Poetry Index

Wot is Poetry? #

Aristotle’s profound observation:

“The superiority of poetry over history consists in its possessing a higher truth and a higher seriousness”.

Can we separate the poet from their poetry? There persists a view that poets are driven to write about the excruciating emotions of the human experience. Like philosophers, many are not people you’d want to be friends with.

Virginia Woolf warns:

“For if it is rash to walk into a lion’s den unarmed, rash to navigate the Atlantic in a rowing boat, rash to stand on one foot on top of St. Paul’s, it is still more rash to go home alone with a poet.”

Robert Frost claims that “being a poet is not a profession; it is a condition”. Though they attempt to hide behind masks, most poets are expressing their deepest guilt, fears, insecurities, hopes, ecstasies or obsessions, all the while pretending to be creating art.

Poetry is the best words in the best places.

Poetry attempts to pierce facades and depict the essence of life.

Aristotle appears to be the first to articulate that:

“the aim of art is to represent not the outward appearance of things, but their inwards significance”.

Gerad Manly Hopkins coins the word “inscape” to describe this.

Poetry is a multi-faceted modum of meaning. It has something to say and uses a number of techniques to say it. It is not the techniques that are important, rather the effectiveness of the means. Rhyme, rhythmn, metre, sound-patterns, metaphor, similes and other poetic devices combine to evoke meaning. Becareful, it can cast a spell on you and bewitch your mind. The effects can appeal to all senses, emotions and intellect. The technicalities may be subliminal. The poet may be personal but it should resonate to others - the wider population.

Poetry communicates by the power of suggestion - nuance, ambivalence, word associations…. Good poetry does not explain or try to teach. It does not provide easy answers, rather raises vital issues concerning the human condition.

Emily Dickinson’s poetry is full of gaps - ellipsis - which the reader can fill in. Poetry doesn’t explain; it functions with multi-faceted word and image prompts that trigger singular emotional responses.

Horace Thomas defines poetry as:

“that which arrives in the intellect by way of the heart”.

Melbourne’s Chris Wallace Crabbe writing in Weekend Australian Review 16/05/20 on Why Poetry is important in self isolation:

A poem is short and rich, most people can recite a few lines of poetry that means something to them. We appreciate the naturalness of the language of our poetry. It has a depth that’s simultaneously intellectual and beautiful and simultaneously psychological and attractive.

Crabbe abandoned his scholarship in metallurgy because there wasn’t much culture or literary depth in zinc, acknowledging Robert Frost’s aphorism:

that there wasn’t much money in poetry; but there isn’t much poetry in money either.

The biggest change is that we got rid of rhyme. Forcing the rhyme can make poetry rhetorical, predictable and contrived. Modern poetry attempts to echo ordinary speech patterns. Where rhyme comes in useful is in couplets or quatrains where you open an idea with a word and close with a word that rhymes, suggesting a finality.

Internal rhyme and forced meter can become artificial and stilted.

In an interview with Frederick Seidel, Robert Lowell admits he:

“began to have a certain disrespect for the tight form, regularity seems to ruin the honesty of the sentiment and become rhetorical, taking away from the creativity. The problem of writing poetry is to bring it back to what you really feel”.

However, poetry appears in decline. The earliest poets like Hesiod, Solon and Homer were revered because they used the language of the gods.

When a poet and a trader were both sentenced to death for similar crimes, the poet’s life was spared to appease the gods while the trader was executed. Today, the businessman would hire the best barrister and escape his crime while the poet would pay his penalty. And we call this progress.

When Tennyson died, 11,000 people applied for 1000 places in Westminster Abbey, but today poets have a hard time making a living. Many go into public relations.

Professor Marshall McLuhan observed,

“Ours is the first age in which many thousands of the best trained individual minds have made it a full-time business to get inside the collective public mind. To get inside in order to manipulate, exploit, control is the object now.”

Advertising shamefully, yet shamelessly exploits the poetic voice to market its bauble. Many poets, suffering artist’s privations are lured into public relations or advertising by obscene money.

Official events: #

Yet Poetry is for heightened experience – T.S. Eliot, “to purify the dialect of the tribe” J.F. Kennedy and Barack Obama both used poets for their inauguration.

