Poetry can be hard to define, but most people know a poem when they read one. Some people love poetry; others can do without it. Regardless, understanding this art form — as a reader or a writer — is part of any well-rounded education. Therefore, in honor of National Poetry Month, which happens every April, I’ve decided to present some frequently asked questions and their answers.
What is National Poetry Month?
Every April since 1996, when it was inaugurated by the Academy of American Poets, National Poetry Month has been celebrated. It is a time when publishers, booksellers, literary organizations, libraries, schools and poets around the country can band together to celebrate poetry and its vital place in American culture.
What can I do to celebrate National Poetry Month?
There are lots of different things you can do to celebrate National Poetry Month. Here are a few ideas:
- Write a poem. Later on this page, I cover different types of poems. Pick one and try your hand at it. Share it in a comment on this post – I’d love to cheer you on!
- Go to an open mic poetry reading. OK, I know that may be hard this year, given COVID-19, so you can either find out if there is a virtual reading going on that you can attend, or watch one (or more) of these videos of open mic poetry readings.
(Manhattanville’s MFA Program), 1 hour, 8 mins
(Villanova University), 1 hour, 18 mins
(Johnson City Poets Collective), 47 minutes
- Go to the Public Library and check out a book on poetry. Again, this could be challenging this month, so try out the next idea.
- Go to your favorite bookstore and buy a book on poetry. My favorite bookstore is Amazon. Check out their poetry offerings here.
- Rent and view Dead Poets Society, available for rent on Amazon Prime for less than $3, or Il Postino, which you can buy on Amazon, or rent a live version on Amazon Prime.
- Read this post and the poems shared and to which I link.
Do you have other ideas for celebrating National Poetry Month? Please share in a comment below!
What is poetry?
Poems can be rhythmical. They can rhyme. They can be prose-like. They can short. They can be long. The most common characteristic of poetry is that it says a lot with very few words. Each word in a poem is carefully chosen to make the greatest impact, creating an emotional response in the reader.
What sets poetry apart from other literary art forms is that it is based on the interplay of rhythm and word choice. These two qualities work together to create abstract images, sounds, and ideas that might be too challenging to directly describe.
How was poetry invented?
The Sumerian collection of poems called The Epic of Gilgamesh, a hero much like the Greek’s Hercules, is often cited as the earliest epic poem. It dates back to the 18th century B.C. and was discovered through several Babylonian tablets found through archeological digs.
That said, poetry pre-dates written text. The first poems were believed to be sung, as poetry and music are related art forms. More than likely, the first poems were created while humankind was still living in caves, however, we’ll never know for sure.
How do you classify a poem?
There are four main classifications of poetry: Narrative, dramatic and lyrical. However, some poems can fall under more than one classification. In general, here is what identifies each classification:
- A narrative poem tells a story. Like a story, its structure has a plot with a beginning, a middle and a conclusion. They also have characters. Narrative poetry includes epics, ballads, idylls and lays. Some narrative poems can be as long as a novel, while others are much shorter. Like a lot of poetry and fiction, narrative poems have their roots in the oral tradition. The earliest ones written were meant to be recited, not read.
- A dramatic poem is a play set in verse. Much like the narrative poem, it tells a story, however, it may lack the formal structure of a story.
- A lyrical poem expresses strong thoughts and feelings. It’s main — possibly sole — purpose is to express and evoke an emotion.
- A descriptive poem is focused on the environment. It is concerned with describing the world through the speaker’s eyes and therefore relies heavily on adjectives and imagery.
What are common poetry types?
Poetry is a versatile art form. What follows is not meant to be a comprehensive list of all the types of poetry – I may have missed one or two (or more). However, these are the most commonly known and found types of poems.
A ballad is a poem or song that tells a story. In the latter 1800s, the term came to mean the slow form of a popular love song. These days it is pretty much synonymous with any love song, particularly pop or rock long songs, often called “power ballads.”
Ballads have been around for a long time, particularly characteristic of popular poetry and song during the later medieval period in Britain and Ireland. However, ballads can be found in a wide variety of cultures. In the 1980s, rock ballads were big … especially those from the “hair bands.”
A couplet is a very concise poem composed of two lines. These two lines have the same meter and usually rhyme. When a couplet’s meter is iambic pentameter, it is called a heroic couplet.
Although a couplet can stand on its own, it can also be a subset of a longer poem. For example, Shakespearean sonnets often end with a couplet. The Canterbury Tales written by Chaucer were a series of rhyming couplets.
Couplets are still quite viable in today’s poetry. They are the most common type of rhyme scheme in old school rap and are still commonly used in hip-hop music.
