What is Poetry?

Poetry vs. Prose
“Poetry is a literary genre that differs from prose genres in the use of verse, rhyme and meter. In modern prose poems or experimental poetry, these classical elements are no longer valid; however, the wording and the deliberate use of certain structural elements of syntax and rhetorical figures mark these works as poetic forms.” Mario Klarer, an Introduction on literary studies.

“The art of rhythmical composition, written or spoken, for exciting pleasure by beautiful, imaginative, or elevated thoughts.”

This doesn’t really help now does it? Let’s try again:

According to Mark Flanagan on Poetry is this:
Poetry is an imaginative awareness of experience expressed through meaning, sound, and rhythmic language choices so as to evoke an emotional response. Poetry has been known to employ meter and rhyme, but this is by no means necessary. Poetry is an ancient form that has gone through numerous and drastic reinvention over time. The very nature of poetry as an authentic and individual mode of expression makes it nearly impossible to define.

I think that he’s got something there. It’s really difficult to give an exact definition to poetry but now that we know this, what is prose?

“The ordinary form of spoken or written language, without metrical structure, as distinguished from poetry or verse.”

“Prose is a form of language that has no formal metrical structure. It applies a natural flow of speech, and ordinary grammatical structure rather than rhythmic structure, such as in the case of traditional poetry. Normal every day speech is spoken in prose and most people think and write in prose form.  Prose comprises of full grammatical sentences which consist of paragraphs and forgoes aesthetic appeal in favour of clear, straightforward language. It can be said to be the most reflective of conversational speech.”

So what is the difference between poetry and prose?
After much consideration and research I’ll go with this as a difference between poetry and prose: Prose is meant to be straightforward, to follow structure and certain rules. There’s just the emphasis on the words.
Poetry does no such thing and has no format for structure and the sounds/rhyme of the words is as important as the meaning.
In short: poetry differs from prose in the use of verse, rhyme and meter.

In this post I’ll highlight some of the aspects of poetry and I’ll try and show you how things work. Now this is a whole new word for you and me (see what I did with the Disney thing there? ^_^) so I hope that in the end we’ll both turn out be a little wiser.
A word of caution beforehand: Most of the definitions I put in this post come from Mario Klarer’s An introduction to literary studies. This because it is the book I use for my studies. However when there is a term that isn’t to clear, I’ll explain it in another way.

In other words: Welcome to what-is-Poetry-and-what-do-I-do-with-it 101.

Different forms of Poetry
First of all let’s be clear that there are two forms of poetry.

  • Lyrical poetry is a term for a variation of short poetic forms:
    • Sonnet: often used for ‘worldly love’ in poetry and has a strict rhyme scheme existing of 14 lines in total, often three quatrains and a couplet (a Shakespearean sonnet).
    • Ode: often used for a serious and classical theme. Consisting of several stanzas.
      • A stanza is an element of the visual dimension of a poem that can be classified according to the number of lines, rhyme and meter. It can be a couplet existing of two lines, a tercet existing of three lines, a quatrain existing of four lines and a sonnet.
    • Elegy: a classical form of lyrical poetry. Its main theme is a lament for a deceased person.
  • Narrative poetry includes the longer poetic forms. These poems differ from lyrical poems in length, narrative techniques, portrayal of characters and plot. The genres which narrative poetry includes are:
    • Epic is a long and complex form of a narrative poem. In the centre is a national hero who has to prove himself in adventures and trails of cosmic dimensions.
    • Romance was classically written in prose but changed to verse in the Middle Ages. This genre can be seen as the direct precursor of the novel. This genre focuses in terms of plot, emphasises on realism and is less concerned with cosmic/national issues.
    • Ballad is actually a sub genre and is situated in length between the Epic and lyrical poetry. There are well rounded plots, complex techniques but these don’t compete with the Epic or Romance. The Ballad is traditionally in a quatrain form.
      Because I think this description isn’t a 100% here’s a link to a website that will give a great explanation on the subject.

Dimensions of Poetry
Afbeelding1There are three different dimensions within Poetry.
Each dimension has its own function. The terms will be explained later in this post.