Amanda Gorman stole the show at Biden’s inauguration with her yellow coat and inspiring poem: The Hill we Climb

Four Weddings and a Funeral used W.H. Auden’s Funeral Blues * with * “Stop all the clocks” which went viral.

Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah, has been used for many occasions, some more appropriate than others.

Heightened emotions #

  • Poetry is also the language of crisis, of profound thought, defiance and deep emotion.

  • Poetry can also be the language of defiance:

In Still I Rise: “You may trod me in the very dirt/But still like dust, I’ll rise. Maya Angelou

The 1960’s saw the rise of many protest songs including Pete Seeger, Buffy Ste Marie, Bob Dylan, Joan Baez….

Here is Buffy Sainte Marie’s My Country tis of thee your’e dying:


Poetry is the language of unashamed deep emotion.

”thoughts that do often lie too deep for tears” Wordsworth

It uses multi-dimensional language, directed at the whole person, not just intellectual and understanding or intelligence but also the sensuous, emotional and imaginative.

According to Seamus Heaney,,

“The poet’s skill lies in the summoning and semantic energies of words.” It relies on nuances, suggestion, the multiples meanings of words and the inferences we all choose to draw.

Poetry does not tell us about an experience, rather it attempts to recreate it by allowing us to imaginatively and sensuously participate vicariously in that experience by focusing on it and ordering it through verisimilitude, It does not need to have a theme, moral or lesson; rather just reflect reality or contemplate the beauty of the world. It can also portray the ugliness of life.

Wilfred Owen’s poem, Dulce Et Decorum Est, effectively captures and immerses us in the ugly horror of war.

T.S. Eliot’s poem, The Waste Land is a scream against decadence and spiritual aridity. There is evidence it spawned from his personal demons at the time.

A good poem is a measure of intense feeling, observation and perception to crystallize ideas to get to the essence of experience. There is no excess of words, fresh language, images and figures of speech to exact a fresh, not a predictable response.

Bad poetry is called Doggerel. It is characterised by sentimentality, (tear jerking), indulgence in maudlin or mawkish emotion, melodramatic, depending on trite or well worn formulas. It oversimplifies using language that is overblown, rhetorical, more glittering or high flown than the subject warrants. If it lacks subtlety it can become didactic.

Poets work long hours to capture the essence of the moment. Yeats took five years to shape Leda and the Swan, Slessor, ten years for Five Bells and Thomas Gray, twenty to rework Elegy in a Country Churchyard. Elizabeth Bishop, twenty-five for The Moose.

Verbal Music #

All art form share creative technique. Writers too use the crafts of music, its variations on themes - motifs. Contrasts of counterpunctals and sound effects that C.S. Lewis claims “lull us into a torpor”.

Poetry is sensual; it appeals to our five senses, affecting our emotions, feelings and moods. Since Poetry appeals to our ears the most, the musical sound effects used by poets are very important. Words are chosen for their musicality, resonance and sound effects.

To get the most benefit from poetry it should be read aloud (recited) or even sung.

Verbal music includes: rhyme, rhythm, assonance, melody, pitch, and slow, fast, light, heavy, alliteration, onomatopoeia, blending of words, repetition patterns, tone, voice, mood, and atmosphere.

Polyphonic music consisting of many voices or sounds, each with an independent melody, but all harmonizing; contrapuntal (opposed to homophonic), can have some subliminal effect upon the listener, an almost hypnotic or haunting counterpart.

We can be caught or mesmerized by the spell woven by the lulling descriptions, the direct colloquial narrative, the lilting rhythms, regular ‘rimes’, rich tapestry of images, symbols and the searing feelings of the narrator. Incantatory repetitions and use of onomatopoeia can have a hypnotic, haunting effect on us.

Poets often deliberately use incantation and repetition in an attempt to cast a spell over their readers, allowing them to escape reality and enter the world of dreams, imagination and fantasy.

Many religions use these to cast a spell and suspend people’s reasoning processes. The Gregorian monophonic chant, the Buddhist mantras, the Dervish Whirling Dance attempt to achieve religious ecstasy through cognitive interference.

