National Poetry Month – What Is Poetry and What Role Does it Perform?

Beautiful design from the Norfolk, VA public library at

Beautiful design from the Norfolk, VA public library at

As the website explains:

“National Poetry Month was inaugurated by the Academy of American Poets in 1996. Over the years, it has become the largest literary celebration in the world with schools, publishers, libraries, booksellers, and poets celebrating poetry’s vital place in our culture.”

But what makes something a “poem”? With so many poems in free verse rather than stereotypically rhyming, it is interesting to learn how poets themselves answer that question.

John Keats, for example, wrote in a letter in 1818:

“Poetry should strike the reader as a wording of his own highest thoughts, and appear almost a remembrance.”

When he won the 1995 Nobel Prize in Literature, the poet Seamus Heaney, speaking of Keats, revealed: “I loved John Keats’s ode ‘To Autumn’ for being an ark of the covenant between language and sensation.” In addition, Heaney loved Gerard Manley Hopkins “for the intensity of his exclamations which were also equations for a rapture and an ache I didn’t fully know I knew until I read him . . .” But Heaney also, in a tribute to realistic poems that exposed barbarism, praised poetry’s ability “to be ‘not concerned’ with Poetry.”

Irish poet Seamus Heaney with his Nobel Prize for Literature in 1995

Irish poet Seamus Heaney with his Nobel Prize for Literature in 1995

Meena Alexander, the award-winning poet, also spoke of the role of poetry of violence:

“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… “

The poet Adrienne Rich wrote in a 1971 essay:

“. . . poems are like dreams: in them you put what you don’t know you know.”

Similarly, Ted Hughes, in his 2008 book Poetry in the Making, described poetry as:

“…whatever kind of trick or skill it is that enables us to catch . . . elusive or shadowy thoughts, and collect them together, and hold them still so we can get a really good look at them.”

Percy Bysshe Shelley went further. In his 1821 essay “A Defense of Poetry,” he wrote, inter alia: “Poetry is a mirror which makes beautiful that which is distorted.”

Portrait of Percy Bysshe Shelley by Curran, 1819

Portrait of Percy Bysshe Shelley by Curran, 1819

Wendell Berry, a contemporary American poet, wrote this 2001 poem on how to be a poet, which, like any good poem, compacts a great deal of meaning into the words:

How To Be a Poet
(to remind myself)


Make a place to sit down.   
Sit down. Be quiet.   
You must depend upon   
affection, reading, knowledge,   
skill—more of each   
than you have—inspiration,   
work, growing older, patience,   
for patience joins time   
to eternity. Any readers   
who like your poems,   
doubt their judgment.   


Breathe with unconditional breath   
the unconditioned air.   
Shun electric wire.   
Communicate slowly. Live   
a three-dimensioned life;   
stay away from screens.   
Stay away from anything   
that obscures the place it is in.   
There are no unsacred places;   
there are only sacred places   
and desecrated places.   


Accept what comes from silence.   
Make the best you can of it.   
Of the little words that come   
out of the silence, like prayers   
prayed back to the one who prays,   
make a poem that does not disturb   
the silence from which it came.”

Wendell Berry

Wendell Berry

Notably, in a 1982 essay titled “Poetry and Marriage: The Use of Old Forms” (found in Berry’s collection Standing by Words: Essays), Berry compared poetry to marriage, exploring their parallels, which you can get a hint of in the poem above. Read it again, as if it were about “How to Make a Marriage” instead of “How To Be A Poet.” In his earlier essay, he elaborated in prose on the similarities between the two enterprises:

“Marriage is the mutual promise of a man and a woman to live together, to love and help each other, in mutual fidelity, until death. It is understood that these definitions cannot be altered to suit convenience or circumstance, anymore than we can call a rabbit a squirrel because we preferred to see a squirrel. Poetry of the traditionally formed sort, for instance, does not propose that it’s difficulties should be solved by skipping or forcing a rhyme or by mutilating syntax or by writing prose. Marriage does not invite one to solve one’s quarrel with one’s wife by marrying a more compliant woman. Certain limits, in short, are prescribed- imposed before the beginning.”

He embellishes on the inevitable difficulties in both creating a marriage and creating a poem, and offers sage guidance for both:

“Properly used, a verse form, like a marriage, creates impasses, which the will and present understanding can solve only arbitrarily and superficially. These halts and difficulties do not ask for immediate remedy; we fail them by making emergencies of them. They ask, rather, for patience, forbearance, inspiration — the gifts and graces of time, circumstance, and faith. They are, perhaps, the true occasions of the poem: occasions for surpassing what we know or have reason to expect. They are points of growth, like the axils of leaves. Writing in a set form, rightly understood, is anything but force and predetermination. One puts down the first line of the pattern in trust that life and language are abundant enough to complete it. Rightly understood, a set form prescribes its restraint to the poet, not to the subject.

Marriage too is an attempt to rhyme, to bring two different lives-within the one life of their troth and household — periodically into agreement or consent. The two lives stray apart necessarily, and by consent come together again: to ‘feel together,’ to ‘be of the same mind.’”

Beautiful thoughts for National Poetry Month!

About rhapsodyinbooks

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8 Responses to National Poetry Month – What Is Poetry and What Role Does it Perform?

  1. sagustocox says:

    I really loved this post. Great way to start of the tour! Thanks so much for joining us. Great resources as well.

  2. So, are novels in verse one long poem? I love that style book.

    • I would say offhand that a poem, even a novel-length disquisition in verse form (like The Illiad), has a certain structure, rhythm, and compact use of language that is different from that of a novel. But a “verse novel” is a bit of a hybrid. It employs the elements and musicality of poetry but also is conscious of story arc and other conventions of a novel. Then of course there is the novel that is said to be “lyrical” and “poetic.” I would say that in that latter case, it only means that the novel form is still the dominant form. It is also probably true that if you put eight English teachers in the room and asked the question, you’d get at least nine different answers….

  3. M Denise C says:

    A lovely post, rhapsody! Thank you!

  4. Deepika Ramesh says:

    What a fantastic post! Thank you for this. 🙂

  5. Trisha says:

    The poem I am reading for Poetry Month perfectly illustrates your point that poetry is difficult to define. I’m reading M.E. Braddon’s Aurora Leigh which is the longest poem I have ever read…next to The Iliad and The Odyssey. So far it’s awesome, and while I can see why people refer to it as a novel, I find it very poetic or poemy (if I can use this as a word).

  6. litandlife says:

    Thanks! Loved spending time thinking about the many ways to define an art form.

  7. How cool, I love this! Haven’t read How To Be a Poet before, but how wonderful it is. Poems like that make me wish I’d write more poetry myself…

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