Poetry is one of the most ancient and revered forms of literary expression, transcending cultures, eras, and languages. Yet pinning down a precise definition of poetry has proven challenging for scholars and critics throughout the ages. At its core, poetry is an artful arrangement of language, often employing techniques like meter, rhyme, metaphor, and vivid imagery to evoke emotional responses and convey deeper truths about the human experience. However, the boundaries and essential qualities that delineate poetry from other literary genres have been fiercely debated.

# The Classical View
Traditional Western perspectives on poetry arose from the ancient Greeks. In his work Poetics, the philosopher Aristotle defined poetry as a mimetic mode of representing reality and human action (1). He drew distinctions between different genres like tragedy, comedy, and epic poetry based on their intended emotional effects on the audience. Building on this foundation, later Roman critics like Horace expounded on the purpose of poetry as both delighting and instructing the reader through “dulce et utile” – the “sweet and useful” (2). 

This view of poetry as upholding virtues and moral lessons through pleasurable means was highly influential through the Middle Ages and Renaissance eras. The English poet Sir Philip Sidney’s Defence of Poesy (1595) echoed the classical conception of poetry’s civilizing influence and ability to “lead and draw us to as high a perfection as our degenerate souls…can be capable of” (3). For centuries, poetry was seen as a noble art form uniquely capable of capturing ideals of beauty, truth and wisdom.

# The Romantic Redefinition
In the late 18th century, a new generation of poets and critics radically transformed the perception of poetry’s aims and techniques. The Romantic poets like William Wordsworth, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, and Percy Bysshe Shelley upended old notions of poetry as purely mimetic, instead portraying the poet as a creative genius and visionary capable of transcending material reality.

In his famous Preface to Lyrical Ballads (1800), Wordsworth defined poetry as “the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings” arising from “emotion recollected in tranquility” (4). He privileged the imaginative powers of the poet’s mind over strict mimicry of the external world. Shelley’s celebrated Defence of Poetry (1821) went even further in portraying poets as almost prophetic figures whose language could unveil previously unimagined realms of thought and inspire profound cultural and social transformations.

The Romantic view crucially expanded understandings of what poetry could achieve beyond simply imitating reality or delivering moral lessons. Poetry was now seen as a transcendent expression of individual genius and vision. This set the stage for the increasing experimentation and avant-garde tendencies of Modern poets starting in the 20th century.

# Modern and Contemporary Views
As poetic movements like Imagism, Surrealism, and Modernism took hold in the early 1900s, the very notion of what constituted poetry began breaking from traditional conventions of meter, rhyme, and structure. The innovative American poet Ezra Pound famously defined great literature, including poetry, as “language charged with meaning to the utmost possible degree” (5).

Modernist poets like T.S. Eliot, e.e. cummings, and Wallace Stevens stretched the boundaries of poetic language, fragmenting syntax and embracing complexities. In the wake of World War II, poets of the Beat Generation like Allen Ginsberg and Lawrence Ferlinghetti used spontaneous, free verse to shock and rebel against mainstream American culture and conformity.

As poet and critic Stephanie Burt observes, “The efforts of the twentieth century’s wildest avant-gardists expanded the conventions of poetry to include almost anything” (6). Poetry was no longer bound to specific forms, but was reconceived as indefinable creative expression through language.

This opened the doors for new styles and mediums in contemporary poetry. Performance poetry, slam poetry, and poetry readings became popular means of highlighting the auditory and oral dimensions of poetic language. Digital poetry composed on computers or distributed via social media further expanded poetry’s possibilities. Some have even questioned whether song lyrics or advertising jingles could be considered forms of poetry.

With such radical expansions in poetry’s conventions and mediums, many contemporary poets and critics have struggled to provide clear-cut definitions. Theorist Julia Kristeva suggested the notion of the “semiotic” as the underlying rhythmic, uncoded elements of poetic language before it takes on logical semantic meaning (7). The poet Charles Bernstein simply states “Poetry is an artifice of closure” – patterns of language that create resonance and meaning by their very framing (8).

Despite its open-endedness, most would agree that strong poetic language still maintains a degree of elevated artfulness, creative metaphor, and internal unity setting it apart from ordinary speech or prose. As poet Dana Gioia argues, while poetry has become more experimental, “there is still an expressive nucleus” at its core (9). Perhaps the best definition is the most open-ended – poetry as a deliberate, artful shaping of language to arouse intellectual and emotional responses in the reader.

Ultimately, the question “What is poetry?” may always remain somewhat unresolved, subject to the changing tides of culture, zeitgeist, and creative innovation. From its ancient origins intertwined with song and oral tradition, to its codification into specific verse forms, to its Modernist fracturing and re-emergence in new mediums, one could argue poetry’s essence lies in its resistance to any single, rigid definition. As the poetic craft continually evolves, so too will our understanding of poetry’s protean, elusive nature.

1. Aristotle. Poetics. Translated by S.H. Butcher. Public Domain Books, 2008.
2. Horace. The Art of Poetry. Translated by John Conington. Public Domain Books, 2015.
3. Sidney, Philip. The Defence of Poesy. Oregon State University Press, 1966.
4. Wordsworth, William. Preface to Lyrical Ballads. 1800. Poetry Foundation, https://www.poetryfoundation.org/articles/69477/preface-to-lyrical-ballads.
5. Pound, Ezra. ABC of Reading. New Directions, 2010.
6. Burt, Stephanie. “What is Poetry?” The Iowa Review, vol. 52, no. 3, 2022, pp. 29–50.
7. Kristeva, Julia. Revolution in Poetic Language. Columbia University Press, 1984.
8. Bernstein, Charles. Artifice of Absorption. Singing Horse Press, 2005.
9. Gioia, Dana. “Can Poetry Matter?” The Atlantic, May 1991, https://www.theatlantic.com/past/docs/issues/91may/gia-gr.htm.