Art, Culture, Ideas, Literature, Poetry, Writing

What is Poetry?

EXECUTIVE SUMMARY: Paul offers his own way of distinguishing between prose and poetry in response to a question from a friend.


THE CRITICS THIRST FOR MORE! “‘What is Poetry?’ is a block of dry ice.  It chills the reader’s heart.  It freezes the reader’s mind.  And when it at last evaporates, the reader is left without so much as a single drop of water to drink.”  — Arun Ghani, India’s Blogs and Beyond, “The Herald and News”, Hyderabad, India.

THE CRITICS COMPARE!  “In his post, ‘What is Poetry?’, Paul Sunstone reveals he possesses the aesthetic sensibilities of a public toilet.  No, that is not quite it. That is not precisely it. It can be said with greater justice and with much greater precision that the Grand American Fraud of Blogging reveals himself to be possessed, demonically possessed, by the aesthetic sensibilities of a public toilet; a men’s public toilet, and not one that the cleaners have recently visited.” — Aloyse Leblanc, Le Critique Passionné de Blog, “La Tribune Linville”, Linville, France.

(About a 4 minute read)

EMAIL FROM JAY TO PAUL: “So, permit me a naive question: What makes something a poem?”


No worries, Jay. I think that’s a good question, and more of us should ask it, given that poetry is an inheritance.  A cultural inheritance, and one of the relatively few cultural inheritances in my opinion that can actually now and then enrich our lives.

Of course, there are different views about what a poem is. Here seem to be two of the most popular views:

  • A poem is writing that makes the reader feel something.
  • A poem is writing in which the words are chosen for their beauty and sound.

Flace-flops, I say.  In my opinion, both definitions of a poem face-flop.

The problem, Jay, is they fail to say anything that would distinguish poetry from prose.  Good prose makes the reader feel something.  Good prose is often chosen for the beauty and even sometimes for the sound of its words. Sticking to those definitions, you could not distinguish between one of Shakespeare’s sonnets and one of Tolstoy’s novels.

So, my ancient friend, where to now?

Let’s start with perhaps the simplest definition that can actually distinguish most poetry and most prose.  It can’t distinguish between all of it, but at least it can distinguish between most poetry and most prose.

Words primarily meant to be taken literally are prose.  Words primarily meant to be taken metaphorically are poetry.

To put it somewhat differently:  “No metaphor, no poem.”

Obviously, that’s a crude definition that’s only marginally adequate, but I believe it beats the face-flops we started out with.  Now let’s right to the examples.

Consider these prose statements, Jay. I’m going to make them as plain as possible:

  • Love is important.
  • Loving someone can make it easier to make sense of things as they themselves make sense of things.
  • Learning how someone else makes sense of things can greatly increase our own understanding of things.
  • It is possible for us to feel gratitude towards someone for helping us to make sense of things in ways we ourselves might not otherwise have made sense of them.

Got all that?  Before we go any further, though, I have two questions for you.  First, how long do you think you will remember any of that?  Next, how inspired do you feel at the moment to think about any of that?

Got your answers? Ok, let’s go on.  Here are those four same ideas turned into metaphors — turned into poetry:

Love is an ancient thing
That travels back before gravity was born
And forward beyond the last gods.
I have wanted to sip your breast
In between the lights of night and day
And tell you how I’ve taken sides
Against a mammoth
To bring you his tusks
So that you, my woman, my love,
Will be happy now
For all the worlds
You have given to me.

Again, Jay, the identical questions:

  • First, how long do you think you will remember any of that?
  • Next, how inspired do you feel at the moment to think about any of that?

Mind you, Jay, those questions have no right or wrong answers to them.  But here’s the thing: If you feel the poem was both more memorable and more thought-provoking than the prose, then you “get” poetry.  Then you now know the difference between poetry and prose.  At least by my standards, you do.

One last thing.  An important thing.  Please notice that I did not ask you, “Which one makes more sense to you?”

To me, that is not the right question to ask here.  Why not?  Because it typically takes more time and effort to understand poetry than it does to understand prose.

If you’re like most of us humans, you’ll be able to recall imagery much longer and more clearly than you are able to recall the literal meanings of words.  So, you’ll have a longer time to think about — and to make sense of — a poem than you will have for an essay.

Comprehend?  Questions?  Comments?

8 thoughts on “What is Poetry?”

  1. “Poetry is what Milton saw when he went blind.” –Don Marquis

    Insight aside, I wonder if that was the origin of this very old (and not very good) joke: I SEE, SAID THE BLIND MAN. 😦

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Oooo! I have always wondered on the ‘difference’ between poetry and prose! Although I like poetry and prose both, I find it easier to write prose than poem for the lack of rhyming moon with June! Although many poets I know rubbish rhyming in poetry for, they reckon, poetry is expression. Expression in a few words I would add and there comes my limitation. A few words! But then I have found there is poetry in prose too! What do you think?

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I like your thinking here! So many ways to define what poetry is, Parikhit! That there is perhaps no one single definition that suffices to define poetry all by itself might drive some folks nuts, but I try to look at the different definitions as if they each pointed to a different facet or aspect of poetry.

      As I understand you, one way you look at poetry is “expression in as few words as possible”. I think that’s an excellent way to look at it. Take just about any great, world class poem, and you will most likely see that “razor” being applied, regardless of which poet composed it.

      I also look at poetry as “Painting with metaphor.” That is describing something wholly or significantly in terms of metaphors. Both poetry and prose “paint with words”, but prose tends on the whole to be more literal than poetry, and poetry on the whole tends to be more metaphorical than prose.

      I certainly do agree with you that there can be poetry in prose. I see it in your writings especially. Your posts always contain a lot of poetic prose. At least so far as I can see.

      Are you familiar with the poet and former New Yorker Magazine poetry critic, Robert Bly? Bly in his own poetry often aims for one of the most curious targets I’ve heard of for any poet to aim at. He tries to come up with an image or metaphor that (1) makes no sense to the conscious mind, but (2) can be understood by the subconscious mind!

      Possible Example:

      The husband cries, “Don’t let her die!” But God says, “I
      Need a yellow dot here, near the mailbox.”

      What do you make of that, my friend?

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I have to agree with you. Poetry is indeed metaphorical and can mean so much to several of us. The hidden layers emerge as we delve further into a poem while a prose could be quite straight-forward and open to anybody reading, although that could be otherwise. For instance many poets I know of write poems that mean as it is read and then there are other poets who leave behind mysterious clues in their poems.

        I just read The Yellow Dot by Robery Bly! I have to say I am impressed, struck and amazed at the same. Read it several times and the meaning changes or strengthens every read. The yellow dot, could it possibly mean ‘inactive’ or ‘away’ as the status that we see against our mailboxes?

        Liked by 1 person

  3. You explained poetry just right. On point. When I saw the four points that you wrote about love in the form of a prose, I read the first two points and skipped the rest. And then when I read the poem, I read it twice. Poetry is definitely way more beautiful. Different. Alluring. But again, it depends on person to person. Proses can be beautiful too. Like the ones written by Shreya. They are beautiful.
    But you write proses and poems and both of them are equally beautiful.

    All of this brings me back to the idea that anything and everything that is written from the heart, written with truth and emotion or written with lies painted in glitter, is always beautiful. Anything and everything that can sink in another person’s mind, settle there and grow, almost like a water lotus that was meant to float but was drowned in water by the heavy rain and left to wither without air. It grew high and tall. It bloomed like never before.We are rain. And our hearts, water lotuses.

    I am going to go back and read that poem again.

    Liked by 1 person

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