“To define the poetic as such or to give a description of what is poetic horrifies nearly all who have written about poetry.” –G.W.F. Hegel
Most people don’t realize that until the 1700s literature consisted chiefly of poetry. Neither the novel, the short story, nor prose drama yet existed. With rare exceptions, no matter the genre, no matter the author, all literature was written in verse. Homer, Sophocles, Virgil, Dante, Shakespeare, Milton, all were poets, despite the very different styles and modes of their work, their varied cultural contexts, and their chronological distance from each other. Most scholars agree the novel first appeared in 1719 with the publication of Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe, and from that point on, prose fiction increasingly becomes the primary means of literary expression.
But why for so many thousands of years was poetry primary—and not only in a Western context, but across cultures? Indeed, it wasn’t only primary in literature but also in the majority of religious writing as well. In short, why poetry? What is poetry? What are its purpose and function? Why study it?
A simple definition of poetry emphasizes its particular rhythmic and structural elements. Not all poetry rhymes, of course, but all traditional poetry employs some kind of regulated sound rhythm. For instance, Old English poetry (i.e., poetry from around 600 AD to the early 1000s in England) used a method called alliterative verse. Instead of rhyme, Old English poetry used alliteration (thus the name, “alliterative verse”). However, most other European writers emphasized rhyme and poets employed a set number of syllables per line. These two traditions combined in 1066 to eventually produce in English a form of metrical poetry known as “accentual-syllabic” verse.
Many books on poetry approach the subject from this technical perspective, defining poetry as a kind of language machine, which functions in specific ways. While useful and accurate, this structural approach perhaps misses the essence of poetry. So how else might we approach the subject? Poetry might be better understood as "word music." After all, we get our word “lyric” from the lyric poems of the Greeks, who put their words to music, just as we do. Indeed, poetry can involve a kind of linguistic joy. Sounds can come together in particular patterns and be beautiful, much as physical objects can come together in a pleasing visual arrangement (as in a painting, a landscape, a sunset, a starry night, etc.). We know this when thinking of music, but the same could be said for words, which also involve the unfolding of sound in time. With music, then, poetry might be considered an “art of sound,” with its own attendant rules, techniques, and innovative possibilities.
What we might call “light verse” is poetry meant to be enjoyed for the pleasure of the sound itself, the joy of the lilt and bounce of the lines, and the energy and life of individual words. Limericks fall into this category, as do nursery rhymes. But there’s a different kind of poetry, whose word-music works like an incantation to carry readers into the deeper recesses of the spirit. Poets like Homer, Virgil, or Eliot were interested not only in pleasing the ear but in communicating truths poetry seemed uniquely equipped to convey. Most poetry uses a language of implication, allusion, allegory, and symbolism rather than a one of brute material fact. It uses a figurative, suggestive language, and as such, it can suggest deeper modes of intuited knowledge than can pragmatic rational discourse. It can communicate indirectly and in compressed, complex constructions, and thus hint at certain meanings that would otherwise be captured only inadequately in prose. And because poetry is strongly connected with the inner life of the mind (its images, symbolic impulses, tensions, etc.), it can communicate, too, a wider range of human experience.
G.W.F. Hegel, one of the most influential philosophers of the 19th century, agrees. He suggests “the chief task of poetry is to bring before our minds the powers governing spiritual life, and, in short, all that surges to and fro in human passion and feeling or passes quietly through our meditations—the all-encompassing realm of human ideas, deeds, actions, and fates, the bustle of life in this world, and the divine rule of the universe. Thus poetry has been and is still the most universal and widespread teacher of the human race. For to teach and to learn is to know and experience what is.”
So what is poetry? Perhaps we might say it’s a specialized mode of language that gives voice to the complexities and inner resonances of the human spirit. Prose discourse may permit an analytical understanding of the world and ourselves, but poetic language allows uniquely for an intuition of the whole that transcends analytical examination. Why study it? Because the history of the spirit is written in poetry. And because, too, poetry at its best can attune us to the wondrous depths of God’s creation as perceived in the imaginative light of language.