, , , , , , , ,

Introduction to Poetry: Definitions and Types

Parlindungan Pardede

Universitas Kristen Indonesia

Definitions of Poetry

Poetry is the oldest form of literary works in every culture. Its earliest examples go back to ancient Greek literature. It is as old as the history of mankind and primal and primary form of languages themselves. Despite that, a universal definition of poetry has never been formulated. Although a great number of essays and poems have tried to define what poetry is and what makes it good, they tend produces only one or more characteristics of poem.

Some definitions try to closely related poetry to the term “lyric,” which derives etymologically from the Greek musical instrument “lyra” (“lyre” or “harp”) and points to an origin in the sphere of music. In classical antiquity as well as in the Middle Ages, minstrels recited poetry, accompanied by the lyre or other musical instruments. Some others try to define by analyzing the term’s etimology—poetry was derived from the Greek word “poieo” (“to make,” “to produce”). This term indicates that the poet is the person who “makes” verse. Although etymology sheds light on some of the aspects of the lyric and the poetic, it cannot offer a satisfactory explanation of the phenomenon as such.

Formally, poetry is recognizable by its greater dependence on at least one more parameter, the line, than appears in prose composition. This changes its appearance on the page; and it seems clear that people take their cue from this changed appearance, reading poetry aloud in a very different voice from their habitual voice, possibly because, as  Jonson (cited in Encyclopædia Britannica, 2007) says, poetry “speaketh somewhat above a mortal mouth.” If, as a test of this description, people are shown poems printed as prose, it most often turns out that they will read the result as prose simply because it looks that way; which is to say that they are no longer guided in their reading by the balance and shift of the line in relation to the breath as well as the syntax.

In relation to those, Mandel (1998) states that “poetry is the branch of Literature whose words and related signs are preponderantly delivered (when written down or printed) in premeditated limited quanta” (p. 80). The term ‘limited quantum’ in this definition is nothing more than the old-fashioned ‘verse’, for which it is here both a substitute and a definition. This term emphasized that poetry is literature in verse form, verse being a unit of verbal energy delivered as a burst, a spurt, a bundle. Once the burst is over, the text turns, a word I use here to indicate that the word ‘verse’ derives from the Latin vertere, which is ‘to turn’. But the point is that a burst is of limited duration. A line of poetry cannot go on and on indefinitely.

The term ‘preponderantly delivered’ emphasizes that a prose passage embedded in a poetic text does not affect the latter’s status as a poem. By the same token, a literary work of prose like a novel may well resort on occasion to the special power of a short line, acting as a full paragraph—a line that, were the likes of it used preponderantly, would turn the novel into a long narrative poem.

The phrase ‘when written down and printed’ emphasizes that the origin of poetry is in oral language. However, the spoken poem could be written down and appear in verse form if and when it is faithfully transcribed.

Despite these various definitions, which emphasize more on one or more characteristics of poem, recent definitions tend to see poetry as a branch of literature that evokes a concentrated imaginative awareness of experience or a specific emotional response through language chosen and arranged for its meaning, sound, and rhythm. It is the other way of using language, in the sense that it says more and says it more intensely than does ordinary language. Wolosky (2001) supports this by saying “poetry is language in which every component element—word and word order, sound and pause, image and echo—is significant, significant in that every element points toward or stands for further relationships among and beyond themselves” (p.3). This definition is also in line with Bonn’s (2010) which states poetry as “writing that aims to present ideas and evoke an emotional experience in the reader through the use of meter, imagery, connotative and concrete words and a carefully constructed structure based on rhythmic patterns. Poetry typically relies on words and expressions that have several layers of meaning. It also makes use of the effects of regular rhythm on the ear and may make a strong appeal to the senses through the use of imagery.

The elements of poetry are figures, and poetry itself is a language of figures, in which each component can potentially open toward new meanings, levels, dimensions, connections, or resonances. Poetry does this through its careful, intricate pattern of words. It offers language as highly organized as language can be. It is language so highly patterned that there is, ideally, a reason or purpose (or rather, many) for each and every word put into a poem. No word is idle or accidental. Each word has a specific place within an overarching pattern. Together they create meaningful and beautiful designs.

Types of Poetry

Poetry is traditionally divided into the three major categories: narrative, lyric, and dramatic poem. However, the features of these three categories may be overlapping in some poems. Thus, a dramatic poem can be essentially narrative or lyric. Skilled poets often cross the borders of these three major verse categories. Despite this, based on its most predominant features, a narrative poem could still be distinguished from a lyric one (and vice versa); and a dramatic poem is discernable from either the narrative or the lyric.

