Definition of Poem

A poem is a work of literature that uses the sounds and rhythms of a language to evoke deeper significance than the literal meanings of the words. There are numerous literary devices that may be found in any given poem, such as meter, rhyme, rhythm, symbolism, imagery, repetition, consonance, assonance, alliteration, enjambment, and so on. Furthermore, there are a number of different ways to classify a poem, such as analyzing its meter or finding it to be either blank verse or free verse. There are also many different recognized forms in which a poem may be written, such as a sonnet, haiku, sestina, villanelle, limerick, ode, ghazal, etc.

The word poem comes from the Greek word poēma, which was an early variant of poiēma meaning “fiction, poem,” originally from poiein, meaning “to create.” For such an ancient and widespread form of art, it’s interesting to note that the definition of poem originally meant “to create,” signifying how important poem examples are to human creativity.

Common Examples of Poem

Poetry has such as important function in society that there are numerous ways we incorporate it into daily life. In English, when someone accidentally rhymes a friend might respond “You’re a poet and you didn’t know it” (that, in itself, qualifying as a small light poem). On Valentine’s Day we compose numerous rhyming variations to finish off the short quatrain “Roses are red, violets are blue,….”

Here are a few other common uses of poetry in everyday life:

  • Folger’s rhyming slogan: “The best part of waking up is Folgers in your cup!”
  • Martin Luther King Jr.’s use of the following quote in his “I have a Dream” speech:

My country ’tis of thee, sweet land of liberty, of thee I sing.
Land where my fathers died, land of the Pilgrim’s pride,
From every mountainside, let freedom ring!

  • Robert Redford quoting Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s poem “Rime of the Ancient Mariner” in the film “Out of Africa”:

Farewell, farewell! but this I tell
To thee, thou wedding-guest!
He prayeth well, who loveth well
Both man and bird and beast.

Significance of Poem in Literature

There is a wide variety of written works which qualify as poems, and thus it can be difficult to say exactly what a poem “is” or what it does. However, most people do not struggle to identify that an example of a poem is, indeed, a poem. There are certain conventions in poetry that distinguish it, especially the visual look of a poem upon a page with its lines that form stanzas rather than paragraphs (though there is a recent genre in poetry called prose poetry, which mixes these two forms).

Cultures from around the world and throughout generations have generated poetry for many different purposes. There are religious scriptures which are written as poetry, poems that are meant to convey profound yet secular truths about the world, and light poetry which is meant to be humorous.

As Robin Williams’s character in the 1989 film “Dead Poets Society” pronounces:

JOHN KEATING: We don’t read and write poetry because it’s cute. We read and write poetry because we are members of the human race. And the human race is filled with passion. And medicine, law, business, engineering, these are noble pursuits and necessary to sustain life. But poetry, beauty, romance, love, these are what we stay alive for. To quote from Whitman, “O me! O life!… of the questions of these recurring; of the endless trains of the faithless… of cities filled with the foolish; what good amid these, O me, O life?” Answer. That you are here – that life exists, and identity; that the powerful play goes on and you may contribute a verse.

Examples of Poem in Literature

Example #1

Old pond . . .
a frog leaps in
water’s sound

(Haiku by Basho)

One of the most famous haiku poems ever written, the above translation is from the noted Japanese haiku writer Basho. The familiar conventions of haiku writing can be seen here, including the number of “on” in each line (like syllables) of 5-7-5, the focus on natural imagery, and the change from the literal to the sublime in the third line.

Example #2

Let me not to the marriage of true minds
Admit impediments. Love is not love
Which alters when it alteration finds,
Or bends with the remover to remove:
O no; it is an ever-fixed mark,
That looks on tempests, and is never shaken;
It is the star to every wandering bark,
Whose worth’s unknown, although his height be taken.
Love’s not Time’s fool, though rosy lips and cheeks
Within his bending sickle’s compass come;
Love alters not with his brief hours and weeks,
But bears it out even to the edge of doom.
If this be error and upon me proved,
I never writ, nor no man ever loved.

(“Sonnet 116” by William Shakespeare)

William Shakespeare was famous for his sonnets, of which he is known to have written 154. We can see all of the conventions of this form at work, including the number of lines (fourteen, broken into three quatrains and a final rhyming couplet), the rhyme scheme (ABABCDCDEFEFGG), and the meter (iambic pentameter).

Example #3

Once upon a midnight dreary, while I pondered, weak and weary,
Over many a quaint and curious volume of forgotten lore—
While I nodded, nearly napping, suddenly there came a tapping,
As of some one gently rapping, rapping at my chamber door.
“’Tis some visitor,” I muttered, “tapping at my chamber door—
Only this and nothing more.”

(“The Raven” by Edgar Allen Poe)

Edgar Allen Poe used a number of literary devices in his famous poem “The Raven.” The majority of the lines in each stanza is written in the somewhat unusual meter of trochaic octameter, with a final sixth line written in trochaic tetrameter. He also uses a rhyme scheme of ABCBBB as well as internal rhyme. We can also find assonance, consonance, sibilance, and alliteration throughout the poem.

Example #4

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;

(“The Road Not Taken” by Robert Frost)

In Robert Frost’s poem example “The Road Not Taken” we can find many devices at work, such as rhyme scheme (ABABB) and symbolism. Though Frost seems to be simply describing something he has come across in his travels, indeed there is deep meaning to his contemplation of which path he took.

Example #5

so much depends
a red wheel
glazed with rain
beside the white

(“The Red Wheelbarrow” by William Carlos Williams)

William Carlos Williams challenged old notions of what a poem could look like in English. He does away with meter, rhyme scheme, and other devices that writers would use to show that their work of literature was a poem. Instead, he presents a simple scene and asks the reader to develop the significance therein. This technique is somewhat similar to what haiku writers achieved as well.

Example #6

Backward Bill, Backward Bill,
He lives way up on Backward Hill,
Which is really a hole in the sandy ground
(But that’s a hill turned upside down).

(“Backward Bill” by Shel Silverstein)

Poem examples do not all have to be serious. There are many famous humorous poets such as Dr. Seuss, Ogden Nash, and Shel Silverstein. In the above opening stanza from Silverstein’s “Backward Bill” we can see the fun he’s having with rhyme scheme, juxtaposition, contrast, and consonance. Though the theme of the poem is light, Silverstein does an excellent job using formal poetic devices.

Test Your Knowledge of Poem

1. Which of the following statements is the best poem definition?
A. A work of literature which incorporates paragraphs and dialogue.
B. A work of literature that has characters and a narrative arc.
C. A work of literature which depends on figurative language and the sound of words to convey a deeper meaning.

Answer to Question #1 Show

2. Which of the following literary devices is usually not found in poetry?
A. Denouement
B. Imagery
C. Metaphor

Answer to Question #2 Show

3. Which of the following forms is not a poetic form?
A. Villanelle
B. Novella
C. Ghazal

Answer to Question #3 Show

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