the earliest literary (and often religious) works are poems; perhaps the oldest extant epic is the Babylonian Epic of Gilgamesh (third millennium B.C.). Over time, however, poetry became the medium for drama, as in classical Greek tragedies, and for individual lyric expression. Differing schools of thought regarding the aim of poetry also arose, with some advocating a didactic purpose, others viewing poetry as a source of pleasure, and still others seeing it as a medium for special, even unique, insights. Today, poetry is seen as a highly individualistic endeavor; perhaps no other form of expression is deemed so intensely personal, and therefore unique. The following lyric by Mexican poet Octavio Paz, “Entre lo que digo y veo” (“Between What I See and What I Say”) (1976), written for Russian linguist Roman Jakobson, reflects one such individual take on poetry:

Between what I see and what I say,

between what I say and what I keep silent,

between what I keep silent and what I dream,

between what I dream and what I forget: