What is Poetry? A Brief History, Characteristics & Forms

Poetry is a form of literature that uses language for its beauty and expressive power to convey emotions, ideas, and experiences. The word “poetry” comes from the Greek word “poiesis,” which means “making.” 

Poetry has been around since ancient times. It has been used in many cultures all over the world as a staple part of their history and culture. Poets often use their own life experiences as inspiration for their work—they write about what they know best. 

The History of Poetry

Poetry has been around for thousands of years and has played an important role in many cultures throughout history.

  • In Sumer and Egypt, poems were written on tablets and used for religious and cultural purposes. 
  • In ancient Greece, poetry was a central part of cultural and social life. Famous poets such as Homer, Sappho, and Pindar composed widely read and revered works.
  • During the Middle Ages, poetry continued to play a significant role in European culture, with the works of Chaucer and the Troubadours being particularly influential. 
  • In the Renaissance, the revival of classical learning and the invention of the printing press helped to spread poetry throughout Europe, with the works of William Shakespeare and John Milton being among the most famous of this period.
  • In the 19th century, Romanticism brought a new focus on emotion and individualism to poetry, with poets such as William Wordsworth, Percy Bysshe Shelley, and John Keats exploring themes of nature, love, and the human experience. 
  • The modernist movement of the 20th century saw poets such as T.S. Eliot, W.H. Auden, and Langston Hughes experimenting with new forms and styles of poetry.

Today, poetry continues to thrive and evolve, with contemporary poets exploring new themes and forms and using technology to reach a wider audience. The rich history of poetry provides a legacy that continues to inspire and influence poets, and its enduring popularity demonstrates the enduring power of this ancient art form.

Characteristics of Poetry

Poetry is known for its use of language in unique and imaginative ways. These are the key elements that make poetry the vibrant and captivating art form that it is:


Poetry is famous for its use of vivid, sensory language that creates images in the reader’s mind. 

  • “The forest was a symphony of rustling leaves.”
  • “The moon was a sliver of silver in the midnight sky.”
  • “Her touch was a spark of electricity.”


Rhyme involves repeating the same or similar sounds at the end of lines. There are several types of rhymes, including perfect rhyme, imperfect rhyme, end rhyme, internal rhyme, and identical rhyme.

  • “I wandered through the woods, all alone, until I came upon a gnarled old stone.”
  • “The river flows, so calm and slow, reflecting all the trees aglow.”
  • “The clock ticks, the hands they turn, the time goes by, never to return.”

Sound Devices

Techniques used in writing, poetry, and other forms of creative expression to produce musical effects in the language. 

Onomatopoeia: The formation of a word from a sound associated with what it describes.

  • “The sizzle of bacon on the griddle.”
  • “The buzz of the bee.”
  • “The crack of the whip.”

Euphony: The quality of being pleasant to the ear, with a smooth and harmonious sound.

  • “The silver stream flowed gently through the meadow.”
  • “The soft murmur of the stream.”
  • “The gentle rustle of the leaves.”

Elision: The omission of a sound or syllable in speech or writing.

  • “G’bye, see you tomorrow.”
  • “I’m goin’ to the store.”
  • “Gimme a drink.”

Dissonance: A harsh or discordant combination of sounds.

  • “The screeching of the chalk on the blackboard.”
  • “The clanging of the pots and pans.”
  • “The harsh barking of the dog.”

Consonance: The repetition of consonant sounds, especially at the end of words.

  • “Pete repeated the beat.”
  • “Fuzzy Wuzzy was a bear.”
  • “Red roses run rampant.”

Cacophony: A harsh, discordant mixture of sounds.

  • “The blaring of the horns in traffic.”
  • “The screeching of the brakes on a train.”
  • “The clanging of the construction work.”

Assonance: The repetition of vowel sounds in nearby words.

  • “The seas of green were seen.”
  • “The sound of the bee’s buzz filled the tree.”
  • “She sells Seashells by the Seashore.”

Alliteration: The repetition of the initial consonant sound in several words in close proximity.

  • “Sally sells Seashells by the Seashore.”
  • “Peter Piper picked a peck of pickled peppers.”
  • “The big bad bear bit the big bold boy.”

Figurative Language

Figures of speech are devices used in language to convey meaning beyond the literal definition of words.

Allusion: A reference to a well-known person, place, event, literary work, or work of art.

  • “He’s a real Romeo in his own way.” (An allusion to Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet)
  • “She’s a real Sleeping Beauty waiting for her prince.” (Referring to the fairy tale)
  • “He’s a modern-day Don Quixote.” (Referring to the character from the novel “Don Quixote de la Mancha”)

Hyperbole: An exaggeration used for emphasis or effect.

  • “I’ve told you a million times to clean your room!”
  • “I’m so hungry I could eat a horse.”
  • “This bag weighs a ton.”

