What Do You Think Poetry Is

In today’s cultural landscape, poetry is everywhere; from advertisements to music, poetry has become a central part of our lives. But what do we actually mean when we talk about poetry? In its most basic definition, poetry is language that is compact and often figurative, conveying emotion and meaning in a highly concentrated way. According to poet and theorist Robert Hass, “Poetry has to do with the creation of the song out of the language and with the creation of the distinctively shaped experience out of the raw material of existence.”

Poetry can also be seen to represent the spirit of a people or a certain era. In her book The Poetry of Experience, British poet Jo Shapcott writes: “Poetry is an attempt to make sense of existence, to express emotion. It is an attempt to transform experience, in all its particularity, into art: its arbitrary boundaries giving shape and resonance to the boundaries of our lives”. Offering a bridge between feeling and expression, poetry is truly the language of the heart.

But poetry isn’t just about emotion; it’s also about reason. According to poet and professor of English at Stanford University Mark Strand, “poetry is an intellectual art, demanding that we engage with it on an intellectual level. It utilises the artful combination of words and ideas to create a distinct image in the mind of the reader, stirring emotions and thoughts in a way that other forms of writing do not.

The language of poetry can be incredibly powerful; it can be used to express our deepest thoughts and feelings. And through its use of metaphors and imagery, it can awaken our senses and tap into the unconscious. As American poet Kathleen Raine writes: “the poetic imagination is the creative effort to harmonize the demands of the intellect with the emotions, to allow the intellect to soar with the passionate heights of feeling”.


Poetry also has a strong component of rhetoric, which can be used to great effect to persuade and influence an audience. Through the use of devices like alliteration, assonance, rhyme and rhythm, poets are able to summon strong emotion in their readers. According to philosopher Theodore Adorno, ” In poetry, language acquires a heightened sensibility and musical qualities that serve to amplify its persuasive potential. In this way, poetry can be seen to have a political dimension; as American poet Adrienne Rich writes, “poetry does not pander to the crowd, it speaks to the elect”.

Yet for all its power, poetry can also be fragile. French poet and essayist Charles Baudelaire warns against the danger of sentimentalism, writing that “the lyric mania is a sort of indolence which substitute for true inspiration”. Thus it is important for poets to remain critical and conscious of the way in which their words can be used.


In its structure, much of poetry is like music; with its repeated lines and rhyme it forms a kind of song. Music and poetry often go hand in hand; as American poet and essayist William Carlos Williams puts it, ” poets are like musicians. They use melodic, rhythmic and alliterated language to create something that, when it is read or read aloud, has both sound and meaning”.

And within our musical culture, poetry takes many forms. Hip-hop, rap, and spoken word are all mediums in which poetry plays an important role. These forms of poetry help us to make sense of our world, and to bridge the gaps between different cultures. As American poet and rapper Common puts it, “Poetry is what moves the world. It helps us to recognize beauty and to speak the truth”.

Contemporary Poetry

Much of contemporary poetry is shaped by its individual context; in its structure, language and themes it reflects the society in which it was created. From slam poetry to haiku, each manifestation of poetry is distinct in its own way. As American poet and critic Gary Snyder writes: “Poetry is made of the story of the self. It is that pause between the unrealized and the realizable self, between the history and pre-history, between the surface world and the underground”.

At its best, poetry encourages us to take a journey, to explore our innermost thoughts and feelings. As American poet Sheenagh Pugh writes, “poetry can make us listen, look and feel. It makes us stop and think. It gives us pleasure or pain, a surprised moment of joy or recognition, a jolt of electricity that wakes us up”. And in doing so, it allows us to touch the transcendent; to connect with something greater than ourselves. This is the true power of poetry.

Rituals and Remembrances

Poetry has been used throughout history to evoke strong emotions in its readers. In ancient societies, poetry was often used in rituals and ceremonies, with each individual poem embodying the power of shared experience. As American poet and essayist Mary Oliver writes, “Poetry begins with a gesture of reverence, of looking outward and inward at the same time, of recognizing a great force running through our lives”.(Oliver, 2007). By observing the beauty of nature and acknowledging our mortality, poetry helps us to remember our shared past.

Poetry has also been used in commemoration and remembrance of times gone by. Through its use of language, metaphor and sound, it can help us to connect with past generations. As American author and poet Kenneth M. Goodwin puts it, “Poetry is the language of spirits, souls and visions. The poet speaks to the core of our being and helps us to remember who we are and where we come from”. Through the ritual of poetry we can remember the stories of the ancestors, and the power of their words will continue to live on.

Creativity and Artistry

At its heart, poetry is an art form. As such, it requires both creativity and skill. Poets must have a keen eye for language, as well as the ability to craft their words in a precise and meaningful way. As English poet and critic John Hollander writes, “the poet must arrange his words in a way that will enable the work to live; he or she must be both precise in diction and precise in metre”.

But perhaps the most important skill for poets is the ability to observe and reflect on the world around them. According to poet and translator Eavan Boland, “To write poetry is to look at the world in a new way, to learn to be moved by what we look at and to write it down”. Writing poetry offers an opportunity to explore and reflect on our lives, and to find meaning in our everyday experiences. In this way, poetry can be seen as an act of courage, allowing us to confront our fears, anxieties, and joys.

Spoken Word

Over the past few decades, spoken word poetry has become increasingly popular, with artists like Saul Williams and Kate Tempest using their powerful words to capture their audiences. Often spoken word is highly political and emotive; utilising the power of oratory to make its point. As English poet and literary critic Akilah Oliver writes, “Spoken word poetry is risking vulnerability in front of an audience, taking a risk in sharing stories, in bearing one’s soul. It has a deep power, to give voice to the voiceless, to break down barriers and prejudices”.

A powerful expression of emotion, spoken word poetry can be used to great effect in protest. As the poet and playwright Amiri Baraka writes in his book Poetry and Protest, “spoken word allows poets to challenge the status quo by giving voice to their frustrations and their hopes for change”. It allows us to express ourselves in ways that can not be contained or silenced. And in this way, spoken word has a unique ability to move us, to bring us together and to add colour and depth to our stories.

Conclusion and Impact

Poetry is a powerful tool of expression. It can be used to stir emotion and evoke strong feelings in its readers. Yet it is also a delicate art form, requiring creativity, skill and critical thought. By looking at the world in new ways and expressing our deepest thoughts and feelings, poetry has the power to move us, to bring us closer to each other and to our inner selves. This is the true power of poetry.

Dannah Hannah is an established poet and author who loves to write about the beauty and power of poetry. She has published several collections of her own works, as well as articles and reviews on poets she admires. She holds a Bachelor of Arts in English, with a specialization in poetics, from the University of Toronto. Hannah was also a panelist for the 2017 Futurepoem book Poetry + Social Justice, which aimed to bring attention to activism through poetry. She lives in Toronto, Canada, where she continues to write and explore the depths of poetry and its influence on our lives.

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