What to do when reading/analysing Poetry
Here comes the tricky part. If you simply want to read Poetry, there is nothing that you have to do except reading to Poetry.
However there are a couple of things that you need to keep in mind before/during you start reading/analysing Poetry:

  • What is the poem about? What is the theme? Is it about nature or for example about a crowded city?
    A theme can be anything and often the title of the poem can be a clue to the theme. Keep in mind that the title always (or almost always) represents what the poem is about.
  • How is the poem written? What kind of diction (choice of words or phrases) does the author use? If you want to analyse a poem then also think about these things:
    • Rhyme is an element of the rhythmic acoustic dimension of a poem. There are three forms of rhyme:
      • Internal rhymes are based on alliteration and assonance (see figures of speech).
      • End rhymes come at the end of certain lines. Those lines will have identical syllables.
      • Eye rhyme is what appears to be rhyme but is only an illusion. Eye rhyme pays with identical spelling but different pronunciation of words and syllables.
    • Meter is also an element of the rhythmic acoustic dimension of a poem. Meter is used when doing a scansion (for more about scansion see how to make a scansion) and shows the organized pattern of stressed (/) and unstressed (u) syllables in a line.
      – Iamb: u /
      – Trochee: / u
      – spondee: //
      – Pyrrhic: u u
      – anapest: u u /
      – dactyl: / u u
      Stressed and unstressed syllables can be organized in feet. These feet often contain two or three syllables. To describe the meter of a verse, one indicates the name of the foot and the number of feet used.

      • 1 foot: monometer
      • 2 feet: dimiter
      • 3 feet: trimeter
      • 4 feet: tetrameter
      • 5 feet: pentameter
      • 6 feet: hexameter
      • Catalectic foot is actually half a foot that can be simply there.
    • Imagery is used to create mental pictures and figurative descriptions. It’s important to know what kind of imagery is used, if it’s dark or light and what it refers to but it also shows the important bits in the poem.
    • Structure (lines, stanzas, rhyming scheme)
  • What is the poem actually about?
    For example take a poem of Edgar Allan Poe, in this case the haunted palace.
    It’s a poem about a haunted palace, exactly like the title predicted. But is it really about a palace?
    There are certain things within the poem that suggest that it’s not simply about a haunted palace, but about a man who loses or has already lost his sanity. This has to do with figures of sound and figures of speech (For this see the section in this post about these two subjects)

But let’s take one step back to scansion. How can you efficiently make a scansion?
For this there are 7 steps:

  1. Count the syllables
  2. Give the syllables stress or no stress
  3. Count the feet
  4. Evaluate step three
  5. Define the meter
  6. Define the number of feet
  7. Define the rhyme scheme.

Step number 7 however can be a little tricky. There is no poem in which the author always used the same meter and always used the same number of feet in every line. So to define the rhyming scheme you have to find the dominant meter and feet. The meter/feet that occurs most is then the rhyming scheme.
(If you want to see an example of a scansion click here).

Figures of sound
There are four figures of sound:

  1. Alliteration is a type of rhyme in which the first consonant sound is repeated within the same line.
  2. Consonance uses the repetition of consonants or consonant patterns as a rhyming device, especially at the end of a word.
  3. Assonance is a type of rhyme in which the first vowel sound of a word is repeated later in the same line.
  4. Onomatopoeia is the linguistic term for a word that resembles the sound produced by the object it denotes in poetry. It attempts to emphasise the meaning of a word through its acoustic dimension. I.e.  Woof, clang, bang etc.

Figures of speech (rhetorical figures)

  1. Metaphor: shows an equation, one thing is another.
    1. Dead metaphor: is used in everyday speech and is no longer seen as a metaphor.
    2. Everyday metaphors can be explicit (fully and clearly expressed) or implicit (implied, not clearly expressed).
    3. Building block are the tenor and the vehicle. The Tenor is the implied meaning, the implied meaning that the metaphorical word (the vehicle) carries with it in the context of the work in which it appears. The vehicle is the actual term used in the equation, a word or image used in such a way that it becomes the carrier of a meaning not usually associated with that word. Example:
      “If music (tenor) be the food of love (vehicle), play on.”
  2. Simile: One thing is like another.
  3. Symbol/symbolism: A symbol is an object that transcends the material meaning. A symbol can be conventional and so were commonly known but could also be private and were created by the author specifically for a text.
  4. Personification is when an abstract or dead thing is animated and takes on human characteristics.
  5. Synecdoche: When a part is used to present the whole or when the whole is used to present a part. I.e.
    • Sheen’s wheels confiscated after Police find star asleep at the wheel.
    • The Netherlands suffer most catastrophic defeat of the century.
  6. Metonymy is something that is closely associated with the tenor.
    • White House and Number 10 Agree Martian Defence Plans

    – “The pen is mightier than the sword”

I hope that this post made things a little clearer for you. What it poetry and what do you do with poetry?
There’s more to it than meets the eye and I’ve noticed how now I even started to admire poets. It’s hard work and to write a good poem is hard and time consuming. Not every poem is what it seems at first. It’s like peeling the layers of an onion, every time you get to another layer of the poem there’s more meaning and understanding. I admit that poetry will probably never be my thing but at least now I understand it a little more and I hope you do too.

I want to say one last thing and that is this:
There is a website on which you can practise making scansions. There’s a format for it and the only right way is the way the site’s builder read the poem but it’s a great tool if you want to get more familiar with scansion. Click here for the link!

Thanks for visiting my blog and I hope to see you back next time!


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