By Dr Oliver Tearle
Sometimes we might wish to describe something as ‘poetic’: we might speak or write of an author’s or speechmaker’s ‘poetic turn of phrase’ or describe the style of a novel as ‘almost, at times, poetic’, or something similar. We all know what ‘poetic’ means: having the qualities of poetry, or qualities commonly associated with poetry in the popular imagination, at any rate.
But what other ways are there of describing something that’s poetic? Below we introduce some of the best and most popular synonyms for ‘poetic’ writing or speaking, and also one of the most prominent antonyms.
Synonyms for the word ‘poetic’
The term poetic and the word poem both derive from an ancient Greek word meaning ‘make’: poets make their poems, or create them. And this root word also gives us POETICAL, which is perhaps the most obvious synonym for poetic. It simply means ‘belonging to or describing poets or poetry’, and has been around since at least the fifteenth century.
LYRICAL and LYRIC are both good synonyms for ‘poetic’. Indeed, a lyric poem is a kind of poem: one which doesn’t tell a story or adopt a didactic or teacher-like tone, but instead expresses the personal thoughts and feelings, either of the poet themselves or some fictional speaker. Most poems are, in fact, lyric poems.
The words lyric and lyrical come from the lyre, a stringed instrument not unlike the harp, which was used in ancient Greece to provide musical accompaniment to poems. So the poems of Sappho, for instance – in many ways the first lyric poet – would have been sung with instrumental accompaniment, when they were first performed. George Puttenham is credited by the OED with being the first to use the term in English: in his The Arte of English Poesie (1589) he wrote of the ‘Lirique Poets’.
Curiously, lyrical may have entered the language slightly before lyric: the great poet and Renaissance man Sir Philip Sidney referred, in his Apology for Poetry, to ‘other sorts of Poetry almost haue we none, but that Lyricall kind of Songs and Sonnets.’ And since Sidney died in battle in 1586, his use of lyrical must predate Puttenham’s use of lyric.
METRICAL, meanwhile, is a more technical term which can be used as a synonym for poetic, if you’re looking to describe the nuts and bolts of poetry rather than make a value judgment about its qualities. The ground plan of a poem’s rhythm is its metre, so this is where we get metrical from, from the Latin meaning ‘measure’, because we measure the number of feet or syllables in a line of verse. So metrical specifically relates to the metre or rhythm of verse.
And talking of rhythm, if you wish to draw attention to this aspect of a poetic piece of writing, a good synonym is RHYTHMICAL. Indeed, when this word first turned up in the English language, in the sixteenth century, it was exclusively applied to poetry, describing someone who writes verse.
However, since then, it has come to be used – normally in a favourable sense – to describe a piece of poetry that has a flowing and pleasing rhythm. Indeed, in the nineteenth century, Edgar Allan Poe defined poetry as ‘the rhythmical creation of beauty in words.’
And talking of flowing, ELEGANT and FLOWING are also handy words to describe the fluent, smooth quality of poetic language. An elegant piece of writing possesses grace or beauty: it is finely crafted and pleasing to the ear (or eye). Such writing is tasteful and pleasant.
FLOWERY is a term that refers to poetic language, and offers a fine synonym for this aspect of poetry, as does the related term, FLORID. They both denote language which is full of fine words and showy turns of phrase – perhaps even too full of that sort of thing. An early example is found in Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure from the early seventeenth century: ‘Thinke you I can a resolution fetch / From flowrie tendernesse?’
Of course, poetry is one of the creative arts, so you might prefer the more general term, ARTISTIC, as a synonym for the poetic impulse.
Antonyms for the word ‘poetic’
The English language has always had something of a bias against prose writing in favour of poetry. So if something is beautifully expressed it is poetic, or a footballer’s goal or a ballerina’s dancing is ‘pure poetry’. But as for PROSAIC, that denotes something boring and pedestrian, so is never used as a compliment.
Curiously, prosaic started out in the late sixteenth century as a noun, simply referring to a writer of prose; but by the eighteenth century it was being used as an adjective to describe something unromantic, dull, unexciting, or flat.