A mantra is an instrument of the mind, a powerful sound or vibration that you can use to enter a deep state of meditation. The claim that these connect us to a deeper consciousness is countered by arguments that they disconnect us from reality.

Critics have for centuries debated the effect of repetitive sound patterns – predominantly, rhyme assonance and alliteration – upon our standard cognitive mechanisms.

No firm conclusions have been reached but by consensus it is accepted that they interfere with our ability to make sense of language. They create a layer of echoes that runs as a counter-current to the conventional relationship between phonetics and semantics, sound and meaning. A Definition of Poetry : the double pattern, Professor Richard Bradford, Professor of English, University of Ulster

Dylan Thomas is a virtuoso of sound:

You can tear a poem apart to see what makes it technically tick, and say to yourself, when the works are laid out before you, the vowels, the consonants, the rhymes or rhythms, ‘Yes, this is it. This is why the poem moves me so. It is because of the craftsmanship.’ But you’re back again where you began. You’re back with the mystery of having been moved by words. The best craftsmanship always leaves lulls and gaps that what is not in the poem can creep, curl, flash or thunder in your mind.

I, myself, do not read poetry for anything but pleasure. I read only the poems I like. This means, of course, that I have to read a lot of poems I don’t like before I find the ones I do, but, when I do find the ones I do, then all I can say is ‘Here they are’, and read them to myself for pleasure.”

T.S. Eliot claims:

Emotions are sometimes too complex for simple rational language and the thoughts too deep for intellectual articulation. For this reason, Poets resort to metaphor, images, rhythm, style and myth.”

Freud: “All art is symptom of its author’s psychological problems”

The suggestive, sub-conscious, emotional and intuitive power of images appeal to us, rather than rational meaning. Through stream of consciousness and the free association of ideas exploring the psychological effects of unexpected random thought, we come to appreciate the complexity of life and its lack of coherence. Discipline and restraint save T.S. Eliot from sentimentality. Like Donne, his images are unusually startling.

Eliot’s poetry reveals a troubled soul. Much of it can be seen as self-discovery like Elizabeth Bishop’s, an admirer, following his example, it disinvites private scrutiny, because of its detachment, cool objectivity, its calm impersonality, what Marianne Moore described as its “rational considering quality” (hardly the usual praise for poetry), its “deferences and vigilances.”

What Moore deferred to was poetic form and an increasingly old-fashioned sense of manners and discretion. She was vigilant in giving nothing of herself away.

Eliot seldom reveals his true self, but we can discern it by looking at recurrent portraits.

Other poets like Gerard Manly Hopkins, Emily Dickinson, Robert Lowell, Sylvia Plath and many others are more open and honest in acknowledging and expressing their personal pain, agony or ecstasy.

Poetic Devices @ [Figures of Speech] #


Poetry is easier to appreciate than define; It is much like jazz:

Louis Armstrong when asked, “What is Jazz?” replied,

“Man, if you don’t know, I can’t tell you.”

The Greeks considered the Poet a medium through which the Muses relayed the Language of the Gods.

Hazlett — The language of imagination and of passion

Shelley— Poetry is the record of the best and happiest moments of the best and happiest minds.

Poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world.

William Blake’s poems on young boys as chimney sweeps had a profound impact on one of the most unconscionable rationalisations of society.

WordsworthAll good poetry is the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings”.

Alfred Whitehead: fools act on imagination without knowledge, pedants act on knowledge without imagination".

(6 year old boy) - Poetry is when words sing.

Poetry is sound with meaning which challenges the imagination.

Poetry is the expression of deeply felt emotions or feelings characterised by an intensity of thought and consciousness of thought patterns.

Poetry is Personal — an attempt to capture the experience of significant moments of life.

Poetry is central to each person’s core existence—of unique value to the fully realised life.

Poetry celebrates the joys and mysteries of existence.

Poetry demonstrates the ineffability of the human condition; language’s inability to bridge the chasm between our individual existences, revealing the inescapable fact of our aloneness.

All fiction attempts to approximate feelings and emotions that defy articulation.

W.H. Auden once defined the chief criterion for reviewing poetry:

“Pleasure, he said, is not an infallible guide but it is the least fallible” while

Susan Sontag claims that sensuality is more important than interpretation.

