Poetry Defined

Poetry is typically the use of any language in a structured way that unifies word sounds (using most typically rhyming, but also alliteration, assonance, anaphora, etc.) or contains a regular rhythm (using meter, which broadly includes counting of stresses, syllables, Chinese characters, etc.) while conveying a specific theme (often using literary devices such as similes, metaphors, personification, allegory, irony, satire, etc.).

The above definition has applied since antiquity and in most major cultures throughout the world. Since the late 19th and early 20th centuries, with the emergence and rise of modernism, the structural components of poetry, sound and rhythm, typically have been viewed by practicing poets and literary professors as optional. Instead, theme has become the only defining characteristic of poetry in recent centuries. Meanwhile poetry has also undergone a general decline in popularity correlating with this bastardizing of its traditional form, with the discarding of traditional moral values, and with the rise of modern means of communication and artistic expression: radio, television, computer, smart phones, and so on (read more in Who Killed Poetry?). Therefore, the definition of poetry in the paragraph above continues to apply and the current concept of poetry, which throws out structural components of sound and rhythm, is an aberration when taken in the scope of history, world cultures, and long-term effectiveness in communication.

Poetry Today

These are organizations that still publish poetry primarily, and do not as frequently publish free verse.

To have a publication added to this list, email its name and website to submissions@classicalpoets.org

 

Historical Foundations of Poetry

Aristotle (384-322 BC) on Poetry, History, and Epic Poetry

ancient greek sage aristotle

Aristotle teaches Alexander the Great

“It is not the purpose of the poet to relate what has happened, but what may happen—what is possible according to the law of probability or necessity. The poet and the historian differ not by writing in verse or in prose. The work of Herodotus might be put into verse, and it would still be a kind of history, with meter no less than without it. The true difference is that one relates what has happened, the other what may happen. Poetry, therefore, is a more philosophical and a higher thing than history: for poetry tends to express the universal, history the particular.”

“Homer is pre-eminent among poets.”

“Epic poetry agrees with Tragedy in so far as it is an imitation in verse of characters of a higher type. They differ, in that Epic poetry admits but one kind of meter, and is narrative in form. They differ, again, in their length: for Tragedy endeavors, as far as possible, to confine itself to a single revolution of the sun, or but slightly to exceed this limit; whereas the Epic action has no limits of time.”

“Epic poetry differs from Tragedy in the scale on which it is constructed, and in its meter. As regards scale or length, we have already laid down an adequate limit:—the beginning and the end must be capable of being brought within a single view. This condition will be satisfied by poems on a smaller scale than the old epics, and answering in length to the group of tragedies presented at a single sitting.”

“Epic poetry has, however, a great—a special—capacity for enlarging its dimensions, and we can see the reason. In Tragedy we cannot present several lines of actions carried on at one and the same time; we must confine ourselves to the action on the stage and the part taken by the players. But in Epic poetry, owing to the narrative form, many events simultaneously transacted can be presented; and these, if relevant to the subject, add mass and dignity to the poem. The Epic has here an advantage, and one that conduces to grandeur of effect, to diverting the mind of the hearer, and relieving the story with varying episodes. For sameness of action soon produces satisfaction, and makes tragedies fail on the stage.

As for the meter, the heroic measure has proved its fitness by the test of experience. If a narrative poem in any other meter or in many meters were now composed, it would be found incongruous. For of all measures the heroic is the stateliest and the most massive; and hence it most readily admits rare words and metaphors, which is another point in which the narrative form of imitation stands alone. On the other hand, the iambic and the trochaic tetrameter are stirring measures, the latter being akin to dancing, the former expressive of action. Still more absurd would it be to mix together different meters, as was done by Chaeremon. Hence no one has ever composed a poem on a great scale in any other than heroic verse. Nature herself, as we have said, teaches the choice of the proper measure.”

Source: The Poetics of Aristotle

On the Chinese Classic of Poetry (11th – 7th century BC), Compiled by Confucius

Confucius Kongzi ancient Chinese sage

Confucius (by Kano Tanyu)

“These old Odes and ballads abound in rhymes. Very frequently three occur in a stanza of four lines, viz., in the first, second and last; sometimes we have quatrains proper, the first and third lines rhyming together, and the second and fourth.”

Source: Introduction to Chinese Classic of Poetry

 

Confucius (6th century BC) on Poetry

The Master said, “My children, why do you not study the Classic of Poetry?
“The Odes serve to stimulate the mind.
“They may be used for purposes of self-contemplation.
“They teach the art of sociability.
“They show how to regulate feelings of resentment.
“From them you learn the more immediate duty of serving one’s father, and the remoter one of serving one’s prince.
“From them we become largely acquainted with the names of birds, beasts, and plants.”

The Master said, “In the Classic of Poetry are 300 pieces, but the design of them all may be embraced in one sentence—’Having no depraved thoughts.'”

