The HyperTexts

Poetry Definitions and Examples

What is poetry? How can we define poetry? Is it even possible to define poetry? While we all know poetry when we read it, or hear it being performed, it's not the easiest thing to define. Nevertheless, I have assembled a number of definitions of poetry by poets, critics and other lovers of poetry. I think they shed considerable light on the subject. And for anyone who claims to "hate" or "dislike" poetry, please let me point out that 99% of song lyrics are rhymed poems, from children's lullabies to pop, rock, country, jazz, the blues, heavy metal, acid, punk, grunge, rap and hip hop! Unless you hate every song you've ever heard, you really do like poetry ... unless you love it!

compiled by Michael R. Burch

Let's begin with dictionary definitions ...

po·et·ry [poh-i-tree]
1. the art of rhythmical composition, written or spoken, for exciting pleasure by beautiful, imaginative, or elevated thoughts.
2. literary work in metrical (i.e., rhythmic) form; verse.
3. prose with poetic qualities: "William Faulkner, James Joyce and Virginia Woolf wrote poetic prose."
4. poetic qualities however manifested: "The ballerina was poetry in motion."
5. poetic spirit or feeling: "She inspires me to poetry."

However, I think these dictionary definitions all miss the mark to some extent. Poetry can be metrical and/or rhythmic, but it doesn't have to be. Poetry can be beautiful, expressing elevated thoughts, but it doesn't have to be. And until we can define what "poetry" and "poetic" mean, how can we use the terms in definitions 3-5? To define what poetry is, I am going to borrow an idea expressed by Sir Herbert Read, then expand on it. Read, who had a great name for a literary critic, said that poetry operates in three different ways: through sense, sound and suggestion. I will call these the three "dimensions" of poetry. Now I will go out on a limb and define both prose and poetry:

Prose: One-dimensional writing, with that single dimension being sense (i.e., meaning, the communication of ideas).
Poetry: Multi-dimensional writing, with the three primary dimensions being sense, sound and suggestion.

By my own definition, what I have written on this page so far is prose, because all I have attempted to communicate is meaning (ideas). Unless writing does more than simply communicate ideas, it is prose, not poetry. Now, for purposes of illustration and contrast, I will provide an example of poetry that operates in three dimensions:

Music When Soft Voices Die (To )
by Percy Bysshe Shelley

Music, when soft voices die,
Vibrates in the memory—
Odours, when sweet violets sicken,
Live within the sense they quicken.

Rose leaves, when the rose is dead,
Are heaped for the belovčd's bed;
And so thy thoughts, when thou art gone,
Love itself shall slumber on.

The difference between my one-dimensional prose and Shelley's three-dimensional poem should be painfully obvious. Shelley's poem makes sense; he is communicating ideas just as I did in my prose. But Shelley has added the second dimension of sound effects: rhythm, rhyme, assonance and alliteration. Furthermore, he has added the third dimension of suggestion, or making us feel something: sadness, melancholy, perhaps even despair. Shelly's poem is a much higher order of writing than my prose, because it does more, it accomplishes more, and it makes us feel more.

For me, this is the essential difference between prose and poetry. If we read prose that operates in two or more dimensions, we call it "poetic" prose. The closer prose comes to the best poetry, the more poetic it is. On the other hand, if writing is laid out on the page to look like a poem, but lacks sound and suggestion, it reads like prose and we call it prosaic.

You may or may not agree with my definition. Perhaps you or someone else can come up with a better definition. But after half a century of reading, studying, writing, editing and translating poetry, this is the best definition that I have been able to come up with. Prose is one-dimensional writing. Poetry is multi-dimensional writing. The second dimension, sound, is easy enough to grasp. Poetry is more musical, more rhythmic, or just sounds better than ordinary prose. The third dimension, suggestion, is harder to describe, but we know it when we experience it. Here are two examples of poems that are replete with suggestion:

Bread and Music
by Conrad Aiken

Music I heard with you was more than music,
And bread I broke with you was more than bread;
Now that I am without you, all is desolate;
All that was once so beautiful is dead.

