What is Poetry?

Definitions of Poetry

The right reader of a good poem can tell the moment it strikes him that he has taken an immortal wound––that he will never get over it.

Robert Frost

Poetry is not what words say but what is said between them, that which appears fleetingly in pauses and silences.

Octavio Paz

Poetry is essentially the soul’s search for its release in language.

Joseph Brodsky

Where there is amenability to paraphrase, where the sheets have never been rumpled, there poetry, so to speak, has never spent the night.

Osip Mandelstam

Poets think they’re pitchers when they’re really catchers.

Jack Spicer

Poetry is not truth, it is the resurrection of presences.

Octavio Paz

In the very essence of poetry there is something indecent: a thing brought forth which we didn’t know we had in us, so we blink our eyes, as if a tiger had sprung out and stood in the light, lashing its tail.

Czeslaw Milosz 

Poetry begins where death is robbed of the last word.

Odysseus Elytis

All good poetry depends on the ethical relation between imagination and the image. Images are not ornaments; they are truths.

Eavan Boland

If you only knew from what rubbish 
Poetry grows, knowing no shame,
Like a yellow dandelion by the fence,
Like burdock and goosefoot.

Anna Akhmatova

Poetry proves again and again that any single overall theory of anything doesn’t work. Poetry is always the cat concert under the window of the room in which the official version of reality is being written.

Charles Simic

A ‘good’ poem is one that all your previous reading has prepared you for, one in which you know all the words, one that you ‘get’ instantly, one that satisfies all the rules of poetry as you know them, one that covers its mouth when it burps after it’s done.

Ameliorate Airhard

Poetry is a way of taking life by the throat.

Robert Frost

Such is the role of poetry.  It unveils, in the strict sense of the word.  It lays bare, under a light which shakes off torpor, the surprising things which surround us and which our senses record mechanically.

Jean Cocteau

There is the view that poetry should improve your life.  I think people confuse it with the Salvation Army.

John Ashbery

[Poetry] is the lava of imagination whose eruption prevents an earthquake.

Lord Byron

Poetry is truth in its Sunday clothes.

Joseph Roux

Poetry is what is what Milton saw when he went blind.

Don Marquis

Writing a book of poetry is like dropping a rose petal down the Grand Canyon and waiting for the echo.

Don Marquis

Poetry has become the higher algebra of metaphors.

José Ortega Y Gasset

We make out of the quarrel with others, rhetoric, but of the quarrel with ourselves, poetry.

W. B. Yeats

Poetry is the supreme fiction, madame.

Wallace Stevens

Ordering a man to write a poem is like commanding a pregnant woman to give birth to a red-headed child.

Carl Sandburg

If there is no money in poetry, neither is there poetry in money.

Robert Graves

The rhythmic creation of beauty in words.

William Packard

The record of the best and happiest moments of the happiest and best minds.

Percy B. Shelly

I have said that Poetry is the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings:  it takes its origin from emotion recollected in tranquillity:  the emotion is contemplated till by a species of reaction the tranquillity gradually disappears, and an emotion, similar to that which was before the subject of contemplation, is gradually produced, and does itself actually exist in the mind.  In this mood successful composition generally begins, and in a mood similar to this is carried on; but the emotion, of whatever kind and in whatever degree, from various causes is qualified by various pleasures, so that in describing any passions whatsoever, which are voluntarily described, the mind will upon the whole be in a state of enjoyment.


If I read a book and it makes my whole body so cold no fire can warm me, I know that is poetry.  If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know that is poetry.  These are the only ways I know it.  Is there any other way?

Emily Dickinson

The rhythmic, inevitably narrative, movement from an overclothed blindness to a naked vision.

Dylan Thomas

The right reader of a good poem can tell the moment it strikes him that he has taken an immortal wound––that he will never get over it.

Robert Frost

Poetry is the way words come together into some kind of magical conjunction that will make the reader enter into a real experience of his own–not the poet’s.  I don’t really believe what literary critics have believed from the beginning of time:  that poetry is an attempt of the poet to create or recreate his own experience and to pass it on.  I don’t believe in that.  I believe it’s an awakening of the sensibilities of someone else, the stranger.

James Dickey

Poetry is voice music.  Ancient poetry was all produced for that purpose.  And that’s still a very strong tradition. . . .When I write, I always hear the voice in my head.  I’m baffled that there is even a question about it.

Erica Jong

There are all kinds of song.  The genres are ‘work-song, a personal power-vision song, war song, death song, courting song, hunting song’–all of these are used by people for their own needs and uses.  But  the special genre is healing song.  The Shaman was the specialist in that.  He returned to his power-vision song experience many times and deepened it over and over again, whereas other people had one power-vision song and that was enough.  The power of this type of song–the power that the Shaman connects with–enables him to hear and to see a certain classic song which has the capacity to heal.  And I think that we could say that self-conscious, quote, ‘literary’ poetry of the sort that has been transmitted for the last two millenniums in the West–the best of it belongs to that genre:  healing song’’

Gary Snyder

Poetry is that species of composition, which is opposed to works of science, by proposing for its immediate object pleasure, not truth; and from all other species…it is discriminated by proposing to itself such delight from the whole, as is compatible with a distinct gratification from each component part.

Samuel Taylor Coleridge

Like a piece of ice on a hot stove, the poem must ride on its own melting.

Robert Frost

One of the great practical uses of the literary disciplines, of course, is to resist glibness–to slow language down and make it thoughtful. This accounts, particularly, for the influence of verse, in its formal aspect, within the dynamics of the growth of language: verse checks the merely impulsive flow of speech, subjects it to another pulse, to measure, to extralinguistic consideration; by inducing the hesitations of difficulty, it admits into language the influence of the Muse and of musing.

Wendell Berry

It is not rhyming and versing that maketh poetry. One may be a poet without versing, and a versifyer without poetry.

Philip Sidney

What is poetry?  Why, Sir, it is much easier to say what it is not.
We all know what light is, but it is not easy to tell what it is.

Samuel Johnson

The question of what poetry communicates, if anything, has been largely forced upon us by the advent of ‘modern’ poetry. Some of that poetry is admittedly highly difficult – a very great deal of it is bound to appear difficult to the reader of conventional reading habits, even in spite of the fact – actually, in many cases, because of the fact – that he is a professor of literature.

Cleanth Brooks

Poetry must have something in it that is barbaric, vast and wild.

Denis Diderot

No one lives in this room
without confronting the whiteness of the wall
behind the poems, planks of books,
photographs of dead heroines.
Without contemplating last and late
the true nature of poetry.  The drive
to connect.  The dream of a common language.

Adrienne Rich

If there is no money in poetry, neither is there poetry in money.

Robert Graves

When power leads man towards arrogance, poetry reminds him of his limitations. When power narrows the area of man’s concern, poetry reminds him of the richness and diversity of existence. When power corrupts, poetry cleanses.

John F. Kennedy

In the works of the better poets you get the sensation that they’re not talking to people any more, or to some seraphical creature. What they’re doing is simply talking back to the language itself––as beauty, sensuality, wisdom, irony––those aspects of language of which the poet is a clear mirror. Poetry is not an art or a branch of art, it’s something more. If what distinguishes us from other species is speech, then poetry, which is the supreme linguistic operation, is our anthropological, indeed genetic, goal. Any who regards poetry as an entertainment, as a ‘read,’ commits an anthropological crime, in the first place, against himself.

Joseph Brodsky

The purpose of poetry is to remind us how difficult it is to remain just one person.

Czeslaw Milosz