I. What is Poetry?
Poetry is a type of literature based on the interplay of words and rhythm. It often employs rhyme and meter (a set of rules governing the number and arrangement of syllables in each line). In poetry, words are strung together to form sounds, images, and ideas that might be too complex or abstract to describe directly.
Poetry was once written according to fairly strict rules of meter and rhyme, and each culture had its own rules. For example, Anglo-Saxon poets had their own rhyme schemes and meters, while Greek poets and Arabic poets had others. Although these classical forms are still widely used today, modern poets frequently do away with rules altogether – their poems generally do not rhyme, and do not fit any particular meter. These poems, however, still have a rhythmic quality and seek to create beauty through their words.
The opposite of poetry is “prose” – that is, normal text that runs without line breaks or rhythm. This article, for example, is written in prose.
II. Examples and Explanation
Of all creatures that breathe and move upon the earth,
nothing is bred that is weaker than man.
(Homer, The Odyssey)
The Greek poet Homer wrote some of the ancient world’s most famous literature. He wrote in a style called epic poetry, which deals with gods, heroes, monsters, and other large-scale “epic” themes. Homer’s long poems tell stories of Greek heroes like Achilles and Odysseus, and have inspired countless generations of poets, novelists, and philosophers alike.
Poetry gives powerful insight into the cultures that create it. Because of this, fantasy and science fiction authors often create poetry for their invented cultures. J.R.R. Tolkien famously wrote different kinds of poetry for elves, dwarves, hobbits, and humans, and the rhythms and subject matter of their poetry was supposed to show how these races differed from one another. In a more humorous vein, many Star Trek fans have taken to writing love poetry in the invented Klingon language.
III. The Importance of Poetry
Poetry is probably the oldest form of literature, and probably predates the origin of writing itself. The oldest written manuscripts we have are poems, mostly epic poems telling the stories of ancient mythology. Examples include the Epic of Gilgamesh and the Vedas (sacred texts of Hinduism). This style of writing may have developed to help people memorize long chains of information in the days before writing. Rhythm and rhyme can make the text more memorable, and thus easier to preserve for cultures that do not have a written language.
Poetry can be written with all the same purposes as any other kind of literature – beauty, humor, storytelling, political messages, etc.
IV. Examples in of Poetry Literature
I think that I shall never see --> A
a poem lovely as a tree…--> A
poems are made by fools like me,--> B
but only God can make a tree.--> B
(Joyce Kilmer, Trees)
This is an excerpt from Joyce Kilmer’s famous short poem. The poem employs a fairly standard rhyme scheme (AABB, lines 1 and 2 rhymes together and lines 3 and 4 rhymes together), and a meter called “iambic tetrameter,” which is commonly employed in children’s rhymes.
I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness,
starving hysterical naked,
dragging themselves through the negro streets at dawn looking
for an angry fix,
angelheaded hipsters burning for the ancient heavenly
connection to the starry dynamo in the machinery of night,
who poverty and tatters and hollow-eyed and high sat up smoking…
(Alan Ginsberg, Howl)
These are the first few lines of Howl, one of the most famous examples of modern “free verse” poetry. It has no rhyme, and no particular meter. But its words still have a distinct, rhythmic quality, and the line breaks encapsulate the meaning of the poem. Notice how the last word of each line contributes to the imagery of a corrupt, ravaged city (“madness, naked, smoking”), with one exception: “heavenly.” This powerful juxtaposition goes to the heart of Ginsburg’s intent in writing the poem – though what that intent is, you’ll have to decide for yourself.
In the twilight rain,
these brilliant-hued hibiscus --
A lovely sunset
This poem by the Japanese poet Basho is a haiku. This highly influential Japanese style has no rhymes, but it does have a very specific meter – five syllables in the first line, seven in the second line, and five in the third line.
V. Examples of Poetry in Popular Culture
Rapping originated as a kind of performance poetry. In the 1960s and 70s, spoken word artists like Gil Scott-Heron began performing their poems over live or synthesized drumbeats, a practice that sparked all of modern hip hop. Even earlier, the beat poets of the 1950s sometimes employed drums in their readings.
Some of the most famous historical poems have been turned into movies or inspired episodes of television shows. Beowulf, for example, is an Anglo-Saxon epic poem that has spawned at least 8 film adaptations, most recently a 2007 animated film starring Angelina Jolie and Anthony Hopkins. Edgar Allen Poe’s The Raven has also inspired many pop culture spinoffs with its famous line, “Nevermore.”
VI. Related Terms (with examples)
Nearly all poems are written in verse – that is, they have line breaks and meter (rhythm). But verse is also used in other areas of literature. For example, Shakespeare’s characters often speak in verse. Their dialogue is separated into rhythmic lines just like a song, but they are supposed to be speaking normally.