Your hands once touched this table and this silver,
And I have seen your fingers hold this glass.
These things do not remember you, belovčd,
And yet your touch upon them will not pass.

For it was in my heart you moved among them,
And blessed them with your hands and with your eyes;
And in my heart they will remember always,—
They knew you once, O beautiful and wise.

by D. H. Lawrence

Softly, in the dusk, a woman is singing to me;
Taking me back down the vista of years, till I see
A child sitting under the piano, in the boom of the tingling strings
And pressing the small, poised feet of a mother who smiles as she sings.
In spite of myself, the insidious mastery of song
Betrays me back, till the heart of me weeps to belong
To the old Sunday evenings at home, with winter outside
And hymns in the cozy parlor, the tinkling piano our guide.
So now it is vain for the singer to burst into clamor
With the great black piano appassionato. The glamour
Of childish days is upon me, my manhood is cast
Down in the flood of remembrance, I weep like a child for the past.

Do you feel something when you read these poems? Do you feel sadness, melancholy, longing, an ache, despondency, despair? Are you moved? If so, that is the third and most mysterious dimension of poetry at work, suggestion. The best poets can move us with their words, like the best songwriters. The best songs are poems set to music. The best poems create their own "music" through the sounds of words. Thus good songs and good poems are very closely related.

Please note that according to my definition poetry does not have to be metrical or rhyme. Any pleasing sound qualifies. For instance, I like the alliteration in this translation of an ancient Greek epigram:

Sappho, fragment 42
translation by Michael R. Burch

Eros harrows my heart:
wild winds whipping desolate mountains
uprooting oaks.

The first line has "r," "h," "s" and long "o" sounds. The second line has "w," "d," "s" and long "i" sounds." The third line has assonance with "u" and "o" sounds. While the poem "lacks" formal meter and rhyme, it still has quite a bit going on, sound-wise.

Poetry Definitions and Quotations

Poetry is the art of uniting pleasure with truth.—Samuel Johnson, the creator of the first English dictionary and an accomplished poet, gave us his personal definition of poetry

Poetry begins in delight and ends in wisdom.—Robert Frost, one of America's foremost poets, also saw poetry as the fusion of pleasure and truth

A poem begins as a lump in the throat, a sense of wrong, a homesickness, a lovesickness.Robert Frost also said that poetry communicates emotion

We must never forget that art is not a form of propaganda; it is a form of truth.—John F. Kennedy, an American president, agreed with Samuel Johnson and Robert Frost

When power leads man toward arrogance,
poetry reminds him of his limitations.
When power narrows the areas of man's concern,
poetry reminds him of the richness and diversity of his existence.
When power corrupts, poetry cleanses.
—John Fitzgerald Kennedy

Poetry comes nearer to vital truth than history.—Plato seemed to agree with Johnson, Frost and JFK ... but another of the great ancient Greek philosophers begged to differ ...

It is Homer who has chiefly taught other poets the art of telling lies skillfully.—Aristotle

The poem comes in the form of a blessing, like rapture breaking on the mind.—Stanley Kunitz

The poet's eye, in a fine frenzy rolling,
Doth glance from heaven to earth,
From earth to heaven.
—William Shakespeare "A Midsummer Night's Dream"

The poet is the priest of the invisible.—Wallace Stevens

Poetry is the journal of a sea animal living on land, wanting to fly in the air.—Carl Sandburg

A poet is a man who manages, in a lifetime of standing out in thunderstorms, to be struck by lightning five or six times.—Randall Jarrell

Of our conflicts with others we make rhetoric; of our conflicts with ourselves we make poetry.—William Butler Yeats

I have my books
And my poetry to protect me;
I am shielded in my armor.
—Paul Simon suggesting in "I Am a Rock" that poetry can be a defense mechanism

I know as well as thee that I am no poet born
It is a trade, I never learnt nor indeed could learn
If I make verses—'tis in spite
Of nature and my stars I write.
—Benjamin Franklin, despite his protestation above, was a master of poetic epigrams such as "Little strokes fell great oaks."

