What is a poem?
I’ve been thinking about what makes a poem in terms of what is a poem and what is prose. I’ve been pondering this a lot—that line breaks on their own don’t make a poem, and that a prose poem is more than a block of text.
A while back, I said that a poem is music—that prose can be musical but in a poem, music is more important than narrative.
Now I want to add to my earlier response: Just as music includes the rests, the poem rests in the space on the page—always asking, “What’s next?” For me, a poem is what’s here and what’s left out—what can’t be seen or heard but only felt, a shift, a haunting. The not-said lingers in the space, engages me as the reader to go between the lines.
This is not about confusion but an intention and a respect. The poem intends to go its way and respects me as the reader to keep up with it. If the writing tells me everything, I become a bystander. I’ll still enjoy its music—a sensual turn of phrase, a run of alliteration, refrain, end or internal rhyme, all the poetry things. But does it invite me back?
What’s being said and not said sets up a tension and a desire to uncover what’s next. In this way, every poem is some kind of mystery. For me, the poem doesn’t need to answer the question (it might, but I don’t think that’s mandatory). The poem must ask a question.
As an example, I come back to music. In Western music, we want the songs we hear to resolve in their own key—on the tonic or the tonic chord (a melody in C ends on C). For me, a poem resists that resolution until the very last minute, or it doesn’t resolve at all, leaves me listening for it, singing it in my head.
Or a poem is like the composition of a painting, which isn’t flat but is guiding the eye—there is movement on the canvas and awareness of what isn’t in the frame. I especially like to think of post-modern lyric poems as abstract art, where the landscape is not painted for me but I as the reader am creating my own world, my own narrative or backstory.
We have image, metaphor, and music. We have what’s missing, and we have that moment, the turn that pivots our awareness. If the poem asks me to work with it a little, if it leaps and gives me a ledge to land on, but just enough of a ledge, then I become a part of the poem and it becomes a part of me.
Earlier, Mary posted about nourishment. This is what nourishes me, and this is where I want my poems to lead me.
Joannie Stangeland is the author of In Both Hands and Into the Rumored Spring, both published by Ravenna Press, plus two chapbooks, and a pamphlet of prose poems. Joannie’s poems have also appeared in Front Porch Journal, Off the Coast, Hubbub, Santa Fe Literary Review, and other journals. For more information, please visit her website.