Poetry can be somewhat elusive, and therefore, difficult to define. Yet, throughout the centuries, mankind has unceasingly attempted to capture, through the written or spoken word, the essence of verse.
Simonides defined poetry as “speaking painting,” vividly illustrating one important aspect of the art. Poe called it “the rhythmical creation of beauty,” aptly describing yet another of its facets. Coleridge dubbed it “the communication of pleasure,” highlighting still another subtle difference in its manifestation. Carlyle called it “musical Thought,” bringing to mind a slightly different picture of its attributes. Painting it with a somewhat broader brush, Shelley referred to it as “the expression of the imagination,” pointing out a characteristic that all poetry undoubtedly shares, albeit a general one.
More recently, Judson Jerome has called poetry “order threatening to become chaos,” which is perhaps an appropriate description of poetry in some of its more modern experimental and avant garde forms–or possibly simply an expression of the potentially explosive energies inherent in each carefully measured and intricately crafted line.
Wordsworth has said that “poetry is, like love, a passion,” highlighting its emotional aspect, which is the golden cord that ties poetry of every type together. Perhaps he expressed it better still when he stated that “all good poetry is the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings…(in) a man who (has) thought long and deeply…”–combining, as he does, the concepts of feeling and thought.
To be sure, neither Wordsworth’s nor any of the other great poets’ definitions make any reference to poetic “form”–which can be as diverse, from one poem to the next, as each poet’s individual life experiences are. And this diversity of form, perhaps more so than any other element, makes a complete, one-size-fits-all definition of poetry impossible. Yet this is precisely what makes poetry the rich reservoir of self-expression that it is.
As intriguing as all the above definitions may be, and as much as we may enjoy exploring the various aspects of the art by attempting to put them into words, we do so knowing that every definition we conceive must fall short in one way or another. But the good news is that we needn’t be able to fully define poetry to recognize it–or to enjoy it! We simply sense it when we are in the presence of poetry–at least good poetry. We feel its power, or its sweetness, its simplicity or its grandeur. And it is an encounter that affects us in ways we’ll never be able to fully describe–much less understand.
In short, whether or not we can define poetry, describe or even understand it, we nevertheless go away from it knowing that we have come face to face with its magic; and instinct tells us that, as a result of that fortuitous meeting, we will never be quite the same again.