Anyone who breathes is in the rhythm business.—William Stafford

Ink runs from the corners of my mouth.
There is no happiness like mine.
I have been eating poetry.
Mark Strand

Poetry makes nothing happen.—W. H. Auden, but ...

A good poem is a contribution to reality. The world is never the same once a good poem has been added to it. A good poem helps to change the shape of the universe, helps to extend everyone's knowledge of himself and the world around him.—Dylan Thomas

We are the music-makers,
And we are the dreamers of dreams,
Wandering by lone sea breakers,
And sitting by desolate streams;
World-losers and world-forsakers,
On whom the pale moon gleams:
Yet we are the movers and shakers
Of the world forever, it seems.
—Arthur O'Shaughnessy

Poetry is boned with ideas, nerved and blooded with emotions, all held together by the delicate, tough skin of words.—Paul Engle

Each has his past shut in him like the leaves of a book known to him by heart and his friends can only read the title.—Virginia Woolf

A Book of Verses underneath the Bough,
A Jug of Wine, a Loaf of Bread—and Thou
Beside me singing in the Wilderness—
Oh, Wilderness were Paradise enow!
—Edward Fitzgerald "The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam"

... give up verse, my boy,
there's nothing in it.
Ezra Pound "Hugh Selwyn Mauberly (Part I)"

There's no money in poetry, but then there's no poetry in money, either.—Robert Graves

I range the fields with pensive tread,
And pace the hollow rooms,
And feel (companion of the dead)
I'm living in the tombs.
—Abraham Lincoln, a talented poet explaining in "My Childhood Home I See Again" why poems are often so dark

Abraham Lincoln memorized the poem "Mortality" (by William Knox, although he didn't  know the author's identity at the time). Lincoln "became so identified with the poem that some people thought he had written it." He once remarked, "I would give all I am worth, and go in debt, to be able to write so fine a piece as I think that is." Lawrence Weldon, who traveled the law circuit with Lincoln, recalled Lincoln reciting the poem in 1860. He said, "The weird and melancholy association of eloquence and poetry had a strong fascination for Mr. Lincoln's mind. Tasteful composition, either of prose or poetry, which faithfully contrasted the realities of eternity with the unstable and fickle fortunes of time, made a strong impression on his mind." At Lincoln's request, Andrew Johnston published portions of Lincoln's own poetry anonymously in the Quincy, Illinois Whig on May 5, 1847.

Poets aren't very useful
Because they aren't consumeful or produceful.
—Ogden Nash

Eyes are vocal, tears have tongues,
And there are words not made with lungs.
Richard Crashaw

Poetic power is great, strong as a primitive instinct; it has its own unyielding rhythms in itself and breaks out as out of mountains.—Ranier Maria Rilke

The true philosopher and the true poet are one, and a beauty, which is truth, and a truth, which is beauty, is the aim of both.—Ralph Waldo Emerson

In poetry, you must love the words, the ideas and the images and rhythms with all your capacity to love anything at all.—Wallace Stevens

Paradoxically though it may seem, it is none the less true that life imitates art far more than art imitates life.—Oscar Wilde

For we have thought the longer thoughts
And gone the shorter way.
And we have danced to devil's tunes
Shivering home to pray;
To serve one master in the night,
Another in the day.
—Ernest Hemingway "Chapter Heading"

Improvement makes strait roads, but the crooked roads without improvement are the roads of Genius.—William Blake

I know where Wells grow—
Droughtless Wells—
I think a little Well— like Mine—
Dearer to understand—
—Emily Dickinson

Neither a lofty degree of intelligence nor imagination nor both together go to the making of genius. Love, love, love, that is the soul of genius.—Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart

