What is Poetry?

what is poetry

We all know what poetry is, right? Or maybe we just think we know what makes a nice poem: a rhyme. But there is so much more to poetry than just a few rhyming lines.

Poetry tells a story with words in a lyrical arrangement. Poems are structured with rhyme and meter but also emphasis on a certain syllable and the rhythm play a bit role.

After many years of writing poetry in traditional forms and also more free-flowing modern poetry, I have seen a broad range of poems. Some of which might not look like the type of poetry everyone knows but they are worth exploring.

Here is everything you need to know about what poetry is, some different types of poetry and how poetry is structured.

What is Poetry?

The word Poetry comes from the ancient Greek ποιεω (poieo) which simply translates to I create. Traditionally, poetry is a type of literature which describes a scene or conveys a thought in a certain word arrangement.

Looking at the ancient traditions of poetry – and its literal meaning – poetry isn’t just about stringing words together in a meaningful way, but there can be many forms of poetry which follow no formal structure.

A poem is made up of different verses which are known as stanzas in literature. A stanza is essentially a group of lines, sentences or phrases which link a topic together. 

The majority of written poetry is structure in this way, so it is instantly visually recognisable with a column of words that’s broken into different stanzas. 

There may also be extra spacing between the stanzas to give the poem greater meaning. You will also notice the white space around the poem which gives you a good guide on how to read the piece.

Poetry comes originally from the spoken word where a poet would recite a poem to a curious audience. This might be on a stage or just a small corner of a market square (just imagine Speaker’s Corner in London). 

While we often think that we could instantly identity a poem by it’s simple line structure and rhyme, the quality that poetry is so broadly defined means that often there is only a thin line that divides it from ordinary prose.

Saying this, there are a few key elements that poetry uses which makes it different from your standard piece of novel, such as repetition, assonance and metaphors. Poetry relies heavily on word associations, imagery and simply the musical quality of a language.

There isn’t just one thing that defines poetry but these different layers are what makes poetry stand out from any other type of literature.

Poetry can be found in almost any language where the different images also have different cultural references. This makes it particularly difficult for many translators to clearly transfer the meaning of a poem into another language. While there may be similar interpretations, different language poetry can never have a definite translation.

The Structure of Poetry

Poetry has a distinct structure thanks to a clear organisation of lines on the page. While I’ll look at the different elements of poetry further down, there are some elements that each poem needs, including a stanza, meter and rhyme.

I think it’s worthwhile mentioning here that not all poems are structured in this way. Poetry is a free creative form, so you will find many different ways that a poem is organised. The below are just the three key elements that you find in traditional poetry.


So, what is a stanza? Simply put, a stanza is the equivalent of a paragraph in prose, just that stanzas are typically a lot shorter than a standard paragraph. A stanza is a series of lines which are either grouped together or separated from other line groups.

You will find stanzas in almost all different lengths, depending on the intention of the poet or the particular convention of the poem’s form. There are different types of poetry depending on the length of the stanza. I will look at this a little further down in the Types of Poetry section.

Similar to a paragraph, a stanza relates to a similar idea or topic but each stanza in a poem has its own purpose which supports the overall story of the poem.

Whatever you say in each stanza, it’s important that it fits into the overall meaning of your poem. You can also arrange it according to your poem’s meter or rhyming pattern.


When we think of poetry, then rhyme is what comes to mind first but not every poem rhymes in the classical way at the end of each line. There are many different forms of rhymes that a poet can use for his or her work, including identical rhymes, internal rhymes and slant rhymes.

Rhymes typically work in the way of using words that share the same vowels or consonants, making them sound similar but not the same. This can create a very particular effect in poetry. It makes rhyming very popular in epic poems, limericks, classic poetry and even pop lyrics.


A meter is a specific emphasis on a line in a poem. Certain meters also have distinctive lengths that create individual types of poems.

Different Types of Poetry

There is a sheer endless number of different poetry types. With the many different rules of writing poetry and the option for free-form poetry, it’s up to the individual poet to pick the type he or she likes.

Each poem has its own individual story to tell, its own character and personality. When you are writing a poem, you can stick to the specific rules of a form or you can write some experimental poetry.

Poetry by topic

A poem always follows a distinctive theme, topic or idea. When you walk into a bookshop, then you’ll find that many poetry books are usually categorised by topic. You’ll be able to find:

  • Love poetry
  • War poetry
  • Poetry about growing up or ageing
  • Friendship poetry
  • Family poetry
  • Poetry about animals
  • Poetry about courage and bravery
  • Poetry about good vs evil

You can use a lot of the traditional storytelling themes from prose in poetry.

Poetry by structure or form

There are also poems that follow a special form or structure, from totally free-form without rules to a definition how long certain lines can be or where the rhyme should occur.

For example, a poem with two line stanzas that end with a rhyme is called a couplet, whereas a poem with three lines is called a tercet.

In addition, you will also find poems that have very specific rules which the poet needs to stick to, such as in a haiku which consist of three lines (five syllables in the first line, seven syllables in the second line and five syllables in the third line).

But not every form of poetry is so strict. Actually, some poems are quite a lot of fun, such as acrostic poems where the first letter of each line spells out a word. These poems engage the reader to explore the poem’s theme beyond just reading a few lines.

Final Thoughts

With its origins in oral traditions, poetry hasn’t always been the written works we know today. In fact, poetry was originally much more free-form and spontaneous. Over the years, writers and poets have shaped poetry into a written practice which has a clear structure, and the flexible arrangement of poetry is almost forgotten.

In the last hundred years, there have been a range of different poetic and literary movements that tried to revive other forms of poetry, such as conceptual poetry and concrete poetry. In recent time, the art of wordery is also slowly melting into the free-flowing elements of visual art.