top of page

Poetry: How Can We Define It?

The proposed approach to define poetry is, in spite of the redundancy, poetic, since this meaning is somewhat indefinable. The French writer Roger Caillois in Trésor de la poesie universelle, explains poetry as "the art of verse, the art of the image, as well as the art of using sounds and cadences" (Caillois, 1958, p. 9). It takes all the physical properties of language and is equally responsible for discovering and choosing the most suggestive references, those that provoke persuasive and moving echoes in the sensibility and in the memory. Each word is a hook, a seed, a leaven, a starting point for the soul, and not an arrival point for intelligence.

Roger Caillois, writer of Trésor de la poesie universelle. (1958).

Another artist that tried to define what Poetry is, is Paulo Leminski, a Brazilian poet. He created a visual form representing various definitions of poetry by different authors. This work is called no other than "Poetry" (1978). In his work, he shows that there are those who propose a metaphor to define poetry such as Victor Hugo (1860) who says that poetry is "the star that guides gods, kings and shepherds". Those who characterize the way poetry operates on languages, like Jean Paul Sartre (1948), who explains poetry as a "word-thing", the word treated or understood as a thing. Also, those who emphasize the effect or the experience that poetry implies for the one who makes it, William Wordsworth (1790), for example, calls it “the emotion gathered in the tranquility”. But some even mock it with a rather ironic and humorous trait. A well-known quote attributed to poetry is that “poetry is a text without a job and without a client”, with an unknown author but referencing the fact that poetry has no monetary value, or, at least, not as much as its counterparts. It is said about poetry that its purpose is useless, since it has no other goal than to make the reader feel something (Leminski, 1978).

Paulo Leminski's visual poem, "Poetry". (1978).

The possibility of everything is delegated to poetry. The problem of defining poetry confronts one with the idea of ​​the elusive, of multiplicity and indeterminacy. How is that characterized by what poetry wants to point out? How can the moment of maximum vigor and splendor of language be explained? Poetry is running, enlarging, expanding limits and borders. These growing boundaries function both in formal, linguistic, and cultural terms as well as in terms of sensibility and thought. That is to say, poetry is in constant change both in its structural forms and also in the things it talks about. As an example, one can think of Epic poetry, which dealt with heroes, gods, and extraordinary adventures, and compare it to haikus, which talks about small things found in nature.

What is a poem? How do the poems work?

The poem is constituted as the most alive area of ​​the language, as the place where language is not exhausted, where each language shines or criticizes itself, opens and breaks itself, and where the language becomes capable of doing other things besides attending to everyday functions. Now, how can the poems achieve this "make of sense"? Is there any criteria to "charge" the poems with greater intensity? In other words, with what parameters can we compare and think about different poems from different stages of poetic history?

Ezra Pound, the English poet, wrote in The ABC of Reading that “Literature is language loaded with meaning” (Pound, 1966). It then depends on the charge it has, as if it were a battery. Returning to Caillois, on the other hand, it also refers to an idea of ​​power: the proposition is that poetry could talk about anything and it was the way in which what was important was treasured. At that time, the verse was what made poetry unalterable and today it is one of the two great resources with which a poem is charged with meaning: the development of its music, its rhythm, its sound figure, with the evocative charge that all of those things have. It is a way in which the poem separates itself from other uses that do not exploit that variable. Another important aspect for Caillois is the image; if the verse or the music makes the poem inalterable and memorable, the image makes it inexhaustible: it is something up to indefinite evocation and interpretation (Caillois, 1958, p. 14).

Ezra Pound. Wyndham Lewis. 1939.

Callois then defines two variables within poetry called "fanopeia", which are the visual images of the poems, and "melopeia" as the music of the poems.

Pound, for his part, adds a third and necessary idea: "logopeia", which he calls “the dance of the intellect between words”. What this third category wants to point out are the structural frameworks that the poem has.

Another Brazilian poet, Décio Pignatari, was known for his visual poems, and proposed that a fourth trait could be thought of: he called it "graphic fanopeia". This was explained in the book A obra-pensameitno fanomelopaica by Décio Pignatari (Lacerda, 2007). That is to say, not only the visual images that the poem evokes when saying "table", "blonde hair", "garbage can" or "lake", but the visual image itself that constitutes the graphic representation of the text; the text as an image, the image on the page, the organization of a poem.

Orgasmo. Décio Pignatari. (1965).

The final definition

A poem is a machine. Or an organism. Or a construction. Or an action. Or a path.

The image or metaphor one prefers can be used to characterize it, but in any case what will emerge will be the idea that a poem always has a way of being, a way to function, and that it is in the knowledge of its gestures, of the choices and operations that realize, that closeness to the text is acquired, that is, an awareness and a capillarity that allow you to move inside, taking ownership of ideas and traits, tracing links, interpreting all the levels on which a poem operates.

Beyond sticking to one definition or another, it is about being able to approach a certain structure or mathematics of the mystery. Poetry could never be seen as a linear story, but as a rather direct approach where the poems exist at the same moment. The image of the “universe” that poetry alludes to can exist rather as a set of universes, that is, as a “multiverse”: there is a large globe with names of poets, poems, schools, and styles scattered everywhere in their emergency territories connecting by infinite routes, which today return to poetry as a form of literature so rich in its expansion.

Bibliographical references

Caillois, R. & Lambert, J.C. (1958). Trésor de la poesie universelle. Paris. Gallimard.

Lacerda, D. (2007). A obra-pensamento fanomelopaica de Décio Pignatari. Universidade Tuiuti do Paraná. Curitiba, Brasil.

Leminski, P. (1978). Poetry. Brazil.

Pound, E. (1966). The ABC of reading. Buenos Aires, Of the Flower.

Visual sources

Lewis, W. (1939). Ezra Pound. [Oil on canvas]. Retrieved from:

Pignatari, D. (1965). Orgasmo. Retrieved from


Author Photo

Antonella Cosentino

Arcadia _ Logo.png

Arcadia has an extensive catalog of articles on everything from literature to science — all available for free! If you liked this article and would like to read more, subscribe below and click the “Read More” button to discover a world of unique content.

Let the posts come to you!

Thanks for submitting!

  • Instagram
  • Twitter
  • LinkedIn
bottom of page