Swans sing before they die— 'twere no bad thing
should certain people die before they sing!
—Samuel Taylor Coleridge

There is divine beauty in learning, just as there is human beauty in tolerance.
To learn means to accept the postulate that life did not begin at my birth.
Others have been here before me, and I walk in their footsteps.
The books I have read were composed by generations of fathers and sons,
mothers and daughters,
teachers and disciples.
I am the sum total of their experiences, their quests.
And so are you.
Elie Wiesel

Works of art are of an infinite solitariness, and nothing is less likely to bring us near to them than criticism.Ranier Maria Rilke

Readers and listeners praise my books;
You swear they're worse than a beginner's.
Who cares? I always plan my dinners
To please the diners, not the cooks.
—Martial, translated by R. L. Barth

While it is true that commercial art is always in danger of ending up as a prostitute, it is equally true that noncommercial art is always in danger of ending up as an old maid.—Erwin Panovsky

The sensual man conforms thoughts to things; the poet conforms things to his thoughts.—Ralph Waldo Emerson

Fantasy, abandoned by reason, produces impossible monsters; united with it, she is the mother of the arts and the origin of marvels.—Francisco Goya

I know poetry's indispensable, but to what I couldn't say.—Jean Cocteau

With me poetry has not been a purpose, but a passion.—Edgar Allan Poe

"Don't teach my boy poetry," an English mother recently wrote the Provost of Harrow. "Don't teach my boy poetry; he is going to stand for Parliament." Well, perhaps she was right—but if more politicians knew poetry, and more poets knew politics, I am convinced the world would be a little better place to live.—John Fitzgerald Kennedy

The two most engaging powers of an author are to make new things familiar, and familiar things new.—Samuel Johnson

The reasonable man adapts himself to the world; the unreasonable one persists to adapt the world to himself. Therefore all progress depends on the unreasonable man.—George Bernard Shaw

Viewed from the summit of reason, all life looks like a malignant disease and the world like a madhouse.—Johann Wolfgang Van Goethe

Poetry is not a profession, it is a destiny.—Mikhail Dudan

It is absurd to think the only way to tell if a poem is lasting is to wait and see if it lasts. The right reader of a good poem can tell the moment it strikes him that he has taken an immortal woundthat he will never get over it. That is to say, permanence in poetry as in love is perceived instantly. It hasn't to await the test of time.Robert Frost

At a literary luncheon at which he was being lionized, Robert Browning was asked about the meaning of one of his more obscure poems. He answered, "Madam, when I wrote that poem, only God and I knew what it meant. Now, I'm chagrined to say, only God knows!"

We read and write poetry because we are members of the human race. And the human race is filled with passion. And medicine, law, business, engineering, these are noble pursuits and necessary to sustain life. But poetry, beauty, romance, love, these are what we stay alive for. To quote from Whitman, 'O me! O life! ... of the questions of these recurring; of the endless trains of the faithless—of cities filled with the foolish; what good amid these, O me, O life?' Answer. That you are here—that life exists, and identity; that the powerful play goes on and you may contribute a verse. That the powerful play goes on and you may contribute a verse ... What will your verse be?—Tom Schulman "The Dead Poets Society"

What is Poetry?

What is Poetry? After more than forty years of intensive reading and study, and after having published hundreds of poets and thousands of poems, I believe I am finally ready to venture a definition, supported by examples:

Poetry was, is and remains man’s most important, powerful and world-changing art.

I realize that my definition is likely to ruffle a few feathers, so please bear with me while I explain the method behind my apparent madness. First, let me begin with the idea that poetry is art — an assertion that hopefully few people will quibble with.

