Writing Mini-Lessons: Poetry Genre

Poetry is perhaps the most elusive genre to define. Even esteemed poets across the ages do not agree on a concise, uniform definition. In fact, when asked, some poets agree with A. E. Housman, who said, “I could no more define poetry than a terrier can define a rat.”

Still, to begin to understand poetry, we must try to peel back its layers, one at a time, until we can see into its heart. The word poetry is derived from ancient Greek: ποιεω (poieo), which means “I create.” Poet Edgar Allan Poe described poetry as “…the rhythmical creation of beauty in words,” and the dictionary defines poetry as “the art of rhythmical composition, written or spoken, for exciting pleasure by beautiful, imaginative, or elevated thoughts.” So poetry is an art form that uses language to create music and visual imagery, allowing the reader to see and feel the poem’s message.

Instead of sentences and paragraphs of prose, poetry is written in lines and stanzas. Some poetry follows strict rules as to the rhyme scheme, syllabication, or number and length of lines and stanzas, while other poetry is entirely free-flowing. Regardless of from, most poetry is rich with figurative language, filled with devices such as simile, metaphor, personification, hyperbole, onomatopoeia, alliteration, and more.

Like other writing genres, poetry may seek to tell a story, enact a drama, convey ideas, offer vivid and unique description, or express emotions. However, more than any other genre, poetry seeks to compact all of its ideas into a brevity of space and time. As a result, word choice is critically important; poetry mines each word for its unique treasures: sounds, musical value, textures, patterns, shades of meaning, emotive qualities, spacing, and spatial relationship to the page. In poetry, every word does heavy lifting to create meaning, music, emotion, and visual imagery.

Most often, poetry retains an air of mystery, perhaps because it encompasses what is deeply felt and what may be essentially unsayable; that is the paradox that infuses life into each poem, inviting the reader to revisit the poem’s world again and again, gradually unveiling more secrets, while engaging the reader’s heart, mind, and imagination.

Poetry is a genre that will allow you, the writer, to document the world and your experiences and say what you need to say in a direct, powerful, lyrical, and elegant way. Poetry will allow you to think deeply about each word, selecting with intent precision, while you play with what is revealed and what remains hidden.

If you want to learn more about poetry, read what writer and UC Berkeley-UCSF professor of medical humanities, Marilyn Chandler McEntyre, believes poetry does and read one poet’s response to the question of why poetry matters.

Question Time

I remember the scarred spine
Of mountains the moon slips through,

Fox fire in a stump, bushes red with blisters,
Her question, a woman in a sweatshirt,

Hand raised in a crowded room—
What use is poetry?

Above us, lights flickered,
Something wrong with the wiring.

I turned and saw the moon whirl in water,
The Rockies struck with a mauve light,

Sea creatures cut into sky foliage.
In the shadow of a shrub once you and I

Brushed hands and thighs,
Dreamt of a past that frees its prisoners.

Standing apart I looked at her and said—
We have poetry

So we do not die of history.
I had no idea what I meant.

~ Meena Alexander