What is it?—a question sometimes asked at a university interview, not in hope of an answer, but to explore the student’s thinking.
Various suggestions have been made in the past. For example, W H Auden suggested ‘memorable speech’. But the entry in the Concise Oxford Dictionary of Literary Terms (2001) seems useful:
’poetry, language sung, chanted, spoken, or written according to some pattern of recurrence that emphasizes the relationships between words on the basis of sound as well as sense: this pattern is almost always a rhythm or metre, which may be supplemented by rhyme or alliteration or both. The demands of verbal patterning usually make poetry a more condensed medium than prose or everyday speech, often involving variations in syntax, the use of special words and phrases peculiar to poets, and a more frequent and more elaborate use of figures of speech, principally metaphor and simile. All cultures have their poetry, using it for various purposes from sacred ritual to obscene insult, but it is generally employed in those utterances and writings that call for heightened intensity of emotion, dignity of expression, or subtlety of meditation. Poetry is valued for combining pleasures of sound with freshness of ideas, whether these be solemn or comical.’
This seems to cover it—and its parameters include the Psalms of David, which have a claim to be the most read of all poems.
But—one student asked—what is poetry for?
I asked a colleague who can be relied on for an interesting reply to a snap question. Her answer:
“It is to bring things to life.”
That seems to resonate with what Shelley says in Adonais about the recently departed Keats, of whom he says
He has outsoared the shadow of our night…
He is a portion of the loveliness
Which once he made more lovely..
Likewise, presumably, a poet can makes things more exciting, more noble, more ridiculous or, even, more shocking. A poem encourages people to notice things.
But in the classical tradition, the personality of the poet is not obtruded. And so the book of poems received here as a gift (author redacted) in which the tone was, “Here I am, accompanied by my personality/reputation/tragic childhood/disgust/indignation/etc.”, went to be recycled.
It was not taken to the Oxfam bookshop, in case it might lower someone else’s quality of life. We ordinary mortals, cast on life’s surge, need something to inspire, amuse, comfort, sometimes galvanise—but not to depress.