How Poetry Works

You can think of poetry as word play and a poet as an artist of words.

Chances are you've probably read a poem or two in school, had to memorize a poem at some point, or maybe even wrote a poem yourself. But what exactly is poetry?

A good way to think of poetry is to consider it word play. Like a painter uses paint or a sculptor uses clay, a poet creatively uses words to make a poem. In that sense, a poet is an artist of words. And, like other art forms, creating poetry can be an enjoyable or moving experience.


Many think that a poem has to rhyme, follow a certain format, or be deep and meaningful. But that isn't entirely true. While a poem can be any or all of these, it doesn't have to be. Instead of thinking in such limiting terms, it's better to think of poetry as a creative form of expression -- one that has many tools and is constantly evolving.

So how is a poem different from other types of writing? Most text that you read and write on a daily basis -- novels, essays, newspaper articles, magazines, and blogs -- are written without any poetic styling. This writing, which is referred to as prose, is made up of sentences and paragraphs, and usually is just placed on a page with little attention to where lines break and where words fall.

Poetry, on the other hand, is written for its evocative qualities -- those qualities that produce an emotional response in the reader or create an experience. Poems can be written to sound beautiful, to tell a story or to share a message. They can have alternative meaning, they can share a feeling or experience -- really, they can express just about anything. But the main difference between poetry and other forms of writing is the attention the poet pays to structure, form, tone, word choice and all of those things that create the effect the poet is trying to achieve.

So, if poetry can be about anything, can be written in any way and can be written by anybody, how do we know how to create it? Well, a good place to start is by looking at what other poets have done. In the sections that follow, we'll look at what types of poems there are, what tools a poet uses to create a poem and how the idea of what poetry is has changed over time.