Poetry is one of the major human arts, along with music, dance, acting, sculpture and painting. Poetry is also one of earth’s oldest art forms, probably predating not only other forms of literature, but even literacy itself. Fragments of ancient poems can be found on the gravestones, monoliths, rune stones and stelae of most literate cultures. The fact that such poetic fragments tended to materialize as soon as writing appeared strongly suggests that poems were being passed down orally from generation to generation — in chants, songs and/or recitals — before writing developed. And this makes perfect sense because poetic devices like rhythm and rhyme make poems and songs easier to remember than prose (i.e., more ordinary, less intensely memorable speech). Any tribe that lacks writing has a tremendous incentive to use oral poetry to preserve its history, laws, customs and religious beliefs as faithfully as possible. As we will see shortly, the Bible is a good example of oral poetry that was passed down — probably for centuries — before written texts were finally created.

While prose is primarily one-dimensional (conveying ideas prosaically as I am doing here), poetry is multi-dimensional. Prose works primarily through Sense (the communication of meaning and ideas). But as the poet/critic Herbert Read pointed out, poetry works its magic through Sense, Sound and Suggestion. To illustrate how poetry differs from prose, let me offer this example:

Bread and Music
by Conrad Aiken

Music I heard with you was more than music,
And bread I broke with you was more than bread;
Now that I am without you, all is desolate;
All that was once so beautiful is dead.

Your hands once touched this table and this silver,
And I have seen your fingers hold this glass.
These things do not remember you, belovčd,
And yet your touch upon them will not pass.

For it was in my heart you moved among them,
And blessed them with your hands and with your eyes;
And in my heart they will remember always,—
They knew you once, O beautiful and wise.

In Aiken’s wonderfully moving poem, he communicates Sense (meaning, ideas). But he does much more than that. He also employs lovely, sad rhythms that touch and move readers through the properties of Sound. And like an alchemist he also uses the magical properties of Suggestion (metaphor, transcendence). For instance, he relates being able to physically touch his lover to her being able to physically touch their table, silver and glasses. Aiken makes us feel the pain he experiences because he is still able to touch inanimate objects but not the human being he loved so much. Aiken also ventures into a metaphysical realm we might call “transcendence” when he claims that his lover’s touch will not pass from physical things even though she is gone. He even claims that the table, silver and glasses will always remember his lover, within his heart! While these may seem like rather wild claims, when we read the poem it’s easy to accept them as facts, without questioning them. So in a way perhaps Aiken has convinced us that his lover was so unique, so beautiful and so wise, that she was able to charm inanimate objects into spiritually entering his heart and remembering her there. Or perhaps this Suggestion is not to be taken literally, but simply as an expression of overwhelming love, loss and grief.

Here is a poetic fragment by Sappho, one of the first great lyric poets. She was considered to be one of the wonders of the ancient world by certain of her peers, and this epigram demonstrates why:

Sappho, fragment 42
loose translation by Michael R. Burch

Eros wracks my soul:
a wind on desolate mountains
leveling oaks.

Like Aiken, Sappho uses the magical properties of Suggestion (metaphor), comparing her being shaken to her core by Eros (erotic love) to trees on a desolate mountainside being shaken by shattering winds.

Here is another powerful example: a poem used as an epigraph (gravestone inscription) by the ancient Greeks:

Does my soul abide in heaven, or hell?
Only the sea gull
in his high, lonely circuits, may tell.
—Michael R. Burch, after Glaucus

Please allow me to note at this point that song lyrics are a form of poetry. Music without words can be stunningly beautiful and wonderfully moving, but it is primarily through poetry that songs like “Imagine,” “White Christmas” and “Bridge Over Troubled Water” communicate complex ideas. From this point on, when I refer to poetry, I am including song lyrics in the larger category. If you are convinced that you “don’t like” or “hate” poetry, and yet you love the lyrics of your favorite songs, then you really are a poetry lover, like most of the human race!

