Poetry 101: What Makes A Poem, A Poem?

In my last post, Introduction to Poetry 101, I started off the series with a few handy tips to reading poetry. Now, as we are diving into the more technical parts of writing and reading poetry, let us begin with talking about the different types of poetry, as well as what makes a poem, a poem.

All poetry can be divided into two categories: narrative poetry and lyric poetry.

Narrative poems can typically be divided into four types: epic, ballad, idyll and lay. These types of poems have a plot and, though there is no length requirement, they tend to be long.

An epic is a narrative poem on a large scale that relates the adventures of heroes, the fate of nations or of mankind as a whole. Such as for example Homer’s Iliad or Milton’s Paradise Lost.

A ballad tells a simpler story similar to a folktale and uses a repeated refrain. This means that every few stanzas in the poem are repeated and, as the name “ballad” suggests, it was originally composed to be sung.

  • A refrain is a term used in poetry and music, to refer to a verse or phrase recurring at intervals in a song or poem, in particular at the end of each stanza. A chorus.
  • Stanza is a fixed number of lines in a poem, typically four or more, arranged in a definite pattern. A verse.

An idyll is a narrative poem about either an idolized country or about the idols of the past. Homer’s The Odyssey is a great example. An idyll tells of someone or something that should be idolized. Idylls that could be written today could be the deeds of, for example, Martin Luther King Jr. or Winston Churchill.

The lay is a long poem usually sung by medieval troubadours, to relate the news of the day or historical facts they wanted to spread throughout the countryside.

Lyrical poetry is a vast category that, more or less, covers all poetry not narrative and is the predominant type of poetry used in western literature. They can be of any length but tend to be shorter, (and can be very short indeed), than narrative poetry, with themes including the whole scope of human emotion and imagination. Lyrical poems often have a musical quality and are usually more subjective than narrative poems, often expressing the feelings and/or thoughts of a speaker.

Now that you have a better grasp on the different types of poetry, let us talk a little bit about the different components that go into making a poem an actual poem. A few characteristics only encountered in poems are things such as rhyme and the division into lines. Other characteristics are merely more frequent in poetry than in prose, like different types of figures of speech, (something I will talk more about in the next post on Poetry 101), and consideration to rhythm and sound. These elements are used with the objective to draw attention to the language of the poem; to underscore the meaning of the lines and the ideas.

The distinct appeal of poetry is not only the expression of a certain idea, but the way that specific idea is expressed. Because of the many layers of expression in poetry the meaning can sometimes seem somewhat ambiguous. You can therefore, when reading and deciphering poetry likely find several ways of interpreting it since sounds, rhythm, symbols etc., might be interpreted differently by different readers. All interpretations are valid as long as you find evidence to support your claim within the poem, so be sure to back them up.

Other elements of poetry are used just as often in prose as in poetry such as syntax (sentence structure) and choice of vocabulary, though these function differently in poetry than in prose. E.g. a prose writer will usually try to have as varied a vocabulary as possible, whereas a poet often uses repetition to get a point through or create a certain feeling.

A famous French poet, Poul Valéry, once compared prose and poetry to walking and dancing.

“The walker normally aims to reach a certain destination by the most direct route, as prose typically renders its meaning directly, whereas dancing progresses in a roundabout and repetitive manner. Poetry too, involves repetition of various kinds, and like dance it is based on rhythm and music.” – (P. 5, Close Reading: An introduction to literature by Elisabeth A. Howe).

All the elements in a poem work together to achieve a certain effect in either part of, or the whole poem. For example conveying an impression of calm or chaos.
In the next few Poetry 101 posts we will dive deeper into these elements so you know what to look for when reading and interpreting a poem.

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