An elegy is, in general, a mournful, melancholic or plaintive poem, but more often than not it is a funeral song or a lament for the dead. I’ve written a few of elegies myself, including a couple for my grandmother and one, most recently, for my father.
An epic poem is a long-form, narrative poem that usually is about heroic deeds and significant events. The written form evolved from oral tradition. Examples of epic poetry include:
- The Epic of Gilgamesh – the story of the Mesopotamian hero Gilgamesh
- The Odyssey and The Iliad – Homer’s two epic poems about the Greek hero Odysseus
- Beowulf – An old English tale of the Scandinavian hero Beowulf; it is considered one of the most important works of Anglo-Saxon literature
Haiku, like Tanka, is a Japanese form of poetry. It usually has 17 syllables – three lines of five, seven and five syllables each. This is not a hard and fast rule, and you can find other definitions of the Haiku. The purpose of this poetic form is to evoke a powerful emotional response with very few words.
One of the most memorable haiku I’ve read was written by Japanese master of haiku, Buson:
the cold is piercing –
in the bedroom, I have stepped
on my dead wife’s comb
The last line always brings a lump to my throat. I’ve experimented with haiku quite a bit. You can find many of mine on this blog.
Similar to a pastoral, an idyll (sometimes spelled idyl) describes rustic life. It is a short poem written in the style of Theocritus’ short pastoral poems, the Idylls.
Theocritus’ idylls described scenes from everyday life. He was later imitated by Virgil, Catullus, Leopardi, Alfred, Lord Tennyson and Goethe.
In music, the term references a kind of French courtly entertainment from the baroque era in which a pastoral poem was set to music and accompanied by ballet and singing. In broader terms, it can be any type of music that evokes pastoral or rural life.
The term is also used in visual arts to describe paintings depicting pastoral, rural or peasant life.
This fun form of poetry takes its name from Limerick, the third-largest city in Ireland. Traditionally, the limerick is humorous and five lines long, following a specific rhyming pattern. The end of lines 1, 2 and 5 rhyme, and lines 3 and 4 rhyme. At one time, the rhyming word at the end of lines 1 and 5 was the same. Here is an example I wrote in the 5th grade:Here are some questions for you:
Do you sit, while smiling, in glue?
Do you like that new boy?
Or would you rather go to Troy?
And are your eyes, which are green, shiny blue?
Variants of the limerick can be traced back to the 14th century. Interestingly enough, they were used in nursery rhymes and other poems for children. But, since they were short and relatively easy to compose, they began to be repeated by beggars or the working classes in the British pubs and taverns of the 15th, 16th and 17th centuries. Since those who were creating these limericks were often drunkards, they became increasingly bawdy, dirty and filled with sexual innuendo.
May 12 is celebrated as Limerick Day because on that day in 1812 the writer Edward Lear was born. He is credited with popularizing the limerick with his Book of Nonsense, published in 1845.
Limericks are not always bawdy or obscene. However, Gershon Legman, who compiled the most scholarly anthology on the form, believed that the true limerick is always obscene and felt that the clean limerick rarely rose above mediocrity.
Not to be confused with the lyrical classification, a lyric poem is short, told from the point of view of one speaker, and has a song-line quality to it. It expresses thoughts and feelings. Lyric poetry includes odes, sonnets, and elegies. The word “lyric” is derived from “lyre.” In classical Greece, lyrics were meant to be sung, accompanied by a lyre.
The ode was first created by the ancient Greeks. It is an elaborately structured lyrical verse that praises or glorifies an event, person, place or thing, describing nature both intellectually and emotionally. Although alternative forms exist, the classic ode is divided into three parts:
- the strophe: the opening of the poem, laying out the structure
- the antistrophe: a reply to the strophe, creating balance
- the epode: the final part of the ode, completes the poem
Pastoral poetry sings the praises of a bucolic, country lifestyle. The term “pastoral” refers to the lifestyle of shepherds, cowherds and other ways of life that involve open areas of land and pasturage.
A quatrain is either a poem or stanza of a poem, that is four lines and has one of three rhyming patterns:
Quatrains can overlap other types of poetry, such as iambic pentameter. Ogden Nash wrote humorous poetry, often in the form of quatrains.
Sonnets are poems with 14 lines that use one of several formal rhyme schemes. In English, sonnets usually have 10 syllables per line.
Sonnets originated in Europe, primarily from Great Britain and Italy. The term comes from the Occitan word “sonet” and the Italian word “sonetto” — both of which mean “little song” or “little sound.”
