Poetry: A Simple Definition
by Terry Heick
As an English teacher, my students would ask me ‘what a poem is’ and before I could get two sentences in their eyes would glaze over and I’d have lost them talking about language and literary devices and the human soul and suffering and beauty.
And it’s really not simple to say what anything ‘is,’ What’s a story? What’s a song? What’s a life well-lived?
Part of this is due to the subjectivity of meaning, but we also have to consider the inherent limitations of language. It’s amazing that everything in the universe was made up of only 26 letters in different combinations and the ‘everything’ is really in our capacity for metaphor and abstraction.
Compared to the sheer enormity of our capacity to understand (or believe we understand), the letters are inadequare; they necessitate our imagination and genius like kids that roll up old socks and tie them together to make a soccer ball and kick it around a dirt lot full of broken glass and rubble, laughing and thriving–that’s a human being using language to express themselves.
And it’s especially true when you’re seeking to really examine and understand a thing.
The Definition Of Poetry
Then there’s also that ‘subjectivity of meaning’ thing but that’s beyond the scope of this post. The point is, nothing is simple and language is limited. And that’s where poetry comes in.
Britannica says that poetry is ‘literature that evokes a concentrated imaginative awareness of experience or a specific emotional response through language chosen and arranged for its meaning, sound, and rhythm.’
Wikipedia says that poetry is “is a form of literature that uses aesthetic and rhythmic qualities of language—such as phonaesthetics, sound symbolism, and metre—to evoke meanings in addition to, or in place of, the prosaic ostensible meaning.”
So what about something simpler that you can explain to a child? What is poetry?
The best definition I’ve heard is that poetry is the extraordinary perception of the ordinary.
Obviously, that’s not quite detailed enough because it misses a lot of bits and pieces of language and mechanics and syntax that separate poetry from anything else in the world–even music, one of its closest genres. But if you want a simple definition for poetry, I haven’t heard a better one.