Monday, February 8, 2010

What is Poetry?

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It has been said that it is much easier to appreciate poetry than to define it. I believe that is true, but I will try to point out the distinctive elements of each.

Perhaps it is best to first consider the reader’s point of view. The reader must realize that someone with great imagination (the poet) wants to communicate with him or her. The poet is attempting to reveal the world in new ways, to give the reader a fresh view, perhaps an unexpected view. To do this, the poet carefully selects his words, uses them in unique ways, and arranges them in subtle and complex manners.

The words and their arrangement take on new qualities through rhythm, rhyme, symbol, repetition, meter, and image—all appealing to and revealing the five senses. This means the poem will look different from prose on the page. Its appearance is important, for the arrangement often relates to its meaning. The reader may have to work hard to find that meaning—but once he or she discovers it, wow!

There are three types of poetry: narrative, lyric, and dramatic. The narrative tells a story; the lyric (it has many forms) expresses emotion; and the dramatic, similar to the narrative, makes more extensive use of dialogue. The finer points of these types will appear in separate articles.

L. Luis Lopez has written three books of poetry: Musings of a Barrio Sack Boy, winner of an Honorable Mention in the 2000 Writer’s Digest poetry competition; A Painting of Sand; and Each Month I Sing, which was granted the American Book Award 2008 and the CIPA (Colorado Independent Publishers Association) EVVY first place in poetry award 2008. Luis teaches Latin, Ancient Greek, and Mythology at Mesa State College in Grand Junction, Colorado. He offers workshops in reading and writing poetry. In addition, he and his wife, Maggie, are owners of Farolito Press. Visit his Web site at


  1. One way of looking at poetry is through songs. A good many of them have some sort of cadence and rhyme.

    Morgan Mandel

  2. When reading (and writing) poetry, I have never considered form - other than rhyme or free verse and the number of beats per line. So I'm learning a new way of looking at it.

    Yes, as Dr. Lopez points out, poets have very imaginative ways of conveying their messages. But I wonder whether those messages are always perceived by readers as intended.

    For example, I worked several years as a theme reader for grades 4-12 in a school district in Washington state. One set of papers I read/corrected was based on "Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening" by Robert Frost. The assignment came from a 12th grade advanced literature class, and the content indicated considerable class discussion prior to the writing of the papers - which were pretty much clones of one another. The theme of all of them was "death," based, I suppose on the last two lines of the poem ("And miles to go before I sleep")

    Perhaps Frost's message is about death, but my understanding has always been both literal and simplistic. I see his being a ways from home on a snowy winter night. The scene is lovely, and he stops to enjoy it more fully. However, he must travel the rest of the way home, as his impatient steed is reminding him. But once he arrives, he can sit in front of the fire, enjoy a bowl of warm soup, and then curl up under the covers for the night.

    Having said this, I realize the words are probably painting a far different picture. I'm just not sure I care for that picture. However, it aptly illustrates exactly what Dr. Lopez says: "The poet wants to reveal the world in new ways, to give the reader a fresh view, perhaps an unexpected view."

    One of the most endearing qualities of poetry, in my opinion, is its ability to grant the reader the right to use his or her own imagination to discover meaning within its lines. Does this suggest the poet is ineffective in painting a distinct word picture? I think not. Rather, I believe, it enhances effectiveness. The poet invites and empowers the reader to find his or her own meaning in words that touch both heart and soul.

  3. Fascinating. I like how you explain it. Thanks.


The Blood-Red Pencil is a blog focusing on editing and writing advice. Some of our contributors are editors, some are authors, and some are writing sheep. Yes, sheep.


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