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What is Poetry?

So what is poetry? We usually don't think much about this question. If we do, we're probably tempted to think that poetry is simply a series of rhyming lines which describe a thing or an experience.

grandma readingMy lovely mum reading to my sons, Oliver and James

But if it was as simple as that, why would we need poetry at all? Encyclopaedias, the internet and other kinds of writing can tell us about experiences, things, people and even complex ideas.  They can describe things and experiences so that we understand them. What does poetry do that these other forms of writing don't do? And what's the big deal about rhyming words anyway?

Here are a few answers to the question: what is poetry?

  • Poetry is "a literary work in which the expression of feelings and ideas is given intensity by the use of distinctive style and rhythm" [1].
  • Poetry is "just another way to tell a story" [2].
  • "Poetry ... is a form of literature that uses aesthetic and rhythmic qualities of language - such as phonaestheticssound symbolism, and metre - to evoke meanings in addition to, or in place of, the prosaic ostensible meaning" [3].

I find these definitions interesting but a bit dry. They are true and they're helpful in that they add something to our understanding of what poetry is and how it's written but I don't think they quite answer the question for me.

The explanation I like best is that poetry communicates the essence or the soul of something, rather than just describing it.

To understand what this means, imagine describing a playground swing to someone: what it looks like and how it feels to swing backwards and forwards. The person you're talking to would probably understand but would he or she really get a sense of the excitement and freedom a child feels on a swing?

Now, take a moment to read Robert Louis Stevenson's short poem The Swing. The poem communicates so much more than just a basic description could. It manages to communicate the joy, the wonder and the fun a small child feels when he or she swings high up into the air.

the swing, robert louis stevenson

The Swing
How do you like to go up in a swing, 
Up in the air so blue? 
Oh, I do think it the pleasantest thing 
Ever a child can do! 

Up in the air and over the wall, 
Till I can see so wide, 
Rivers and trees and cattle and all 
Over the countryside— 

Till I look down on the garden green, 
Down on the roof so brown— 
Up in the air I go flying again, 
Up in the air and down!

Another way to explain poetry is to say that a poet uses language and linguistic techniques to create visual images that come alive in the mind of the reader or listener. As the images come alive, the listener or reader becomes part of the experience. He is there, at least in his imagination. And because he is there, even for a very short time, his emotions are also engaged. He feels frightened or excited, filled with awe or sad. Pretty amazing, really.

So, now we've talked about what poetry is, the next question is: why does all of this matter?

Is poetry important for kids? If so, why is poetry important?

    why is poetry important?                  short rhyming poems                  children's poetry books


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