Susan Sontag once wrote an essay advocating “an erotics of art,”:

that poetry is for lovers, not cryptologists.

T.S. Eliot advises “Just let it flow, just let it flow over you”.

Nietzsche:To experience pain is to have certainty; to hear about pain — is to have doubt.”

Roger McGough:

Children have a poetic sensibility that is knocked out of them by well-meaning adults. “They [children] make disparate links, in the way Aristotle says; they see things that we don’t normally see. They make connections all the time, and the way they use words,

‘Dad, the candle’s crying.’

And we say,

‘No, the candle isn’t crying; the candle isn’t crying, it’s the molecules agitated by the heat …’

Philip Larkin:

You walk an impressionistic tightrope and sometimes it’s a success and sometimes you fall off.

Robert Gray:

Poetry’s fundamental position; its opposition to every form of cliché.

Mark Tredinnick:

“To me Poetry is the architecture of utterance. A poem is like a sculpture made out of thought and sound and articulation……It is an intense sharp straining towards a form of original words, the right shape to hold the spirit that moved you. You hope that when you are done someone else reading it will feel it couldn’t have been put otherwise”.

“My work …seems like a gift – a gift I’d like to give back… Poetry sometimes tells difficult truths so beautifully no one can turn away…this is what my writing attempts. Alex Speed, Spectrum Feb. 26-27 2011

W.B. Yeats: #

When we quarrel with others, we make rhetoric;

When we quarrel with ourselves, we make poetry.

Carl Sandburg’s Ten definitions of poetry: #

  1. Poetry is a projection across silence of cadences arranged to break that silence with definite intentions of echoes, syllables, wave—lengths.

  2. Poetry is the journal of a sea animal living on land, wanting to fly the air.

  3. Poetry is a series of explanations of life, fading off into horizons too swift for explanations.

4.. Poetry is a search for syllables to shoot at the barriers of the unknown and the unknowable.

  1. Poetry is a theorem of a yellow—silk handkerchief knotted with riddles, sealed in a balloon tied to the tail of a kite flying in a white wind, against a blue sky in spring.

  2. Poetry is the silence and. speech between a wet struggling root of a flower and a sunlit blossom of that flower.

  3. Poetry is the harnessing of the paradox of earth cradling life and then entombing it.

  4. Poetry is a phantom script telling how rainbows are made and why they go away.

  5. Poetry is the synthesis of hyacinths and biscuits.

  6. Poetry is the opening and closing of a door, leaving those who look through to guess about what is seen during the moment.

Seamus Heaney

I wanted that truth to life to possess a concrete reliability, and rejoiced most when the poem seemed most direct, an upfront representation of the world it stood in for or stood up for or stood its ground against.

*Even as a schoolboy, I loved John Keats’s ode “To Autumn” for being an ark of the covenant between language and sensation; as an adolescent, I loved Gerard Manley Hopkins for the intensity of his exclamations which were also equations for a rapture and an ache I didn’t fully know I knew until I read him; I loved Robert Frost for his farmer’s accuracy and his wily down-to-earthness; and Chaucer too for much the same reasons. Later on I would find a different kind of accuracy, a moral down-to-earthness to which I responded deeply and always will, in the war poetry of Wilfred Owen, a poetry where a New Testament sensibility suffers and absorbs the shock of the new century’s barbarism. Then later again, in the pure consequence of Elizabeth Bishop’s style, in the sheer obduracy of Robert Lowell’s and in the barefaced confrontation of Patrick Kavanagh’s, I encountered further reasons for believing in poetry’s ability - and responsibility - to say what happens, to “pity the planet,” to be “not concerned with Poetry.”

I went for years half-avoiding and half- resisting the opulence and extensiveness of poets as different as Wallace Stevens and Rainer Maria Rilke; crediting insufficiently the crystalline inwardness of Emily Dickinson, all those forked lightnings and fissures of association; and missing the visionary strangeness of [Eliot.] And these more or less costive attitudes were fortified by a refusal to grant the poet any more license than any other citizen; and they were further induced by having to conduct oneself as a poet in a situation of ongoing political violence and public expectation. A public expectation, it has to be said, not of poetry as such but of political positions variously approvable by mutually disapproving groups.