One of the best-known writers of sonnets was William Shakespeare … he wrote 154 of them! And that doesn’t include the sonnets within his plays. Shakespeare tended to follow this rhyming scheme with his sonnets: a-b-a-b, c-d-c-d, e-f-e-f, g-g; the last two lines being a rhyming couplet. This pattern is called “iambic pentameter,” an unstressed syllable is followed by a stressed syllable and repeated five times.
Tanka means “short poem” in Japanese and contains 31 onji (sound-symbols, the smallest linguistic unit in Japanese poetry). When the form was translated into English, the early translator mistakenly thought onji was the equivalent of an English syllable, which it is not. Therefore, the English language form of Tanka is 31 syllables, divided into 5 lines, much like the Haiku: 5-7-5-7-7. One writer compared Tanka to the blues because it often deals with intense personal feelings.
As the name suggests, free verse poetry does its own thing. It does not follow the patterns or conventions I’ve discussed here. That said, free verse is not necessarily chaotic. It still reads and sounds like poetry … it is just not following any particular set of poetic rules of form. In fact, T.S. Eliot once wrote, “No verse is free for the man who wants to do a good job.”
How can I learn to enjoy poetry?
As with any art form, you’ll find that you either like poetry or you won’t. You may find that you like some forms of poetry and not others. Or you may find you like some poets and not others. You are the one who decides what you do or don’t like. But here are some tips on how to enjoy poetry.
- Experiment. Read different kinds of poetry and the poems of different artists. Be open to the possibilities.
- Don’t analyze – unless you want to. Yes, you may have had to do this with poems back in school. But that’s not how you necessarily have to enjoy them. Again, experiment. Perhaps you just like the emotional quality of the poem to wash over you and then be done with it. Or maybe you do like to explore the meaning of the poem, much as a Star Wars fan dissects the latest franchise film.
- Explore. When you find a poet you like, find more of her or his work. Find other poets that are similar and read their work. Listen to poetry readings live or online. Read poems out loud yourself, rather than keep them inside your head.
- Journal. Keep a journal where you note your favorite poetic verses, write about your experiences with particular poems, record your personal exploratory journey into poetry.
And, if all else fails, and you just can’t find poems you enjoy, realize that poetry isn’t for everyone. If no matter how you try, you can’t find enjoyment in poetry, then let it go and enjoy the forms of art you do like.
How do I become a poet or write poetry?
A good poet knows how to use strong, accurate, and interesting words, that are well-placed and evoke emotion in the reader. If you want to become a good poet, you will need to learn how to do this, which means you have to practice the craft, like any artist worth their salt does. Here are some guidelines and steps you can take if you want to hone your poetic skills:
- Write, often, even if the results are terrible. I’ve lost count of how many truly awful poems I’ve written. But I don’t let that stop me. I keep doing it. One year, I even challenged myself to write one haiku a week for a year. I made it for about 16 weeks. But the experience helped me become a better writer and poet.
- Read lots of poetry. Writers read. They read the kind of work they want to produce. And they read lots of other stuff, as well. You never know where you’ll find inspiration. So keep reading. Experience what poetry feels like often enough and sooner or later poetry will spill forth from your pen.
- Study poetry. Read about poetry. Take classes in poetry. Analyze the poems you love and the poems you hate to figure out why you have those reactions.
- Experience poetry in all its forms. Attend (or watch online) open mic events. Connect with other poets. Listen for poetry in other art forms.
- Revise and hone your work. Rarely is the first draft the final draft. So write. Set it down for a few days. Then revisit and revise.
- When you’re ready, share your work. You can do what I’ve done and share your poetry on your blog. You can do Facebook Live poetry readings. You can join a poetry group or attend an open mic and read your work. Not everyone will like your work, and that’s OK. However, you’ll never find your future fans if you don’t put your work out there for them to find.
Continue Your Journey
There is a lot more I could say about poetry, however, this post is already of epic proportions. So, I’ll just leave you with some links to further resources. I hope you’ll take advantage of them and fully celebrate National Poetry Month.
- The Poetry Foundation’s learning resources page
- Poetry 101: From Shakespeare and Rupi Kaur to Iambic Pentameter and Blank Verse, Everything You Need to Know about Poetry by Susan Dalzell
- Don’t Read Poetry: A Book About How to Read Poems by Stephanie Burt
- How to Write Poetry: A Guided Journal with Prompts to Ignite Your Imagination by Christopher Salerno and Kelsea Habecker
- A Poetry Handbook: A prose guide to understanding and writing poetry by Mary Oliver