What is Poetry?

We’ve all read poetry in one form or another. Even if you haven’t for years since studying literature in school, you’ll likely recognise a poem as soon as you see it and you may be aware of the key differences between prose and verse.

But how would you define poetry? It can be difficult to put into words, even if you’re an avid poetry fan. You may hear people come up with a wishwash answer if they’re asked what is poetry, so read this blog to get a proper understanding about this art form!

Poetry: a definition

Merriam-Webster dictionary provides the following definition of poetry:

writing that formulates a concentrated imaginative awareness of experience in language chosen and arranged to create a specific emotional response through meaning, sound, and rhythm

Merriam-Webster Dictionary

At its heart, poetry is a form of creative writing that uses language to convey an idea, experience, or thought. In addition to this, poetry stands apart from other art forms because it can be written, spoken, and performed.

However, a dictionary definition isn’t always the best way to understand a concept. It can be easier to familiarise yourself with the main features.

An open book of poetry with several red roses laid across one page.

Key characteristics of poetry

Being familiar with the key features of poetry can help to both understand poems and to write your own. Here are summary of the top aspects:


Compared to prose, with poetry the rhythm of each line is just as important as the choice of words. Meter plays a role in how the poem is spoken, similar to how a song can be written with a specific tune in mind.


Poetry is distinct from other forms of creative writing because it is often written with the intention of being spoken out aloud. This means that the way each word sounds when spoken is important to each poem.

Aspects such as alliteration and sibilance define how words are said. Each syllable is crucial too. Using long words or short words can create different effects to how a poem sounds are therefore the tone.

Literary tools and wordplay

Words are everything in poetry. They are used to create images, convey ideas, and evoke emotions. Literary devices like similes give colour to a poem. Every word and line plays a role in achieving what the poet aims to relay to their readers.

A history of poetry

Early poetry

The first pieces of literature were in the form of poetry. They were used to record human histories in a way that could be retold and passed down through generations.

Ancient poetry

Some of the most famous pieces of literature were written thousands of years ago, such as in Ancient Greece with Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey. Later, in Ancient Rome, Virgil wrote Aeneid, which tells the story of a character from Iliad.

Middle ages and epics

The epic stories from antiquity developed and continued to be used to retell myths and tales from various cultures. For example, the Old English epic poem Beowulf tells the story of a pagan Scandinavian hero.

Early modern poetry

Through the 13th to 17th century, differents forms of shorter poems evolved. One of the most popular, which still gets used, is the sonnet. This started with the Italian poet Petrarch, but William Shakespeare wrote the most famous sonnets in the English language.


William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge are among just some of the big name from the 19th century. Along with many others of the era, they wrote Romantic poems, focusing on grand themes such as the power of nature and humanity’s place in the world.

Modernist poetry

By the start of the 20th century, modernism saw an evolution in all art forms. In poetry, this meant poets strayed away from traditional poetic forms to experiment with new techniques. Gertrude Stein and TS Eliot, for example, created works that can be challenging to read, with fragmented lines and interwoven ideas.

Contemporary poetry

In more recent decades, poetry continues to exist in many forms. For instance, in the second half of the 20th century poems were used as part of political and social movements to challenge bigger issues and create a voice for groups who needed a platform.

With digital media developing in the last few decades, poetry has only found more room to grow online. Social media and other platforms help aspiring poets find an audience outside of traditional means, allowing more people to try their own at writing poems and having their voice be heard.

Types of poetry

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