What Is Poetry?

Are we afraid of the uncertainty that poetry has in itself?


“I don’t like poetry”, my classmate told me after the lecture on W. B. Yeats. It wasn’t the first time I had heard it — from other literature majors; from people who came across poetry by an accident.

The problem is, we don’t even know how to define poetry. My prof used to tell, poetry is like pornography — you don’t know what exactly it is, but you know when you see it.


Yet it is difficult to come up with a substantial definition. When you ask people about it, they answer that poetry is about personal feelings, rhymes, and images as old as time (the sky is blue, roses are red…). I hate when people say that poetry is a spontaneous burst of emotions. The rhythm, the meter, the images that certain words evoke, the way how the words and punctuation marks are put together, on the paper or when you read them out loud — and you think it’s all spontaneous?


“Spontaneous” is the last word I think of to describe any kind of poetry, whether a poem is strictly rhymed, as many of us are used to, or whether it’s written in free verse. Prose poetry, which I was a big fan of, is not random although it seems to be a simple story at first glance. The reason why I enjoyed prose poems is that I was fascinated by how elegantly those poems are presented like prose but yet are read and felt like poetry.


Carolyn Forché’s “The Colonel” is a prose poem, but it’s not the only unusual thing about it. Forché witnessed the political conflict in El Salvador and displayed what she saw in her poetry (and the genre is called, apparently, “poetry of witness”). The poem seems to be a short story or even a journalistic report, but the way you read it — the way Forché reads it — leaves no doubt about the poem’s poetic. It shows that poetry is not only about romantic love (which I also like, but let’s not forget about other matters). It has been used to speak up about more global, horrifying things, such as war, colonization, and discrimination of minorities.


A few years ago, I also didn't know how to read those too complicated or (deceptively) simple poems. I remember the first experimental poem I met in high school. It was written by a Russian poet Andrei Voznesensky (though I believe that Russian poems are way more conventional about rhyme and style than poems in English) and it consisted of two lines. We were confused and made fun of it. I didn’t know I would later read, say, Ezra Pound’s “In a Station of the Metro”— and find it poetic! This poem is a variation of haiku, the genre that has come from Japanese literature to the rest of the world. An original haiku has the structure of three lines with 5–7–5 syllables but, as we see on Pound’s example, this rule shouldn’t be necessarily obeyed.


We get even more frustrated because as readers, we should fill in the gaps in poetry. The whole picture is often limited to lines and broad margins, and we complete it based on what we are given. Poetry is a literary genre that makes our imagination work like nothing else, as what is written seems so simplistic at first, and so complicated at the second time we read it.


So poems can be as short as a couple of words, and as long as a novel, rhymed and not rhymed, they can be about whatever you want them to be but they are never (!) random. And this uncertainty — what is poetry? — makes many of us stand aside from it.


I would say poetry is a flow. I would say poetry comes from the rhythm. There is necessarily a melody entangled within lines.


That’s how I define, and how I love poetry.