Idiom: A phrase or expression whose meaning cannot be understood from the literal definition of the words that make it up.

  • “It’s raining cats and dogs.”
  • “Bite the bullet.”
  • “Speak of the devil.”

Metaphor: A word or phrase is applied to an object or action that is not literally applicable.

  • “Life is a journey.”
  • “Her laughter was music to my ears.”
  • “He has a heart of stone.”

Metonymy: A word or phrase is substituted for another with which it is closely associated.

  • “The crown ordered their troops to attack.”
  • “The White House announced a new policy.”
  • “The pen is mightier than the sword.”

Personification: A figure of speech in which an inanimate object or abstraction is given human qualities or abilities.

  • “The wind whispered secrets through the trees.”
  • “The sun smiled down on us.”
  • “The flowers danced in the breeze.”

Simile: A figure of speech in which two unlike things are explicitly compared, usually using “like” or “as.”

  • “She sings like a nightingale.”
  • “She’s as graceful as a swan.”
  • “He’s tough as nails.”

Symbolism: The use of symbols to represent ideas or qualities.

  • “The American flag is a symbol of freedom and democracy.”
  • “A red rose symbolizes love and passion.”
  • “A white dove symbolizes peace.”

Synecdoche: A figure of speech in which a part of something is used to represent the whole, or the whole is used to represent a part.

  • “All hands on deck.” (Referring to everyone on a ship, not just their hands).
  • “The suits in the boardroom made a decision.” (Referring to business people).
  • “Lend me your ears.” (Referring to attention).

Connotation and Denotation: Connotation refers to the emotional or cultural associations of a word, while denotation refers to its literal definition.

Word: Home

  • Denotation: a place where one lives; a residence
  • Connotation: a place of comfort, safety, and warmth; a place where one is surrounded by love and affection.

The Forms of Poetry

Poetry is a literary form with a long history, and there are many different types of poetry. Some of the most common forms include:


A traditional Japanese form of poetry that is made up of three lines, with a syllable count of 5-7-5. Haikus are known for their focus on nature and the changing seasons and for their ability to convey a sense of stillness and contemplation.


A type of poem that uses 14 lines and follows a specific pattern. It is best known for its use as a love poem, but it can also be used to address a wide range of subjects and emotions. 

Free Verse

A type of poetry with no set rules for how many syllables or lines the poem must have. It relies on the natural rhythm of the words and the poet’s own sense of timing and phrasing to create its musicality. Free verse is a popular form for contemporary poets and is often used to explore more personal or experimental themes.


A song or poem that tells a story in an interesting way, often with lots of repetition and rhyme

Lyric Poetry

Lyric poetry is a type of poetry that is designed to be sung or recited. It’s characterized by its musicality, its focus on the poet’s own emotions and experiences, and its use of figurative language and imagery.

Epic Poetry

Epic poetry is a long narrative poem that tells the story of a hero and their adventures. It’s characterized by its grand scope, its use of elevated language, and its focus on themes of heroism, bravery, and the human condition.

Famous Poets and Poems

  • William Shakespeare – “Sonnets,” “Romeo and Juliet,” “Hamlet”
  • Maya Angelou – “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings,” “Still I Rise”
  • Emily Dickinson – “Hope is the Thing with Feathers,” “Because I Could Not Stop for Death”
  • Walt Whitman – “Leaves of Grass,” “O Captain! My Captain!”
  • Sylvia Plath – “The Bell Jar,” “Lady Lazarus”
  • T.S. Eliot – “The Waste Land,” “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock”
  • W.H. Auden – “Stop All the Clocks,” “Funeral Blues”

How to Get Started with Poetry

  • Read widely: Start by reading as many different poets and styles of poetry as you can. Pay attention to various forms, techniques, and subject matter to see what resonates with you.
  • Experiment with forms: Poetry comes in many forms, from sonnets and haikus to free verse and slam poetry. Try writing in different formats to see which ones you enjoy the most.
  • Write from your own experiences: Poetry is often most powerful when it comes from a place of personal experience. Consider writing about things that have happened to you, emotions you’ve felt, or people and places you know.
  • Play with language: Poetry is a way to play with language and push the boundaries of what can be said. Experiment with different word choices, imagery, and metaphors to see how they can enhance your poems.
  • Revise, revise, revise: Poetry often requires multiple revisions to get just right. Don’t be afraid to revise your work several times and get feedback from others to help improve your poems.
  • Share your work: Finally, don’t be afraid to share your poetry with others. Attend open mic nights, submit your work to literary magazines, or share your poems on social media. The more you share your work, the more feedback you’ll receive, and the more you’ll grow as a poet.

The Benefits of Writing Poetry

Poetry is a great way to express yourself creatively, improve your writing skills and connect with others.

