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A Definition of Poetry

by Colleen P Moyne (Colmo) (follow)
I'm a freelance writer living in the beautiful river town of Mannum in SA, dreaming of the day I can retire from the 9-5 to write full time.
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Close-up of Page of Poetry
Image courtesy of Arker / Freedigitalphotos.net


I've been hearing quite a bit of discussion recently about the definition of poetry. Some members of my writing group are only just venturing into writing poems, and there still seems to be a feeling that the words have to have a particular rhythm and rhyme in order to be considered true poetry.

The Oxford dictionary defines poetry as, ‘Literary work in which the expression of feelings and ideas is given intensity by the use of distinctive style and rhythm.’ In simple terms this means that poetry is descriptive, flowing and full of feeling and expression. Nowhere in this definition is there any mention of rhyming.



Open Book of Poetry
Image courtesy of Jeltovski / Freedigitalphotos.net


Here are just a few points that may help to clarify the meaning of poetry:

- Poetry doesn't have to rhyme. It can, but it doesn't need to.

- According to poemofquotes.com there are fifty-five different poetic forms!

- Poems can be written on any topic, but the skill is in looking at that topic in a fresh way. Use the old ‘show – don’t tell’ rule i.e when describing a frosty morning:

Blades of silvered grass
Crunch underfoot
Like shards of translucent toffee



Frosty Grass
Image courtesy of Tbmynors / Wikimedia Commons


- Brevity is the key to modern poetry; not in length but in the use of words. Cull any unnecessary words so that the important ones shine.

- Descriptive language should not be used just for the sake of it. Over-describing or using too many adjectives can detract from the essence of the poem.



Poetry Reading
Image courtesy of Shiledarprafull / Wikimedia Commons


- Poetry should be read in a certain way, pausing where appropriate, using intonation and inflection. A fellow writer described it well when she said, ‘Poetry is defined by where the lines begin and end.’

Here’s an example of what she means.Take this piece of prose:

He stands waiting on platform five. ‘I’ll be there,’ she promised, but promises aren't always kept. His eyes dart to the old platform clock - six twenty-one, six twenty-five – The time shrinking steadily away. Then comes the last call to board. The shrill whistle echoes. Shoulders slumped in resignation, he turns toward the train steps. A familiar voice filters through the sounds of the hissing engine and shuffling feet; the sweet sound of a promise kept.



Man Waiting on Station Platform
Image courtesy of Qtea / Wikimedia Commons


Written in this format it’s a nice little story, but to turn it into a poem we would do something like this:

He stands waiting,
waiting on platform five.
‘I’ll be there,’ she promised
but promises aren't always kept.

His eyes dart
to the old platform clock -
Six twenty-one, six twenty-five -
time shrinking steadily away.

Last call to board;
shrill whistle echoes.
Shoulders slumped in resignation
he turns toward the train steps.

A familiar voice
filters through the mesh
of hissing engines and shuffling feet…
Sweet sound of a promise kept.

Presentation matters. Most importantly though, poetry is honest and straight from the heart – whether you’re writing about love, a summer’s day or the snake in the backyard loo.


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