Source: Confucius’s Analects

 

Ancient Roman Poet Horace (65-8 BC) on Poetry

ancient roman poet

Horace

Select, all ye who write, a subject fit,
A subject, not too mighty for your wit!
And ere you lay your shoulders to the wheel,
Weigh well their strength, and all their weakness feel!
He, who his subject happily can chuse,
Wins to his favour the benignant Muse;
The aid of eloquence he ne’er shall lack,
And order shall dispose and clear his track.
Order, I trust, may boast, nor boast in vain,
These Virtues and these Graces in her train.
What on the instant should be said, to say;
Things, best reserv’d at present, to delay;
Guiding the bard, thro’ his continu’d verse,
What to reject, and when; and what rehearse.
On the old stock of words our fathers knew,
Frugal and cautious of engrafting new,
Happy your art, if by a cunning phrase
To a new meaning a known word you raise:
If ’tis your lot to tell, at some chance time,
“Things unattempted yet in prose or rhime,”
Where you are driv’n perforce to many a word
Which the strait-lac’d Cethegi never heard,
Take, but with coyness take, the licence wanted,
And such a licence shall be freely granted:
New, or but recent, words shall have their course,
If drawn discreetly from the Graecian source.

Source: The Art Of Poetry An Epistle To The Pisos, by Horace

 

An American Founding Father on Poetry

“I must study politics and war that my sons may have liberty to study mathematics and philosophy. My sons ought to study mathematics and philosophy, geography, natural history, naval architecture, navigation, commerce, and agriculture, in order to give their children a right to study painting, poetry, music, architecture, statuary, tapestry, and porcelain.”

Source: John Adams to Abigail Adams, letter posted May 12, 1780

 

Washington Irving (1783-1859) on the Role of a Poet

“…a poet; for of all writers he has the best chance for immortality. Others may write from the head, but he writes from the heart, and the heart will always understand him. He is the faithful portrayer of Nature, whose features are always the same and always interesting. Prose writers are voluminous and unwieldy; their pages crowded with commonplaces, and their thoughts expanded into tediousness. But with the true poet every thing is terse, touching, or brilliant. He gives the choicest thoughts in the choicest language. He illustrates them by everything that he sees most striking in nature and art. He enriches them by pictures of human life, such as it is passing before him. His writings, therefore, contain the spirit, the aroma, if I may use the phrase, of the age in which he lives. They are caskets which inclose within a small compass the wealth of the language—its family jewels, which are thus transmitted in a portable form to posterity. The setting may occasionally be antiquated, and require now and then to be renewed, as in the case of Chaucer; but the brilliancy and intrinsic value of the gems continue unaltered.”

Source: Mutability of Literature

 

Great Works of Poetry

Homer’s Iliad

Homer

Homer (Bouguereau)

Alexander Pope translation into rhyming couplets
William Cowper translation into blank verse
Samuel Butler into prose
Ian Johnston into plain English
Adapted for students
Translation by Richmond Lattimore, 1961

Homer’s Odyssey

Alexander Pope translation into rhyming couplets
William Cowper translationinto blank verse
Samuel Butler into prose
Ian Johnston into plain English
Adapted for students
Translation by Richmond Lattimore, 1965

Aesop’s Fables

Christopher Smart translation of Phaedrus, and much more.

Virgil’s Aeneid

Dryden translation into rhyming couplets
Mackail translation into prose

English Poetry Timeline

A Timeline of English Poetry Part I: The Song of Amergin, Caedmon’s Hymn, Bede’s Death Song, Deor’s Lament

The Poetry of Colum Cille 

Adiutor Laborantium and Noli Pater

Beowulf

Translation by Lesslie Hall
Translated by Seamus Heaney

Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer

The Canterbury Tales A Complete Translation into Modern English by Ronald L. Ecker and Eugene J. Crook
Annotated by Michael Murphy
Adapted by Purves
Interlinear Translations of Some of The Canterbury Tales

Dante’s Divine Comedy

Rhyming translation by Dorothy Sayers
Inferno translation by Longfellow
Purgatory translation by Longfellow
Paradise translation by Longfellow
Side-by-side translations of the Inferno, Longfellow, Cary, Norton
Complete translation by Cary
Inferno translation by Robert Pinsky

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight

Deane translation
Original Middle English and prose retelling by Morris
Translation by J. R. R. Tolkien (as well as Pearl and Sir Orfeo)

Jean Froissart

Three poems translated

William Shakespeare’s Sonnets

Shakespeare-online.com
Shakespeare-sonnets
Shakespeare.mit.edu

The Faerie Queene by Sir Edmund Spenser

The Faerie Queene

Paradise Lost by John Milton

Paradiselost.org

Chinese Poetry

The Classic of Poetry
Chinese-poems.com
A Hundred and Seventy Poems translated by Arthur Waley
Journey to the West, complete English translation by Jenner
Ballad of Mulan
Ballad of Mulan (rhyming and metered translation)
Tang Spirit Network
300 Tang Poems
“Ascending the Phoenix Terrace in Jinling” by Li Bai, “Yellow Crane Tower” by Cui Hao

Japanese Poetry

Classic Haiku

Persian Poetry

The Poetry of Rumi

Genres

Epic Poetry
Pastoral Poetry
Lyric Poetry

 

Poetry Writing Resources

Guides

Poetry Forms