While few of us can remember anything in our school textbooks word-for-word, we can easily remember hundreds or thousands of poems with considerable precision. The more we like a poem or song lyric, the more likely we are to be able to recall it at will. Thus the best poems and songs stay with us in a way that prose usually doesn’t. We can even remember poems and song lyrics that seem alien to our ears today:

Should auld acquaintance be forgot, 
And never brought to mind? 
Should auld acquaintance be forgot, 
And auld lang syne!
—Robert Burns

Poetry is unique among the arts in its ability to communicate complex ideas clearly, and also to be remembered fully. While music, dance, sculpture and painting can communicate emotion and ideas, without words there are limits to how much audiences can receive of the artists’ intentions and meanings. For instance, a talented artist might enrapture us with a stunning painting of a spider spinning its web, but could any visual artist clearly and fully communicate the complex idea below?

A Noiseless Patient Spider
by Walt Whitman

A noiseless patient spider,
I mark'd where on a little promontory it stood isolated,
Mark'd how to explore the vacant vast surrounding,
It launch'd forth filament, filament, filament, out of itself,
Ever unreeling them, ever tirelessly speeding them.

And you O my soul where you stand,
Surrounded, detached, in measureless oceans of space,
Ceaselessly musing, venturing, throwing, seeking the spheres to connect them,
Till the bridge you will need be form'd, till the ductile anchor hold,
Till the gossamer thread you fling catch somewhere, O my soul.

Because of its unique ability to aid and abet the human memory, poetry is also an important learning, teaching and wisdom “transmission” device. Before writing appeared, ancient tribes used oral poetry to preserve and transmit laws, customs, religious beliefs, myths and genealogies. The Bible is a good example of a book that incorporates a wealth of such poetry. Proverbs is a book of poetic wisdom teachings. Job is a poem about human suffering and trying to make sense of it. Psalms is a book of poems and songs (hymns). Lamentations is a book of poetic laments. The Song of Solomon (also known as the Song of Songs) is an extended love poem which contains healthy doses of erotica. Large sections of the prophets, such as Isaiah and Jeremiah, are highly poetic ethical teachings. Experts have estimated that one third of the Old Testament consists of poetry. The New Testament also contains poetry, such as the Beatitudes, the Magnificat (“My soul doth magnify the LORD ...”) and Saint Paul’s wonderful epiphany on Divine Love (“If I speak with the tongues of men and of angels ...”).

Poetry is, of course, also a form of language. The difference between the best poetry and ordinary language is like the difference between plain white bread and the most delicious meals served at the finest restaurants. While it is true that poetry is language — a form of speech — poetry goes beyond the basic communication of ideas (i.e., flat prose) to produce pleasure in readers. This communication of pleasure is the most distinguishing characteristic of art. But by “pleasure” I do not mean only happy feelings. Human audiences can also be moved by sadness, regret, compassion, fear, even terror. So perhaps we should use a more comprehensive term, such as “movingness.”

The movingness of poetry is created by the use of various poetic devices. The major poetic devices include rhythm, rhyme, imagery and metaphor. But there are many others. Here are examples of some of the more common poetic devices . . .

Rhythm. Perhaps the most distinguishing characteristic of poetry is rhythm, or the music of words. Some poems employ regular meter:

Music When Soft Voices Die (To )
by Percy Bysshe Shelley

Music, when soft voices die,
Vibrates in the memory—
Odours, when sweet violets sicken,
Live within the sense they quicken.

Rose leaves, when the rose is dead,
Are heaped for the belovčd's bed;
And so thy thoughts, when thou art gone,
Love itself shall slumber on.

Shelley’s wonderfully moving poem makes us feel the unbearable sadness of the loss of a loved one.

The Garden
by Ezra Pound

Like a skein of loose silk blown against a wall
She walks by the railing of a path in Kensington Gardens,
And she is dying piece-meal
               of a sort of emotional anemia.

And round about there is a rabble
Of the filthy, sturdy, unkillable infants of the very poor.
They shall inherit the earth.

In her is the end of breeding.
Her boredom is exquisite and excessive.

She would like some one to speak to her,
And is almost afraid that I
             will commit that indiscretion.

Ezra Pound’s poem is rhythmic, but not metrically regular. It makes us feel the alienation Pound felt when he encountered — but really didn’t meet and certainly didn’t connect with — an aloof socialite.

