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poesis, long narrative poem, lyric poems, Canadian poets, epic poems

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Poetry, form of literature, spoken or written, that emphasizes rhythm, other intricate patterns of sound and imagery, and the many possible ways that words can suggest meaning. The word itself derives from a Greek word, poesis, meaning “making” or “creating.” Whereas ordinary speech and writing, called prose, are organized in sentences and paragraphs, poetry in its simplest definition is organized in units called lines as well as in sentences, and often in stanzas, which are the paragraphs of poetry. The way a line of poetry is structured can be considered a kind of garment that shapes and clothes the thought within it. The oldest and most longstanding genres for classifying poetry are epic, a long narrative poem centered around a national hero, and lyric, a short poem expressing intense emotion.

Throughout its long history poetry has relied on evolving rules about what a poem is, with new kinds of poetry building on earlier kinds to create greater possibilities of expression. In the 20th century poets have increasingly used the language of everyday speech and created new forms that break the usual rules of poetry, such as its organization in line units. Yet to surprise a reader and evoke a response, the new has to be seen in contrast to the old, and thus poetry still depends upon a reader’s depth of knowledge about the poetic practices of the past for its effectiveness. Though much poetry is in written form, it usually represents a speaking voice that is not the same as the poet’s. In some lyric poems, this voice seems to speak about individual feelings; in epic poems, the voice seems to speak on behalf of a nation or community. Poetic voices of all kinds confront the unspeakable and push the limits of language and experience. The 20th-century American poet Michael Palmer characterizes this aspect of poetry when he writes playfully, “How lovely the unspeakable must be. You have only to say it and it tells a story.” At its deepest level, poetry attempts to communicate unspeakable aspects of human experience, through the still evolving traditions of an ancient and passionate art.

Poets throughout the ages have defined their art, devised rules for its creation, and written manifestos announcing their radical changes, only to have another poet alter their definition, if not declare just the opposite. “Poetry is the purification of the language of the tribe,” wrote French poet Stephane Mallarme at the end of the 19th century. But 20th-century American poet William Carlos Williams, just 50 years later, would call for poems written in a language so natural “that cats and dogs can understand.” Increasingly during the 20th century, poetic language has reflected a response to severe and agonizing circumstances. Romanian-born poet Paul Celan, whose parents were killed in a concentration camp during World War II (1939-1945) and who was himself imprisoned in a work camp, wrote in German, which he viewed as the language of his Nazi tormentors. Much of the difficulty of Celan’s complex, mysterious poems comes from the tension he felt between poetry as a source of beauty and order, and the meaninglessness and violence of his experience. Writing in the language of his oppressors, he dramatized this tension by using fragments, invented words and puzzling statements.

While most poets face circumstances far less extreme than Celan's, other 20th-century writers have also struggled with the many associations language already carries with it. One experimental group, well represented among American and Canadian poets, known as Language poets, seeks to free the word from what they consider to be the constraints of the grammatical sentence, a task they view as a political action against Western culture. While most poets do not criticize language to this extent, many face new challenges in attempting to make the language of poetry reflect the speed, complexity, and confusion of late 20th-century life.


Volkman, Karen, B.A., M.A.

Instructor in Poetry at New York University, Yhe New School, and Teachers and Writers Collaborative. Author of "Crash's Law". National Poetry Award recipient. National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship in Poetry recipient.

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