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What Is Classic Poetry?

By K. McKinsey
Updated May 23, 2024
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Much debate surrounds the definition of classic poetry. To be properly called a classic, something must exhibit both high degrees of quality and staying power. Poems that are included in the classic poetry list generally have both of these characteristics. Often, poets who lack staying power but exhibit a high degree of talent have their poems re-introduced to the list of classic poems long after they are deceased.

A poem is generally not described as "classic" until several decades have passed since it was originally penned and released to the public. Adequate time must have elapsed for the poem to have demonstrated its staying power. If high school seniors are still assigned to analyze the poem 50 to 100 years after the poet has passed away, it is a good sign that it is a classic poem.

In the past, the addition of non-Western poetry to the classic poetry canon has been impeded by language and cultural differences. Thankfully, modern academics have taken care to include a diverse assortment of poems in the classic category. Long-standing classic poems survive the effects of time and cultural shifts. Anthologies of classic poetry now contain representative writings from all corners of the globe, in translations of many languages, and from a variety of eras of human history. In fact, some famous Chinese poems dedicated to cultural deities date from 1000 BC.

Poems verbally passed from one generation to the next are often lost when the originating culture disappears. Thanks to recording technology, a wide variety of ballads and other types of non-written poetry are being recorded for potential inclusion with other classic poems. One of the most famous efforts to preserve a long-lived, oral tradition is the cataloger of European ballads that occurred during the first part of the 1900s.

Different rhyming schemes and linguistic structures are found among examples of classic poetry. These are often influenced by the original language in which the poem was written. Translations often offer an inaccurate picture of the original structure or intent behind the poem in question. Efforts are being made to include notes with all translations in order to further explain the process and attempt to explain as much of the connotation and denotation of the words as possible.

Though there is no definitive list of classic poems, there are many poets whose works can be found in almost every poetry anthology that is sold and studied in the world. For example, one of the most widely read poems is Dante's Inferno. William Shakespeare's sonnets are among the classics as are the love sonnets of Pablo Neruda. Some of the other names include Emily Dickinson, Lord Byron, Ogden Nash, as well as Wilfred Owen, Lewis Carroll, and even Queen Elizabeth I.

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Discussion Comments

By croydon — On Feb 21, 2014

@pleonasm - I do think that sometimes poems become classics because they appeal to a low common denominator though. I mean, it's an extremely clever poet that manages to fit a double meaning into a poem so that it's going to appeal to the masses as well as the intelligentsia. Most classic romantic poetry that I know of tends to be fairly straightforward. Pretty, but without much substance.

By pleonasm — On Feb 20, 2014

@bythewell - You don't have to look much further than Lewis Carroll for that. He wrote a lot of classic poetry for children that was borderline distasteful. Alice in Wonderland was full of it.

The Walrus and the Carpenter, for example, involves two people tempting young oysters away from their families in order to eat them.

I've heard that it's possibly an allegory for religion, but even if it isn't that's a fairly scary image for children. When you become attached to a particular character only to realize that it is just food for another character.

I don't think it's a bad thing, mind you. It's a classic for a reason. But it's hardly safe and cliched writing either.

By bythewell — On Feb 20, 2014

I remember learning about Wordsworth in high school and being astonished to realize that he can actually be quite sarcastic and his poems aren't always just lyrical odes to the wonders of nature. I guess I had the idea that classical poems were always quite dry and almost cliched, but people had a sense of humor back then as well and they were capable of saying one thing while meaning another, or of insulting each other or themselves.

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