Rhyme. Not all poems rhyme, but rhyme is a major element of probably 99% of the best-loved poems in the English language (for instance, refer to the introduction of William Harmon’s Classic Hundred Poems), and of 99% of the most popular song lyrics, from “Danny Boy” to rap, hip-hop and grunge rock. Here is a stellar example of a rhyming poem which according to remains one of the most popular poems today, based on reader traffic on its website:

Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night

by Dylan Thomas

Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Though wise men at their end know dark is right,
Because their words had forked no lightning they
Do not go gentle into that good night.

Good men, the last wave by, crying how bright
Their frail deeds might have danced in a green bay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Wild men who caught and sang the sun in flight,
And learn, too late, they grieved it on its way,
Do not go gentle into that good night.

Grave men, near death, who see with blinding sight
Blind eyes could blaze like meteors and be gay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

And you, my father, there on the sad height,
Curse, bless, me now with your fierce tears, I pray.
Do not go gentle into that good night.
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

It is also important to note that some of the masterpieces of Modernism and Free Verse employ rhyme, including T. S. Eliot’s “The Wasteland” and “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.” When Eliot and Ezra Pound spoke of Vers Libre (free verse or “liberated verse”) they did not suggest that rhythm and rhyme were passe. Rather, they wanted poetry to be freer, less inhibited and less tick-tocky. They both continued to employ rhythm and rhyme in their own work.

Imagery and Metaphor. Not all poems employ imagery and metaphors, but many do. Here is an example from one of my own poems:

by Michael R. Burch

See how her hair has thinned: it doesn't seem
like hair at all, but like the airy moult
of emus who outraced the wind and left
soft plumage in their wake ...

Imagery allows readers to see, hear, feel or otherwise experience things discernable through the senses:

The butterfly
perfuming its wings
fans the orchid
Matsuo Basho, loose translation by Michael R. Burch

Metaphor is a “bridge” from the objective to the subjective:

Come, investigate loneliness!
a solitary leaf
clings to the Kiri tree
Matsuo Basho, loose translation by Michael R. Burch

In the second Basho poem, the solitary leaf is not just an image; it also represents loneliness. The object (a leaf) through the power of what Herbert Read calls Suggestion makes us shiver with the feeling of loneliness.

Symbolism. Symbolism is a type of metaphor in which the “connection” is commonly understood. For instance, the four seasons symbolize the stages of life and the rose symbolizes love.

Simile. A simile is a type of metaphor in which the words “like” or “as” are used to establish the connection. For instance, William Wordsworth’s “I wandered lonely as a cloud.”

Alliteration. Alliteration is the repetition of sounds. For instance: “Rain reigns roughly through the day.”

Personification. Personification is the granting of human traits to non-human creatures or objects. For instance, John Donne’s “Busy old fool, unruly sun.”

There are many other poetic devices and it is not my purpose to list them all here. Many poetic devices are used in prose. Indeed, when we see prose that seems to particularly shine, we call it “poetic prose.” The best prose writers — for instance, James Joyce, William Faulkner, Herman Melville, Vladimir Nabokov, J. R. R. Tolkien and Mark Twain — can be quite poetic.

Now, please allow me to return to my original premise that poetry is not just an art form, but is man’s most important, powerful and earth-shaking form of art. How can I justify this statement?

First, let me say that I love visual art, dance and music as much as anyone. However, without words such forms of art lack the ability to communicate complex ideas clearly and fully. When John F. Kennedy wanted to inspire Americans to aim for the stars or serve their country, he didn’t play a piano or do ballet leaps and twirls. When Martin Luther King Jr. wanted the United States to grant minorities full equality, he didn’t bring large crowds to gaze silently at sculptures and paintings. When Abraham Lincoln wanted to end slavery and preserve the union, he didn’t compose a wordless symphony.

