What Is Poetry?

Source : Curriculum Development Division. Ministry of Education Malaysia. 2009

About Poetry

What is poetry? Poetry is a genre that is very different from prose and drama.   Poetry is distinguished by moving us deeply.  A poem is an expression of a vision that is rendered in a form intelligible and pleasurable to others and so likely to arouse kindred emotions.

There are as many definitions of poetry as there are poets. Wordsworth defined poetry as “the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings”.   Emily Dickinson said, “If I read a book and it makes my body so cold no fire ever can warm me, I know that is poetry” and Dylan Thomas defined poetry this way: “Poetry is what makes me laugh or cry or yawn, what makes my toenails twinkle, what makes me want to do this or that or nothing.”  In short, it is the epitome of life, the elixir of enjoyment.

Poetry is a lot of things to a lot of people. Homer’s epic, The Odyssey, described the wanderings of the adventurer, Odysseus, and has been called the greatest story ever told. During the English Renaissance, dramatic poets like John Milton, Christopher Marlowe, and of course Shakespeare gave us enough to fill textbooks, lecture halls, and universities. Poems from the romantic period include Goethe’s Faust (1808), Coleridge’s “Kubla Khan” and John Keats’ “Ode on a Grecian Urn.”

Characteristics of Poetry

  • One of the most definable characteristics of the poetry is economy of language. Poets are miserly and unrelentingly critical in the way they dole out words to a page. Carefully selecting words for conciseness and clarity is standard, even for writers of prose, but poets go well beyond this, considering a word’s emotive qualities, its musical value, its spacing, and yes, even its spacial relationship to the page.
  • The ‘paragraph’ in a poem is called a stanza or a verse.  Poetry does  not  necessarily have to have ordered/regular standards.
  • Poetry is evocative. It typically evokes in the reader an intense emotion: joy, sorrow, anger, catharsis, love and the like.
  • Poetry has the ability to surprise the reader with an Ah Ha! Experience — revelation, insight, further understanding of elemental truth and beauty. Like Keats said:

“Beauty is truth. Truth, beauty.
That is all ye know on Earth and all ye need to know.”

  • Predominant use of imagery which appeals to the senses – of sight, hearing, touch, taste and smell.  You might be interested in the terminology of the different imagery.   They  are as follows:
    • Visual imagery – sense of sight

e.g.   It was as strange as an ocean without water.

    • Aural/auditory imagery –  sense of hearing

e.g. Her voice was like the roar of a lion.

    • Kinesthetic/tactile imagery – sense  of touch

e.g.  Her skin was as soft as satin.

    • Gustatory imagery – sense of taste

e.g.  Her voice was like warm honey on a cold morning.

    • Olfactory imagery –  sense of  smell

e.g. Her cheeks were like the perfume of roses.

  • Poems contain figurative language (e.g. simile, metaphor, personification, hyperbole, etc.)
  • Poems may include rhythm (the regular recurrence of stressed and unstressed beats)
  • Poems may contain rhyme
  • Poems contain sound devices (e.g. assonance, alliteration, consonance, onomatopoeia, etc.) to support the content of a poem.

Types of Poetry

There are many types of poetry but the more common ones will be dealt with below.

  • Haiku

Haiku is a Japanese poem composed of three unrhymed lines of five, seven, and five syllables. Haiku poetry originated in the sixteenth century and reflects on some aspect of nature and creates images.

Temple bells die out.

The fragrant blossoms remain.

A perfect evening!

  • Limericks

Limericks are short sometimes bawdy, humorous poems consisting of five lines. Lines 1, 2, and 5 of a Limerick have seven to ten syllables and rhyme with one another. Lines 3 and 4 have five to seven syllables and also rhyme with each other.

There was an Old Man with a gong,
Who bumped at it all day long;
But they called out, ‘O law!
You’re a horrid old bore!’
So they smashed that Old Man with a gong.

  • Cinquain

Cinquain   (cinq which means five  in  French) has five lines.  Line 1 is one word (the title).   Line 2 is two words that describe the title.  Line 3 is three words that tell the action. Line 4 is four words that express the feeling.  Line 5 is one word that recalls the title.   American poet Adelaide Crapsey created the cinquain based on the Japanese haiku.


Lived once,

Long ago, but

Only dust and dreams


  • An ABC  Poem

An ABC poem has a series of lines that create a mood, picture, or feeling. Lines are made up of words and phrases. The first word of line 1 begins with an A, the first word of line 2 begins with a B etc.

A lthough things are not perfect
B ecause of trial or pain
C ontinue in thanksgiving
D o not begin to blame
E ven when the times are hard
F ierce winds are bound to blow

  • Acrostic  Poem

An acrostic poem, sometimes called a name poem, uses a word for its subject. Then each line of the poem begins with a letter from the subject word. This type of poetry doesn’t have to rhyme.

Here’s an example using the word ‘school’:

Shabonee is where I go

Computers, spirals, books, and more

Homework every night

On math, science, reading, and social studies

Our class does lots of fun projects

Learning never stops

  • Concrete/Shape  Poem

In this kind of poetry, the words themselves form a picture.  It is based on the spacing of words. The pattern of the letters illustrate the meaning of the poem. It does not have to rhyme and can be of any length.

Try this out.   What do you think the shape of  the poem resembles?

a gr
any c
a pen
cil hol
ds 100
of ex
es of

Elements of Poetry

The elements in prose and poetry are almost similar.  The table below will best illustrate the terminology used where the elements are concerned.

Plot Subject matter
Theme Theme
Characterization Very  rarely
Point  of view Voice/persona
Tone Tone
Mood Mood


  1. kalai Said:

    hi, i m so impressed by the way u hav explained poetry. simple by concise. i would like to publish my poems. 30 of them. any suggestions how to go abt it? tx

    • zahuren Said:

      You can start your own blog and publish your poems there. Or you can just send the poems to newspapers and magazines. Good luck with that!

  2. poetry cannot be explain by just words. poetry makes you alive. its your soul

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