"What is Poetry? 10 observations"
Dana Gioia


Let’s begin by talking about poetry from a broad perspective. What is the nature of the art? What were its origins in human history? What roles has it played in the development of civilization?

Poetry is the most ancient human art. It extends back in time to before recorded history, before writing. It was one of the ways in which and by which homo sapiens became human. The receptors for poetry are hard-wired in our brains. And those receptors feed our imagination, emotions, memory, and physical senses.

Poetry is an art that uses every means by which language communicates to create a particular meaning and effect. That is why civilizations have always used poetry in education. By studying poetry, you learn how to recognize, understand, and use the full range and power of language.

Poetry also reminds us that the physical sound and rhythm of words are parts of their meaning. In other words, the form a statement takes becomes part of its meaning. In fact, the forms of language are never neutral. That is one of the most important things you need to know about poetry and, indeed, all literature.

The best way to appreciate poetry is to lean back, relax, and listen. Clear your mind of all the clutter of the 21st century, open your imagination, and poetry will do the rest.

Now let’s ask a very basic question: What is poetry? What, exactly, is this art that we are talking about? I will give you a definition in a few minutes, but the best way to understand that definition, indeed the best way to comprehend the art of poetry itself, is by considering its ancient origins and its odd properties. I want to make 10 observations from history, from anthropology, and from literature about the art of poetry.

1. The first is that poetry is a universal art; a universal form of human expression. Poetry is found in every language and in every culture. There is no race or tribe of people without poetry.

2. Secondly, poetry is the most ancient art-form. It still survives in the modern world. It dates back into prehistory, when humanity made art with no other tools that the human body.

3. Thirdly, poetry is originally an oral art. Poetry predates writing. It organizes human speech into musical patterns that heighten its meaning and memorability. It would be useful to think of poetry as a memory technology that humans developed before they did writing . As Robert Frost said “Poetry is a way of remembering what it would impoverish us to forget.”

4. Fourth, poetry is a performative art. In ancient cultures, in pre-literate tribal cultures, poetry combines with singing and dancing to create a performative art, a musical performance that creates the same forms of enchantment that we associate with modern music.

5. Fifth, poetry is a mnemonic art. Since it existed before writing, poetry had to be memorable in order to survive. Most poetic technique, especially meter and rhyme, are aids to memory. If a culture does not have writing, how does it remember those things that are so important that it dare not forget. The answer is, poetry. You can often remember the sense of a prose passage, but not the exact wording. But when we remember poetry, we tend to remember the exact words.

6. Six, poetry is an evocative art. Poetry seeks to enchant the listener. To heighten the listener’s attention, to relax his or her emotional defenses and unlock the memory and the imagination. Poetry is in fact a kind of mild form of hypnosis which has us enlarge our attention and strengthen our memory.

7. Seven, Poetry is a formal and metrical art. All ancient poetry was formal, almost always using recurrent patterns of sound, which is to say, meter, to announce its special status as art. Think of the situation in an oral culture which has constant speech. A poem is needed to cut through the speech by announcing its special status as a kind of artistic speech, a kind of heightened speech.

Now, the specific nature of those techniques differs by language and by culture. But poetry always uses features that native speakers can hear without difficulty. In Germanic languages like English poetry uses speech stress. In romance languages like French or Italian, it uses syllable count. In Chinese, it tends to use syllable count and tone pattern. In ancient Greek and Latin, it used the duration of syllables, long or short. Why did traditional poetry use meter? At least three reasons.

First, to announce that it isn’t ordinary speech. This was a kind of talking that required special status. Secondly, it provided musical pleasure. Poetry makes people want to listen. It provides a kind of entertainment. It wraps the senses up in pleasure. And, thirdly, it creates a gentle hypnotic state that heightens attention and retention and focuses the listeners senses to increase memorability.

Some of you are probably asking, What about free verse? Free verse also has to announce its status as being different from prose. If you open up a book of poems and a book of fiction, you’ll see that the visual placement of the free verse, tells us it is a poem, a kind of language that requires special attention.

8. Eight, poetry is a sacred art. It is impossible to talk about the origins of poetry without discussing religion. Poetry probably first emerged as sacred ritual, words sung or chanted and danced in honor of the divine. Poetry was a special language that allowed human beings to transcend their everyday state into a heightened consciousness that brought them closer to the gods. The power to address their gods, to commemorate and relive the stories of their gods. The poet was a priest or priestess. The priestess or priest was a poet, a shaman, a prophet, a magus. Most of the sacred literature of the ancient world is written in verse. It had to be composed in verse before the development of writing, because there was no other way to remember it. But even after writing developed, the habit – or better yet, the practice – of poetry continued. Poetry gave the words more power and memorability. In the Hebrew bible, the prophetic books, Isaiah, Ezekiel are in verse. The psalms, the book of wisdom, the book of Job. In Hindu, the upanishads, the Vedas, are classics of Hindu poetry. And even the Muslim sacred book, the Koran, which means a recitation, is a kind of rhymed free verse, or prose. A sense of the sacred is central to poetry’s identity.