When the human race changes its core beliefs, and thus its ways, the “prime mover” is the spoken and written word. And the best communicators of such words are the great poets and songwriters. If we want to understand why human societies and cultures are evolving as they are, we have only to consider some of the profoundly moving things that have been said by the great artists through the ages. I will cite some of those sayings and ask you to form your own conclusions:

John Lennon

Imagine there's no countries
It isn't hard to do
Nothing to kill or die for
And no religion too
Imagine all the people
Living life in peace...

Ev'rybody's talkin' 'bout
Revolution, Evolution, Masturbation, Flagellation, Regulation,
Integrations, Mediations, United Nations, Congratulations
All we are saying is give peace a chance
All we are saying is give peace a chance

And so this is Christmas and what have we done
Another year over, a new one just begun.
And so happy Christmas we hope you have fun
The near and the dear ones, the old and the young.
A very merry Christmas and a happy New Year
Let's hope it's a good one without any fear.
War is over if you want it; war is over now.

Bob Dylan

How many roads must a man walk down
Before you call him a man?
And how many seas must a white dove sail
Before she sleeps in the sand?
Yes, and how many times must the cannon balls fly
Before they're forever banned?
The answer my friend is blowin' in the wind
The answer is blowin' in the wind.

Thomas Jefferson

We hold these truths to be self-evident:
that all men are created equal,
that they are endowed by their Creator
with certain unalienable rights,
that among these are life, liberty
and the pursuit of happiness

Yes, these are ringing lines of iambic pentameter: pure poetry! And they are perhaps the most important lines of poetry ever written. Here are other famous poets and songwriters who helped change the world for the better ...

William Blake (pro-tolerance, pro-free-love, anti-racism, anti-slavery, anti-sexism, anti-religion, anti-war, anti-child-labor, anti-establishment)
Robert Burns (a staunch proponent of the rights of average Joes and Janes, anti-monarchy, anti-religion)
e. e. cummings (pro-tolerance, anti-war)
Marvin Gaye (pro-tolerance, pro-equality, pro-ecology, anti-war)
Woody Guthrie (pro-the-people, anti-war, anti-establishment)
George Harrison (pro-tolerance, pro-free-love, anti-racism, anti-sexism, anti-war)
Jimi Hendrix (pro-tolerance, anti-war)
the Hebrew prophets (pro-compassion, anti-hypocrisy, anti-religion)
Jesus Christ  (pro-compassion, anti-hypocrisy, anti-religion)
Robert Frost (anti-religion)
A. E. Housman (pro-tolerance, pro-free-love, anti-homophobia, anti-religion, anti-war)
Michael Jackson (pro-tolerance, pro-equality, pro-love, anti-violence, anti-war)
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. (pro-tolerance, pro-peace, anti-racism, anti-war)
Abraham Lincoln (pro-tolerance, anti-slavery)
Paul McCartney (pro-tolerance, pro-free-love, anti-racism, anti-sexism, anti-war)
Sir Walter Ralegh (a fierce critic of unjust churches and states in his great poem "The Lie")
Percy Bysshe Shelley (anti-religion)
Cat Stevens/Yusuf Islam (pro-tolerance, pro-peace, anti-war)
Sting (anti-war)
Alfred, Lord Tennyson (universalist, anti-hell)
Mark Twain (pro-tolerance, anti-racism, anti-slavery)
Phil Ochs (anti-war)
Wilfred Owen (the greatest anti-war poet)
Pete Seeger (pro-the-people, anti-war)
Bruce Springsteen (pro-the-people, pro-tolerance, anti-war)
Wallace Stevens (anti-religion)
U2 (pro-tolerance, anti-racism, anti-war)
William Butler Yeats (anti-imperialism)
Neil Young (pro-tolerance, pro-peace, anti-racism, anti-war, anti-establishment)
Roger Waters (anti-war)
Walt Whitman (pro-free-love, pro-tolerance, pro-equality, anti-sexism, anti-homophobia)

The HyperTexts