An Essay on PoetrySteven C. ScheerAccording to the Judeo-Christian Bible, God created the world by means of words, by divine fiat. He said "Let there be," and there was.
So it was words that brought the world into existence in the first place, and it is words (by means of human fiat, if you will) that create our own worlds as well. For it is by means of words that we apprehend, categorize, and even think and feel and know our world. We even interpret our most important experiences (like falling in love) in terms of the words our culture uses to talk about them. When I taught my composition courses in college, I presented my classes with two theories about the relationship between language and reality. I called the one most people assume to be true the Expressive Theory, and I called the one I still think is true the Creative Theory. According to both, of course, "things are what we say they are." But in the case of the Expressive Theory the emphasis is on "are" ("things are what we say they are"), whereas in the case of the Creative Theory the emphasis is on "say" ("things are what we say they are").
What this simple scheme tells us is that words come before meaning, words give rise to meaning. But once words have given rise to meaning, it seems to most of us that meaning came before words. That's just how "creative" of our realities words actually are. Poetry is art by means of words. The word itself is of Greek origin and its etymological meaning is "making" (to say that someone is a poet is to call him or her a "maker").
This oldest of the human arts was born in song (and dance). Rhythm and rhyme (and reason) go hand-in-hand when it comes to poetry. Though the language of poetry is the language of emotions, it is not devoid of rationality either. In a good poem the head is the head of the heart, even as it is the heart that gives life to the head. And this is true even if we accept Pascal's famous dictum about the heart having reasons that reason will not understand.
Trying to define poetry is probably a useless enterprise. The literature on it is vast. Most famous poets have written about it. For Alexander Pope, for example, the essence of it came from what "oft was thought but never so well expressed," for Wordsworth it was a matter of the "overflow of powerful feelings . .
. emotions recollected in tranquility," whereas for Shelley poets were the "unacknowledged legislators of the world." Coleridge was perhaps the most ambitious in asserting that in writing.