Even once a culture has been secularized, poets like Walt Witman or Ezra Pound try to write new sacred books. Or Christian poets such as William Blake, Wordsworth, or John Milton, try to tell new sacred stories. Poets still want their work to contain vision and prophecy. The last few lines of Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s Kubla Khan end with the vision of a sacred poet.

And all should cry, ‘Beware, beware,’
His flashing eyes, his floating hair.
Weave a circle round him thrice
And close your eyes with holy dread
for he on honeydew hath fed
and drunk the milk of paradise.

9. Nine, poetry is a magical art. Poetry originates in religious ritual: prayers, chants, and songs, hymns, invocations, magic spells. Poetry is a powerful language that would unleash strong effects. We still associate poetry with magic spells. Think of the charms that kids recite:

Rain, rain, go away
Come again some other day


Cross my heart and hope to die
Cut my throat if I tell a lie.


Star light, star bright
First star I see tonight
I wish I may, I wish I might
Have the wish I wish tonight

We see the magical elements the mythology around poetry. Who in the Greek and Roman tradition is the first poet? Orpheus. His songs could change the nature of reality. His songs stopped people from living alone in the woods like wild animals. His songs called them to join together in communities and build the first cities. In this myth, poetry civilizes humanity. It makes individuals understand common things, and it uses pleasure to instruct. Poetry was originally considered sacred or magical. The Latin word Carmen means songs, poems, magic spells and prophecy. All four of those things are united in the nature of poetry. This word comes into English via the French word ‘Charme’ into our world ‘Charm.’ And think of lucky charms, charm bracelets, charms in verse:

Rain, rain, go away . . .

Now, why am I bringing a magic into a discussion of poetry. Do I believe that reciting that charm will change the weather? No, but I pay attention to poetry’s legacy of magic. Because it reveals something essential about the nature of poetry, and perhaps all art. Poetry is not merely communication; it is not merely a means of remembering; it is not merely a means of instructing; it is not merely what post-modernist theorists call a pleasure technology, though it encompasses all of those goals. Poetry is a kind of enchantment that desires overtly or covertly to transform the world. And this magical desire is encoded in the very nature of the art.

Now, some of you are reasonably skeptical of this claim because we’ve been taught that magic isn’t real and that poetry is a kind of airy nothingness. But what is a love poem? Isn’t it a spell to convince the beloved to reciprocate the speaker’s passion? Or, at the very least, to feel sorry for the speaker’s painful devotion. What is an elegy if not a verbal spell trying to summon up the spirit of a departed person, to make us admire and remember them, to miss the presence of that departed soul.

Likewise, satire is a kind of spell that tries to cut some person down to size. Even the lyric poem usually tries to explain what it is like to exist in a particular moment. Not simply in intellectual terms but to fill you with the sensations and emotions that a particular person has in a specific moment in an individual life. Real poetry is, in some way, large or small, magical. Or, to put it in contemporary terms, transformative. That’s why, if you study poetry seriously, the experience will transform you. It changes different people in different ways, but in each case it enlarges and transforms the individual by changing their notion of themselves and their own existence. And that sort of practical magic leads me to our tenth and final observation about poetry.

10. Poetry civilizes. As the legend of Orpheus reminds us poetry and song civilize anarchistic humanity into coherent societies with shared experiences and shared awarenesses. The great civilizations of the world have been based, to an extraordinary degree on poems. China built its traditional civilization on the Confucian anthology. Greece built itself on Homer, Hesiod, Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides; Islam on the poetry of the Koran; Israel on the Psalm and Wisdom books, on the prophets of the Old Testament; Hindu India upon the Upanishads and Vedic literature; Persian civilization is based on the Book of Kings by Ferdoze. A tribe does not mature into a nation without poetic epics.

Sometimes the epic is created explicitly for the purpose, or reconstructed from earlier fragments. The Aeneid by Virgil. Paradise Lost by John Milton, the Kalevala of the Finnish people which gave them a national identity which had been suppressed by imperial rule. The song of Hiawatha was Longfellow’s attempt to bring native American legends into the Anglo-Saxon mainstream of his time. No people can know where to go into the future without knowing where they came from ub the past.

So, having spent some time now, considering poetry’s original place, function, and form in ancient and tribal cultures, what is poetry? What is a definition of the art? My definition is that poetry is a special way of speaking that invites and rewards a special way of hearing. And by extension, poetry has also become a special way of writing that invites and rewards a special way of reading. We hear poems differently from ordinary speech. We read poems differently from ordinary prose. Poetry is the most concise, expressive, moving, and memorable way of articulating what it means to be human.

Now, notice that my definition presents three aspects of the art. The speaker or writer, the listener or reader, and the poem: the text, the performance. Poetry is not simply a thing. It is an experience, a relationship. This is what Emily Dickinson was describing when she said: “If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know that as poetry.”

There is no special subject for poetry. Poetry is not a subject matter. It is a language. Poetry is a special language that exists inside normal daily spoken language. If you can summon this language with expressive, moving, and memorable patterns, you can say anything. Like music, poetry has the power to open up responses inside us: imaginative spiritual emotional intellectual that are hard to reach otherwise. The experience of poetry has the power to awaken, enlarge and refine our humanity in all it’s complexity. And that is what we – you and me – will try to make happen in these lectures. . . . [some more examples by various poets]