What is a poem?

Some thoughts on poetry from poets:


My friend says we never write about anything we can get to the bottom of. For him, this is a place arbored with locust trees. For me, it’s a language for which I haven’t quite found the language yet.

—from “Poetic Subjects” by Rebecca Lindenberg


I want my feet to be bare,

I want my face to be shaven, and my heart—

you can’t plan on the heart, but

the better part of it, my poetry, is open.

—from “My Heart” by Frank O’Hara


It is a thing to have,

A lion, an ox in his breast,

To feel it breathing there.


The lion sleeps in the sun.

Its nose is on its paws.

It can kill a man.

—from “Poetry Is a Destructive Force” by Wallace Stevens


When I am not writing a memoir I am also not writing any kind of poetry, not prose poems contemporary or otherwise, not poems made of fragments, not tightened and compressed poems, not loosened and conversational poems, not conceptual poems, not virtuosic poems employing many different types of euphonious devices, not poems with epiphanies and not poems without, not documentary poems about recent political moments, not poems heavy with allusions to critical theory and popular song.


I am not writing epic poetry although I like what Milton said about lyric poets drinking wine while epic poets should drink water from a wooden bowl. I would like to drink wine from a wooden bowl or to drink water from an emptied bottle of wine.

—from “Not Writing” by Anne Boyer


I loved that harmony in all its stages of passion,

the voices still talking inside me . . . but then, instead of harmony,
there was nothing but rags scattered on the ground.

And maybe that’s all it means to be a poet.

—from “Proof of Poetry” by Tom Sleigh



Finally, this one is so short it’s pointless to excerpt, but go read “Because You Asked about the Line Between Prose and Poetry” by Howard Nemerov.