It is vitally important to realise that good works of art are complex, ambiguous, conflicted and problematic – they do not provide answers, merely raise important issues many of which are not resolved. No one has a monopoly on interpretation of the text and each reader has as much entitlement to adopt a view as the next.

T.S. Eliot put it thus:

“The reader’s interpretation may be different from the author’s and be equally valid – it may even be better. There may be much more in a poem than the author is aware of. “

Eliot later examined the ineffability of communication in The Love-Song of J.Alfred Prufrock where he has his persona admit:

“It is impossible to say just what I mean!” ……..

and later:

“That is not what I meant at all./ That is not it, at all.”

T.S. Eliot made many other comments that help us understand poetry such as:

“Poetry can communicate before it is understood”

This is illustrated by Robert Cormier inThe Chocolate War (p. 96)

Jerry opened his locker. He had thumbtacked a poster to the back wall of the locker on the first day of school. The poster showed a wide expanse of beach, a sweep of sky with a lone star glittering far away. A man walked on the beach, a small solitary figure in all that immensity. At the bottom of the poster, these words appeared — “Do I dare disturb the universe”? by Eliot, who wrote the Waste Land (?) thing they were studying in English.

Jerry wasn’t sure of the poster’s meaning. But it had moved him mysteriously.


“The reader’s interpretation may be different from the author’s and be equally valid – it may even be better. There may be much more in a poem than the author is aware of. “

Ted Hughes*, in a letter to Keith Sagar. THL 23 May 1974:*

Poems belong to the reader – just as houses belong to those who live in them not to the builder”

As Sylvia Plath later, would use her writing as therapy; by a frank and full admission of her pain, hoping for some release of tension and an exorcism of the demons that haunted her, some of Dickinson’s poems, intensely emotional, yet never dissolving into sentimentality, reveal a troubled soul searching for understanding and acceptance.

Franz KaftaWriting should be an axe for the frozen sea inside us.”

‘Nothing replaces the reader’s responses: the sound of poetry on both the outer and inner ear, the visions of fiction in the mind’s eye, the kinaesthetic assault of total theatre’ Handbook of Criticism – Guerin.

Emily Dickinson expressed her technique:

“Tell all the Truth but tell it slant–/ Success in Circuit lies.”

Rita Dove, a former American poet laureate claims: “poetry is language at its most distilled and most powerful,”

Virginia Woolf: “every phrase should soak up as much truth as it can hold”.

All we can do is enjoy the poetry by letting the sounds flow over us and try to gain some insights.

Writers write for a variety of reasons, but mainly to voice their concerns; some write to document the times – chronicle or crystallise experience and distil the essence of history to give it permanency, while others use it as an emotional release of pent up tension and some write for the edification or moral uplifting of the world.

Parnassian \pahr-NAS-ee-uhn\, adjective: From Dictionary.com

1. pertaining to poetry.
2. pertaining to Mount Parnassus.
3. of, pertaining to, or noting a school of French poets of the latter half of the 19th century, characterized chiefly by a belief in art for art’s sake, by an emphasis on metrical form, and by the repression of emotive elements: so called from Le Parnasse Contemporain, the title of their first collection of poems, published in 1866.
4. a member of the Parnassian school of French poets.

However, your quest is dignified by its very disinterestedness; it is distanced from real human concerns and suffering; it is Parnassian, academic, aloof, elitist.
– David Lambkin, The Hanging Tree, 1998

Then coming down from those Parnassian heights you have university libraries, and private research libraries, and then maybe the big public libraries, and then district and branch libraries, and school libraries, hospital libraries, libraries in prisons, and long-term mental institutions.
– Ian Sansom, The Case of the Missing Books, 2010

Parnassian comes from a school of French poets whose first collection of poems was called Le Parnasse Contemporain.

Pierian \pahy-EER-ee-uh n\ adjective

  1. of or relating to poetry or poetic inspiration.

  2. of or relating to the Muses.

Origin of Pierian

Pierian is from the placename Pieria, the reputed home of the Muses in Greek mythology. It entered English in the late 1500s.