What is poetry?
You'd think that question would have an easy answer. Really, you would. I bet you even think you know what that answer is. Probably, you'd be wrong. Believe it or not, what, exactly, poetry is is a hotly (in some circles) debated subject (most people really don't care). And the definitions extend from the end of "anything created is poetry" to "creative acts employing language" to the other, more restrictive, end of "language using rhythm and rhyme." This disagreement is not new. It's so old, in fact, that Aristotle tackled this whole debate in his book Poetics around 2500 years ago. Yeah, we haven't made much progress.
What we do know is that poetry began in song. Well, we almost know that. We're fairly confident of it, at any rate. I find that somewhat fitting considering that poetry has ended in song (but more on that in a moment). It's likely that poetry went beyond song and into oral story telling as the rhythm of it assisted in remembering the tales.
Some of the oldest poetry we have, and the oldest epic poetry, is the Epic of Gilgamesh. Our oldest (partial) copies are nearly 4000 years old.
None of which gets us any closer to the answer to "what is poetry?"
And that's not a question I'm even going to attempt to give a definitive answer to, because what poetry is has been and meant different things to different cultures all throughout history. So much so that I doubt there is even a definitive answer anymore (or ever (see Aristotle)), which is why people are still arguing over it. For our purposes, though, I think there are two significant points, maybe three:
1. Rhythm. The root of poetry has always been rhythm. It came from songs, remember? And it's the rhythm, the cadence, that made it useful for early man and lead to its evolution.
2. Prose split off from poetry. Literary prose has only existed for a few hundred years, almost no time at all in comparison to the length of time poetry has existed. There are specific reasons for the evolution of prose from poetry, but one of the biggest was its lack of structure. The lack of structure made it easier to translate. [There's a lot more to this, but that's all that's important for this discussion.]
3. Which brings us to structure, which is really the issue in all of this.
I'm just gonna say it and get it out of the way: on the whole, I dislike "modern poetry." I dislike it as not being poetry at all, because so much of "modern poetry" has no structure. It's prose written in verse form. Taking a piece of prose and writing it as if it's poetry does not make it poetry. I don't care how good the prose is. Most of our actual poetry that's being written today is found in pop music. Poetry has ended in song. See? That's where it finds its structure. Beyond that, poetry is mostly dead. As has been said, "Only poets read poetry."
And that's almost exactly true, too. The statistic for Americans that read poetry (and Americans are far more likely to read poetry than anyone else in the world) has fallen below 5% as of a couple of years ago. Even online! Seriously, when stumbling across a poem online, basically, having it shoved in your face, less than 5% of people will bother to read it even with it right there in front of them.
Unless it's lyrics to a song they like, then they might... but, then, we don't consider that reading poetry.
And why is it that people no longer read poetry? I'm going to say that it's because people no longer know how to write poetry. And I'm gonna blame that on free verse. Here's where we talk about Picasso again. Free verse did to poetry what Picasso did to painting. It made anyone think they could do it. Free verse arose from the desire for something new, just like cubism and surrealism for Picasso. Other people looked at those paintings and thought "I can do that," only they couldn't. Not really. Picasso could do it because he was trained. And free verse suffers from the same fate; all people think they can be poets just be writing in verse form.
And it's just not true.
John Livingston Lowes said in 1916, "Free verse may be written as very beautiful prose; prose may be written as very beautiful free verse. Which is which?"
That's kind of where I come down on it, and where you can see that I don't reach all the way to the end of that spectrum I mentioned where anything is poetry or, even, anything using language is poetry.
Robert Frost said that free verse is like "playing tennis without a net."
And T. S. Eliot said, "No verse is free for the man who wants to do a good job."
So here's the thing:
Prose split off from poetry so that we can have writing without structure. Isn't, then, free verse the same thing? Poetry without structure? Yeah, it is, and we call that prose.
That's as close to a definition of what poetry is that I'm going to get: It's structured writing. It has a rhythm of some sort. It has some form it has to follow. Some of it rhymes. Free verse, like prose, has none of these things. The beauty of poetry, though, is found in its structure. Like a great architectural achievement.