What is poetry?
Poetry is arguably the most challenging literature genre to define because of the sheer impossibility to attribute a universal meaning to the genre. However, it is useful to settle on a common definition and then show examples that build on or defy this definition. The Britannica defines poetry as literature that evokes a concentrated imaginative awareness of experience or a specific emotional response through language chosen and arranged for its meaning, sound, and rhythm. While the most known types of poetry emphasize formal conventions such as meter, rhyme, and line composition, poetry extends beyond this understanding. Poetry is a genre where form cannot hold; as such, established rules and conventions are routinely broken, contorted, redefined, and discarded. Poems are typically categorized and recognized by formal technique (number of lines, discernable rhyme, type of meter) or (and) the subject matter (the emotion the poem is concerned with). The sonnet, epic, ode, dirge, pastoral, and ghazal are some of the more popular recognizable types of poetry. There is a misconception that traditional poetic forms are created by old, long-dead poets however, consider this formal poetic invention, The Golden Shovel by the contemporary poet Terrance Hayes:
The Golden Shovel
BY TERRANCE HAYES
after Gwendolyn Brooks
When I am so small Da's sock covers my arm, we
cruise at twilight until we find the place the real
men lean, bloodshot and translucent with cool.
His smile is a gold-plated incantation as we
drift by women on bar stools, with nothing left
in them but approachlessness. This is a school
I do not know yet. But the cue sticks mean we
are rubbed by light, smooth as wood, the lurk
of smoke thinned to song. We won't be out late.
Standing in the middle of the street last night we
watched the moonlit lawns and a neighbor strike
his son in the face. A shadow knocked straight
Da promised to leave me everything: the shovel we
used to bury the dog, the words he loved to sing
his rusted pistol, his squeaky Bible, his sin.
The boy's sneakers were light on the road. We
watched him run to us looking wounded and thin.
He'd been caught lying or drinking his father's gin.
He'd been defending his ma, trying to be a man. We
stood in the road, and my father talked about jazz,
how sometimes a tune is born of outrage. By June
the boy would be locked upstate. That night we
got down on our knees in my room. If I should die
before I wake. Da said to me, it will be too soon.
Read the rest of the poem here
What makes this poetic form so inventive is that the reader is reading two poems embedded in one poem. After Gwendolyn Brooks's 1963 poem We Real Cool , the Golden shovel compels any aspiring poet to write a poem using the words in Brooks' poem's to end every line. Terrance Hayes's poems, when read vertically, is the whole original We Real Cool poem. Another example of a living poet's formal poetic invention is the Duplex form invented by Jericho Brown.
Not all poems follow formal poetic conventions, for samples of free verse poetry, take a look at Dinosaurs in the Hood by Danez Smith which shows how conventions of slam poetry can also be successful on the page. For a poem that is not only daring visually but also sonically, take a look at this experimental poem, Excerpt from ẸBỌRA by M.NourBese Philip. It is impossible to disentangle song, performance, and poetry in African poetry due to our rich oral poetic traditions. Read and listen to Invocations of the Word by Niyi Osundare for inspiration on how to weave oral performance with written poetry.*
This post is by no means an exhaustive list of great poems. There are as many types of poems as there are poets, so depending on what kind of poetry you want to create, look up different poets who have distinguished themselves in that type of writing; as always, the best way to learn how to be a better poet is to be a better reader. So read and listen wide. Experiment with language. We look forward to celebrating your poems.
* Our intention in sharing these examples is not to say you should copy them but look to them for inspiration and an idea of what the genre entails. See how they touch on different topics, are structured differently, and are directed towards different audiences. So don't be afraid to invent a myth about your origin story, write a self-portrait as a broom, or write a poem about writing poems. There are no limitations to what you can do, other than the ones you define for yourself.