If you ask someone to provide a definition of poetry, they might struggle to find a convincing answer. Often people say poetry rhymes or has flowery language, but those aren’t always true and they don’t sufficiently answer that question – what is poetry?
The best way to understand poetry is to break it down to the most common, and most important features. Here are the key characteristics of poetry.
Structure is one of the clearest ways to distinguish between poetry and prose. Usually a poem will be obvious from first glance, due to its shape on the page.
While a novel has paragraphs and chapters, poetry is divided into lines and stanzas which provide organisation, as well as allowing the reader space to pause.
Each division indicates a new idea, or the development of the previous one. This is where poems can be viewed like songs, as some even have a similar verse-chorus-verse structure common in songwriting.
Whereas the rhythm of prose fiction is a factor for writers as they craft their sentences, it’s all the more vital for poetry. This is largely because of how poetry is usually designed to be read out aloud. Having a clear rhythm creates a template for how it should be spoken.
Rhythm also influences meaning. It can put emphasis on certain words, giving them more significance than others.
That said, prose poetry does exist. It may not look like a usual verse poem, but that doesn’t mean that rhythm isn’t still important.
Meter is the pattern of beats within a poem, so the choice of meter goes hand in hand with rhythm. It provides a structure for how each line of the poem sounds, and it ensures consistency throughout.
Meter is also often influenced by form. For example, iambic pentameter is a common meter and is often seen used in sonnets.
Metaphors, allegory, and similes are arguably more important in poetry than other forms of writing. Poems create vivid images and every single word is important in achieving that, but only having literal images is too restrictive.
This is why metaphorical language is so paramount in poetry. Metaphor adds layers of meaning to every line. It encourages the reader to unpick every possible detail. It uses subtext to bring out more than what appears just on the surface.
A poem should be considered a piece of art, but instead of colouring with paint on canvas it uses words. Metaphor is necessary to bring a masterpiece to life.
Poetry is an old art form with a long and storied history. It has evolved a lot and taken many different shapes, and these various forms which help to establish the true meaning of a poem.
Form can influence how a reader approaches a poem. For example, the form of a sonnet is often used for romantic poetry, so a reader can either be surprised or have their expectations met by the actual subject-matter. In this case, sonnets also have specific rhyming schemes to be followed.
Other forms include the popular, 3-line haikus, as well as acrostic, cinquain, and the artistic concrete form.
Sound and tone
Lastly, what poetry does more than any other literary form is place an importance on how each word actually sounds. Poetry, after all, is made to be spoken out aloud in order to really benefit from it.
Commonly, alliteration is used in many poems to create connections between individual words and to help distinguish the rhythm. But the sound of each word also impacts the tone of the poem.
For example, hard consonants like d, t, and k at the start of monosyllabic words can create a staccato, harsh sound, whereas softer letters can do the opposite.
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