Narrative poems come in all shapes and sizes, but they all have one thing in common: They tell stories. The stories may be a story as simple as a nursery rhyme, like Hey Diddle Diddle, humorous humorous like Ogden Nash’s The Adventures of Isabel,or a long epic such as The Odyssey written by Homer, a Greek who lived sometime between 1200 and 850 B.C. In such narrative poems, the poet-narrator recounts something that has happened. It is like a storyteller spinning a story. Whether the story comes out of the poet’s imagination or, like a ballad tells of an event that actually took place, poets are not a part of the story. They do not comment on it. They do not put themselves into the story as they would in a lyrical poem. They are somewhat like newscasters on television or radio announcers who merely tell the facts or give information to the audiences. Read the following work of David Hernandez, and see how the poet recount events in it.


Without any warning, the disease
sweeps across the country
like a traveling circus.

People who were once blue,
who slouched from carrying
a bag of misery over one shoulder

are now clinically cheerful.
Symptoms include kind gestures,
a bouncy stride, a smile

bigger than a slice of canteloupe.
You pray that you will be infected,
hope a happy germ invades your body

and multiplies, spreading merriment
to all your major organs
like door-to-door Christmas carolers

until the virus finally reaches your heart:
that red house at the end of the block
where your deepest wishes reside,

where a dog howls behind a gate
every time that sorrow
pulls his hearse up the driveway.

Like narrative poems, lyric poems also come in all shapes and sizes. However, different from narrative poems which tell a story, lyric poems express the feelings and emotions of the poet. Another characteristic of lyric poems is that they’re musical. The word lyric is derived from the Greek lyra (musical instrument) and melic (melody). A lyric poem, which was originally written to be sung to the music of a lyre,  focuses intensely on a subject and tries to awaken or evoke emotions within the listener (as music does). Instead of using musical notes, however, the lyric poet relies on words and poetic devices—metaphor, simile, cadence, meter, rhyme, voice, etc. The following poem by Robert Burns is a lovely example of a lyric poem.


0 my luve’s like a red, red rose,

That’s newly sprung in June;

0 my luve’s like the melodie

That’s sweetly played in tune.

As fair art thou, my bonnie lass,

So deep in luve am I;

And I will luve thee still, my dear,

Till a’ the seas gang dry.

Till a’ the seas gang dry, my dear,

And the rocks melt wi’ the sun:

0 I will love thee still, my dear,

While the sands o’ life shall run.

And fare thee weel, my only luve,

And fare thee weel awhile!

And I will come again, my luve,

Though it were ten thousand mile.

Although it seems a simple work, this poem focuses on a moment (a rose newly sprung in June); on objects (seas, rocks, sands); on living things (rose, bonnie lass); on a concept (love); and on an experience (parting). It encompasses all of the topics typically expressed in a lyrical poem. In addition, it also makes use of language — meter, rhyme, simile—to draw out in the listener the same emotion the narrator feels.

Different from lyric poems which sound like music and narrative poems which tell stories; dramatic poems express emotions to characterize. In a simple term, dramatic poems portray one or more character by showing emotions. As it is stated above, poetry categories may be overlapping. Therefore, dramatic poetry includes a narrative poem of a person in a specific situation. Robert Frost’s Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening, which presents nature as a standard of beauty that is so strong that it captures the speaker’s attention and makes him or halt whatever he is doing, is a good example of dramatic poem.


Whose woods these are I think I know.
His house is in the village though;
He will not see me stopping here
To watch his woods fill up with snow.

My little horse must think it queer
To stop without a farmhouse near
Between the woods and frozen lake
The darkest evening of the year.

He gives his harness bells a shake
To ask if there is some mistake.
The only other sound’s the sweep
Of easy wind and downy flake.

The woods are lovely, dark and deep.
But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep.


Bonn, Julien D. 2010. A Comprehensive Dictionary of Literature. Chandigarh: Abhishek Publications

Encyclopædia Britannica. 2007. Ultimate Reference Suite. Chicago: Encyclopædia Britannica.

Mandel, Oscar. 1998. Fundamentals of the Art of Poetry. Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press.

Wolosky, S. 2001. The Art of Poetry : How to Read a Poem. New York: Oxford University Press, Inc.