Here are some of the benefits of writing poetry:

  • Poetry can be a powerful tool for processing and expressing emotions. 
  • The process of crafting poems can help to build vocabulary, improve grammar, and increase writing fluency.
  • Poetry encourages imagination and creativity and can help develop new ideas, perspectives, and insights.
  • Poetry can be a form of self-reflection, helping individuals gain a deeper understanding of their thoughts, feelings, and experiences.
  • Writing poems can help to keep cultural heritage alive and pass it on to future generations.
  • Writing poetry has been shown to have therapeutic benefits, helping to reduce stress, anxiety, and depression.
  • It can also boost self-esteem and improve overall well-being.
  • Poetry can bring people together and create a sense of community, particularly when shared and discussed in a group setting.

Frequently Asked Questions

Who has defined poetry?

Poetry is one of the oldest and most revered forms of artistic expression, and its definition has evolved over time. No single person can be credited with defining poetry, as it has been shaped and redefined by generations of poets, critics, and scholars.

The Ancient Greeks
They believed that poetry was a form of imitation—a representation of life and human experience through language. The Greeks also believed that poetry had a specific structure and form and that the best poetry was able to evoke strong emotions in its audience.

The Romans
The Romans adopted and adapted the Greek understanding of poetry. The Roman poet Horace famously outlined his own principles for poetry in his “Ars Poetica,” where he emphasized the importance of clarity, simplicity, and good taste.

Renaissance Period
Poets of this era, such as William Shakespeare and John Milton, pushed the boundaries of what was considered acceptable in poetry, incorporating new themes and techniques into their work.

Romantic Era
This era saw a renewed interest in emotion, imagination, and nature. Poets of this era, such as William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge, sought to capture the beauty and mystery of the world through their poetry.

Modern Times
Now, the definition of poetry has become even more fluid and inclusive. Poets today experiment with form, language, and content in ways that would have been unimaginable to earlier generations. The most important thing for a poem to be considered as poetry today is that it uses language in a way that is imaginative and emotionally resonant.

What is the true purpose of poetry?

The true purpose of poetry is multi-faceted and can vary depending on the poet, the time period, and the culture, but here are some of the most common reasons why people write and read poetry:

To express emotions and experiences: Poetry can help people to process their feelings, understand their experiences, and find meaning in their lives.

To create beauty: Poetry often uses language, rhythm, and imagery to create a sense of beauty and harmony. This can be a source of comfort, inspiration, and joy for people and help elevate their spirits.

To challenge and inspire: Poetry can challenge people’s thoughts, beliefs, and perspectives. It can encourage people to think deeply about the world around them and to question their assumptions.

To tell stories and preserve cultural heritage: From ancient epic poems to modern slam poetry, poems have been used to capture the essence of a particular place, time, or culture.

To inspire social and political change: From the civil rights movement to the protest poetry of the 1960s, poems have been used to raise awareness, spark conversations, and mobilize people towards action.

To connect people: Poetry can bring people together and help to build a sense of community. Whether through sharing poems, attending poetry readings, or participating in poetry slams, poetry can provide a space for people to connect and explore their shared experiences and perspectives.

What is the difference between poetry and prose?

Poetry and prose are two different forms of writing. Prose is the type of writing most commonly used in everyday life, such as in novels, short stories, and non-fiction. It is characterized by its straightforward, linear structure and its use of straightforward language.

Poetry, on the other hand, is characterized by its use of rhythm, rhyme, and figurative language. Poems can take many different forms and styles, but they are typically more compact and concise than prose. Poetry also often uses imagery and metaphor to convey meaning and evoke emotion in a way that prose cannot.

Can anyone write a poem?

Yes! Poetry is a form of self-expression, and anyone can write a poem. 

Remember, the most important thing is to write from the heart and let your creativity flow. Don’t be afraid to experiment with different forms and styles; there’s no right or wrong way to write a poem. Just write what feels true to you and have fun with it!


Poetry is a beautiful art form that has been around for centuries and continues to captivate audiences to this day. It’s a way for people to express their thoughts, feelings, and experiences creatively and imaginatively. Whether through free verse, haikus, sonnets, or any other form, poetry allows writers to paint pictures with words and evoke emotions in the reader. 

Poetry is not just about the words but also the rhythm, sound, and feeling behind them. It’s a means of connecting with others on a deep and personal level, and it has the power to inspire, comfort, and challenge us.

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Clariza is a passionate writer and editor who firmly believes that words have great power. She has a degree in BS Psychology, which gives her an in-depth understanding of the complexities of human behavior. As a woman of science and art, she fused her love for both fields in crafting insightful articles on lifestyle, mental health, and social justice to inspire others and advocate for change. In her leisure time, you can find her sitting in the corner of her favorite coffee shop downtown, deeply immersed in her bubble of thoughts. Being an art enthusiast that she is, she finds bliss in exploring the rich world of fiction writing and diverse art forms.