Genre (a French word) means type or kind, and literary genres refer to aspects, kinds or types of literature. A general approach to literature recognises three broad genres: Poetry, Drama, and Prose -fiction (or Novel).
Poetry refers to the many forms in which man gives a rhythmic expression to his most ‘imaginative and intense perceptions of his world, himself, and the interrelationship of the two. William Wordsworth defines it as the imaginative expression of strong feeling, usually rhythmical …. the spontaneous overflow of powerful emotions recollected in tranquillity. It is, therefore, a composition that evokes emotion and imagination by the use of vivid, intense language, usually arranged in a pattern of words or lines with a pronounced rhythm.
Poetry is said to have originated from man’s natural urge to express his deep feelings in songs. This natural instinct of man appeared in his early tribal ceremonies in which he used dance and song to chronicle and preserve his experiences of any great event, such as a war, a migration, or a flood.
Conventionally, there are three classes of poetry: the Epic, the Dramatic, and the Lyric. Each of these is further classified according to set patterns (e.g. the Sonnet, the Ode, the Elegy).
In content, poetry expresses deep, sincere and significant thoughts with power, beauty and dignity. In form, poetry is rhythmical. Below are essential features of poetry:
- It uses concrete words and specific, evocative language.
- It is rich in figures of speech and imagery.
- It contains images and symbols.
- It contains rhyme and rhythm.
- It may be in stanza, free verse, or blank verse.
- It is usually a metrical composition.
Poetry as a genre is made up of the following sub-genres or categories; they are:
(1) BALLAD: is a popular traditional folk narrative song handed down from one generation to another by word of mouth. Traditional ballads form part of the folklore of every nation. Songs by griots and minstrels fall into this sub-category. They are usually simple in plot and metrical in structure. The most common ballad stanza consists of four or five lines. Examples: Sir Patrick Spens, the Daemon Lover, Edward Edward.
(2) LYRIC: is a short poem that conveys intense personal emotion or thought. It is usually a song rendered to the accompaniment of the lyre; hence it is called lyric (song from the lyre). Most songs by our local minstrels like Mike Ejeagha, Seven Seven, and Sir Victor Uwaifo belong here.
(3) LULLABY/WORK SONG: Lullabies are songs meant to lull babies to sleep. Even though they are usually oral like work songs, they qualify as poetry (oral literature). Examples abound in all cultures.
(4) PANEGYRIC: is praise poetry popularly found in courts of kings with which professional griots or praise singers eulogize their lords especially on important occasions.
(5) EPIC: is poetry celebrating achievements of great national heroes or events of historical or epical dimensions like the fate of the entire human race. Examples are: Milton’s Paradise Lost, Paradise Regained; and Sundiata, the Epic of Mali; Chaka, the Zulu; the Epic of Gilgamesh (a legendary king and hero of ancient Babylonian epic found inscribed on 12 tablets in the palace of Ashurbanipal at Nineveh).
(6) SONNET: is “a brief poetical form of fourteen rhymed lines ranged according to perception.” It is distinguished by an impressive unity and a clear and musical presentation of theme.
Sonnets have specific rhyme schemes, thus: ab ab cd cd ef ef gg Shakespearean sonnet; ab ab bc bc cd cd ee – Spenserian sonnet.
(7) ELEGY: is a solemn lamentation song/poem for the dead; it is characterized by content and not form which is invariably melancholy and centres on death and pain. An example is Thomas Gray’s “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard;” Mazisi Kunene’s “Elegy for my friend E. Galo;” and Lenre.
(8) DIRGE: is a slow sad song sung over a dead person. Examples of this abound in our traditional village. Refer also to Lenrie Peters “Isatou Died. ”
(9) ODE: is originally, a poem arranged to be sung to the accompaniment of a musical instrument such as the lyre. The modern ode is written as pure poetry without musical accompaniment. It is more exalted in subject matter, style, and tone, than the ordinary lyric and deals with a single dignified theme.
POETRY AS A GENRE relies most on the power of words and on their manifold suggestiveness. Poetry is the most literary of all the branches of literature because it makes the most use of the raw material of literature, which is words. Poetry is written mainly in verse and arranged in stanzas. It approximates to the speaking voice and it is said to be the first literary genre to evolve. Poetry has been variously defined in terms of emotion, perfection, or its instructiveness. It is highly spontaneous, evocative, imaginative, and teaches by pleasing us. Poetry is, therefore, defined as follows:
- “Poetry is the spontaneous overflow of powerful emotion recollected in tranquillity.” – William Wordsworth.
- “Best words in their best order .” – Samuel Taylor Coleridge.
- “That which should surprise by a fine excess. – John Keats.
- “The rhythmical creation of Beauty.” –Matthew Arnold.
- “The suggestion, by the imagination, of noble ground for noble emotion.” – John Ruskin.