20 Poets on the Meaning of Poetry

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We’ve been thinking about poet Meena Alexander’s incredible address to the Yale Political Union, in which she refers to Shelley’s 1821 essay, A Defence of Poetry. The English poet’s work famously stated, “Poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world.” Alexander concludes: “The poem is an invention that exists in spite of history… In a time of violence, the task of poetry is in some way to reconcile us to our world and to allow us a measure of tenderness and grace with which to exist… Poetry’s task is to reconcile us to the world — not to accept it at face value or to assent to things that are wrong, but to reconcile one in a larger sense, to return us in love, the province of the imagination, to the scope of our mortal lives.” Other poets have attempted to interpret “what is deeply felt and is essentially unsayable.” Here are a few brief definitions of poetry by famous poets.

Percy Bysshe Shelley

There are a few more choice snippets from Shelley’s 1821 essay, A Defence of Poetry , that articulated the essence of poetry:

“Poetry is indeed something divine. It is at once the centre and circumference of knowledge; it is that which comprehends all science, and that to which all science must be referred. It is at the same time the root and blossom of all other systems of thought; it is that from which all spring, and that which adorns all; and that which, if blighted, denies the fruit and the seed, and withholds from the barren world the nourishment and the succession of the scions of the tree of life. It is the perfect and consummate surface and bloom of all things; it is as the odor and the color of the rose to the texture of the elements which compose it, as the form and splendor of unfaded beauty to the secrets of anatomy and corruption.”

“Poetry is the record of the best and happiest moments of the happiest and best minds.”

“Poetry, in a general sense, may be defined to be ‘the expression of the imagination’: and poetry is connate with the origin of man.”

“Poetry is a mirror which makes beautiful that which is distorted.”

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

“All high poetry is infinite; it is as the first acorn, which contained all oaks potentially.”

Emily Dickinson

“If I read a book [and] it makes my whole body so cold no fire ever can warm me I know that is poetry. If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know that is poetry. These are the only way I know it. Is there any other way?”

Robert Frost

“Poetry is when an emotion has found its thought and the thought has found words.”

“Poetry is what gets lost in translation.”

Salvatore Quasimodo

“Poetry is the revelation of a feeling that the poet believes to be interior and personal which the reader recognizes as his own.”

Edgar Allan Poe

“I would define, in brief, the Poetry of words as the Rhythmical Creation of Beauty. Its sole arbiter is taste. With the intellect or with the conscience, it has only collateral relations. Unless incidentally, it has no concern whatever either with duty or with truth.”

Mary Oliver

“Poetry isn’t a profession, it’s a way of life. It’s an empty basket; you put your life into it and make something out of that.”

T.S. Eliot

“Poetry is not a turning loose of emotion, but an escape from emotion; it is not the expression of personality, but an escape from personality. But, of course, only those who have personality and emotions know what it means to want to escape from these things.”

William Wordsworth

“I have said that poetry is the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings: it takes its origin from emotion recollected in tranquillity: the emotion is contemplated till, by a species of reaction, the tranquillity gradually disappears, and an emotion, kindred to that which was before the subject of contemplation, is gradually produced, and does itself actually exist in the mind.”

Philip Larkin

“As a guiding principle I believe that every poem must be its own sole freshly created universe, and therefore have no belief n ‘tradition’ or a common myth-kitty or casual allusions in poems to other poems or poets, which last I find unpleasantly like the talk of literary understrappers letting you see they know the right people.”

Matthew Arnold

“Poetry is at bottom a criticism of life; that the greatness of a poet lies in his powerful and beautiful application of ideas to life — to the question: How to live.”

Dylan Thomas

“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.”

From Carl Sandburg’s “Tentative (First Model): Definitions of Poetry”:

1. Poetry is a projection across silence of cadences arranged to break that silence with definite intentions of echoes, syllables, wave lengths.

2. Poetry is an art practised with the terribly plastic material of human language.

3. Poetry is the report of a nuance between two moments, when people say, ‘Listen!’ and ‘Did you see it’ ‘Did you hear it? What was it?’

4. Poetry is the tracing of the trajectories of a finite sound to the infinite points of its echoes.

5. Poetry is a sequence of dots and dashes, spelling depths, crypts, cross-lights, and moon wisps.

6. Poetry is a puppet-show, where riders of skyrockets and divers of sea fathoms gossip about the sixth sense and the fourth dimension.

7. Poetry is a plan for a slit in the face of a bronze fountain goat and the path of fresh drinking water.

8. Poetry is a slipknot tightened around a time-beat of one thought, two thoughts, and a last interweaving thought there is not yet a number for.

9. Poetry is an echo asking a shadow dancer to be a partner.

10. Poetry is the journal of a sea animal living on land, wanting to fly the air.

Read the rest, here.

John Cage

“There is poetry as soon as we realize that we possess nothing.”

Kahlil Gibran

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

William Hazlitt

“Poetry is all that is worth remembering in life.”

“The light of poetry is not only a direct but also a reflected light, that, while it shows us the object, throws a sparkling radiance on all around it: the flame of the passions, communicated to the imagination, reveals to us, as with a flash of lightning, the inmost recesses of thought, and penetrates our whole being. Poetry represents forms chiefly as they suggest other forms; feelings, as they suggest forms or other feelings. Poetry puts a spirit of life and motion into the universe. It describes the flowing, not the fixed. It does not define the limits of sense, or analyze the distinctions of the understanding, but signifies the excess of the imagination beyond the actual or ordinary impression of any object or feeling.”

Rita Dove

“Poetry is language at its most distilled and most powerful.”

Edith Sitwell

“Poetry is the deification of reality.”

Marianne Moore

“Poetry is the art of creating imaginary gardens with real toads.”

Theodore Roethke

“You must believe: a poem is a holy thing — a good poem, that is.”

“The poem, even a short time after being written, seems no miracle; unwritten, it seems something beyond the capacity of the gods.”

James K. Baxter

“The poem is a plank laid over the lion’s den.”