definitions of poetry

2 posts

A Poem Should Be…


Ars Poetica. According to both Merriam and Webster, it means “a treatise on the art of literary and especially poetic composition.” And strictly speaking, in the Dead Language (that’s Latin to you), it means “the art of poetry.”

Many poems carry this title, and it is considered a rite of passage to write your own Ars Poetica. Thus, if you count yourself a poet and haven’t written one, you should. I know, I know. What a pain in the ars.

So to start, think of this: What should a poem be?

Done? OK. Then here’s better advice: Think of what a poem should not be. Chances are, brainstorming this way will lead you to thoughts most no one else has had while parsing and arsing this fabled beast called poetry.

Don’t believe me? Check out Archibald MacLeish’s go at it:

Ars Poetica by Archibald MacLeish

A poem should be palpable and mute
As a globed fruit,

As old medallions to the thumb,

Silent as the sleeve-worn stone
Of casement ledges where the moss has grown—

A poem should be wordless
As the flight of birds.


A poem should be motionless in time
As the moon climbs,

Leaving, as the moon releases
Twig by twig the night-entangled trees,

Leaving, as the moon behind the winter leaves,
Memory by memory the mind—

A poem should be motionless in time
As the moon climbs.


A poem should be equal to:
Not true.

For all the history of grief
An empty doorway and a maple leaf.

For love
The leaning grasses and two lights above the sea—

A poem should not mean
But be.


I don’t know about you, but I like this definition of poetry. As the Beatles (or what’s left of them) like to say: “Let it be.”

And if you’re looking for deeper meaning, find a beach and pound sand. Archie’s having too much fun telling us what poetry isn’t. Or maybe what it is but no one in their right mind ever would have guessed it is (poetry being for left minds, as you know).

Got it? Then good luck and get writing.



Poetry Unconventionally Defined


Standard dictionary definitions are of little use when you’re in the mood for a little fun. It’s better to hear the experts themselves. Poets. They’ll say anything, sometimes coming closer to the heart of the matter than Merriam or Webster. Here are a few of my favorites culled from the web:

“Poetry: three mismatched shoes at the entrance of a dark alley.” (Charles Simic)

“Poetry is a sword of lightning, ever unsheathed, which consumes the scabbard that would contain it.” (Percy Bysshe Shelley)

“Writing free verse is like playing tennis with the net down.” (Robert Frost)

“Poetry is the journal of a sea animal living on land, wanting to fly in the air.” (Carl Sandburg)

“Poetry is, at bottom, a criticism of life.” (Matthew Arnold)

“I could no more define poetry than a terrier can define a rat.” (A.E. Housman)

“I’ve had it with these cheap sons of bitches who claim they love poetry but never buy a book.” (Kenneth Rexroth)

“Poetry is what in a poem makes you laugh, cry, prickle, be silent, makes your toe nails twinkle, makes you want to do this or that or nothing, makes you know that you are alone in the unknown world, that your bliss and suffering is forever shared and forever all your own.” (Dylan Thomas)

“There is poetry as soon as we realize we possess nothing.” (John Cage)

“Poetry is a deal of pain and joy and wonder, with a dash of the dictionary.” (Kahlil Gibran)

“Poetry is the art of creating imaginary gardens with real toads.” (Marianne Moore)

“The poem is a plank laid over a lion’s den.” (James K Baxter)

“The best words in the best order.” (Samuel Coleridge)

“Pleasance and half wonder.” (W.B. Yeats)

“Language in orbit.” (Seamus Heaney)

“A poem should not mean but be.” (Archibald Macleish)

“There’s no money in poetry, but then there’s no poetry in money, either.” (Robert Graves)

“A poem is never finished, only abandoned.” (Paul Valery)

“Poets utter great and wise things which they do not themselves understand.” (Plato)

“One man’s fiddle is another man’s violin.” (Ken Craft)