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.

What is a poem?

Crowd-sourced! I asked my friends on Facebook, “Tell me a thing you think a poem is, and a thing you think a poem is not.” Here are some of the answers I got:

  • A poem is original, not a cliche.
    Kirsten Huscusson
  • I think a poem is words and a poem is not words.
    Emily Doolittle

  • Have you read Mary Ruefle? Madness Rack & Honey is one long essay I want to excerpt in answer to your query. I read the book that it is in daily.

    Poetry is often the only way to discover and become and describe that which we so desperately need to have in our world, between the lines of what is or we are – it lives in the spaces between and we carve it into existence with sound and pixels and ink.

    Poems are both birth and death.  Lisa Rokusek

  • Poetry is vulnerability. Poetry is not packaged neatly for the masses.
    Jamie Herron
  • A poem is a distillation of a thought, a memory, or a feeling, but it is not a confession
    Sheree Renée Thomas
  • Poetry is where knowing quickens into music.
    Klyd Watkins
  • a poem is emotional truth/a poem is not factual
    Julene T. Weaver
  • every
    is a Poem

    Not what a poem is Not
    what it need not be

    it need not be prettymoonjuneballoonflutteringlashessunsethandinhandandhearts

    but it can

    it can be
    the sound of choking
    in a hidden prison
    the numbness
    of three jobs two kids no words

    mass graves
    a roach cleaning her antennae

    it can be
    the devout cliches
    of a dying elder

    the droning angst
    of a teenager
    to kill a secret

    bad grammar
    bad form

    yet with a voice
    a DNA
    of need

    a sloppy scrawl
    of run-on prose

    rhyme slanted
    hard enough to snap
    stuttered meter
    of a diseased heart

    It can be garbage
    or left to decay
    slipping the bonds
    of language

    the mnemonic
    of atoms whose existence
    writes itself
     Elissa Malcohn

power in that quiet space

There is at least one kind of utility that a poem can embody: ambiguity. Ambiguity is not what school or society wants to instill. You don’t want an ambiguous answer as to which side of the road you should drive on, or whether or not pilots should put down the flaps before take-off. That said, day-to-day living—unlike sentence-to-sentence reading—is filled with ambiguity: Does she love me enough to marry? Should I fuck him one more time before I dump him?

—”What is a poem?” Mark Yakich, The Atlantic, 25 November 2013.

I’d like to talk a little about the space that poetry creates for ambiguity and contemplation. Poetic language generally demands a greater amount of attention than prose, and so reading it requires a certain slowness. Slow down. Unpack.

Several years ago, I interviewed Jeff Hardin for Intermittent Visitors. Something he said then: “I refuse to give up my quiet time. I decided a long time ago that there must be a lot of power in that quiet space for there to be an all-out onslaught against it in our culture.”

That’s stuck with me. We’re always on, going from one distraction to the next, one crisis to the next. And we can’t make real connections or do the real work of living or challenge the status quo in any way if we’re in thrall to all these small demands on our time. Making time—headspace—for contemplation is necessary to the task of being human, and poetry can help us with that. (It’s not the only way. Making music, hiking in the woods, staring into a bonfire, planing a length of pine, etc. are all alternatives. But it’s one good way.)

Part of the definition of poetry that we’re grasping at through all of our entries this month needs to include ambiguity, and how ambiguous poetic language creates a little space for contemplation.

What is a poem?

I believe that poetry is music. I believe that poetry is medicine.

A poem is a naked man, a pair of red shoes, a broken spine, a duck. It’s a raised eyebrow and a shout. A whisper against fear. A manicure. A sharpening.

It’s something language does when it’s left alone to brood. At its best, it’s a rifle and a revolution, blood pooling below a punched eye. An assassin’s blade. A newscaster’s voice breaking at the roll call of the dead. The truth we can’t stand. At its worst, it’s a shibboleth of class. A vase of white flowers in a white room. An airless room. An airlock.

You have a pair of lips. Two hands. Fury, despair, an appreciation for beauty. Build a poem. You have a left ventricle and a right to freedom of beseech. Like a person, a poem is an oddity. A machine that operates like nothing else. Poetry is breaking its own engine. Poetry is seeing which gears roll out.


Jane Hirshfield on Revising Poetry

Last summer, I attended a lecture on “Writing Poems, Writing Books” at Vanderbilt University by Jane Hirshfield, an American poet whose honors include election to Chancellor of the Academy of American Poets in 2012 and work in seven editions of Best American Poetry. Her most recent books are Ten Windows: How Great Poems Transform the World (Alfred A. Knopf, 2015)1 and The Beauty: Poems(Alfred A. Knopf, 2015)2.

The Beauty by Jane Hirshfield

The Beauty by Jane Hirshfield

Below are my notes on the questions she asks herself while revising (with some paraphrasing, and her copious explanatory comments left out since I can’t write that fast!).

Questions to Ask While Revising a Poem

  • What does the poem actually say on the page? Is it saying what it wants to say? Is it confused?
  • Does it follow its own deepest impulses, rather than my initial idea?
  • Does it go deep enough?
  • Would saying less be stronger?
  • Does the poem know more than I did when I started writing it? Did I discover anything?
  • Is there music? Does it need a more deeply living body of sound? Is the music helping its meaning?
  • Does the visual shape of the poem [lines, line breaks, stanzas, etc.] serve its meaning?
  • Is it true?
  • Is it ethical?
  • Does it feel?
  • Is there anything that doesn’t belong?
  • Do any digressions serve the poem?
  • Are the poem’s awkwardnesses and smoothnesses in its own best service?
  • Are there places that would be confusing to an outside reader or where I’ve assumed non-general knowledge or mind-reading?
  • Are there any cliches in words, images or ideas?
  • Is the poem self-satisfied?
  • Is it predictable?
  • Is it precise?
  • Does it allow strangeness? Is the strangeness it allows accessible?
  • Is the grammar correct? Does wrong or non-standard syntax serve the purpose of the poem?
  • Are the transitions serving the poem? Are the ideas and rhetorical gestures in the right order?
  • Does the diction [ornateness/simpleness] fit the meaning?
  • Is it in the right voice [first person/second person/third person]?
  • Do each of its moments move it forward?
  • Should it go out into the world or is it the seed for another poem?
  • Is it finished?


1 Buy Ten Windows: How Great Poems Transform the World (Alfred A. Knopf, 2015)1from your local bookstore or online at AmazonBarnes & NobleChapters CanadaIndieBound; or Powell’s.

2 Buy The Beauty: Poems (Alfred A. Knopf, 2015) from your local bookstore or online at AmazonBarnes & NobleChapters CanadaIndieBound; or Powell’s.

I’d taken to sleeping naked. He took a good look at me before reacting.

So, “Hamiltons” won. Many thanks to everybody who commented!

In other news, Per Contra has just published my literary short story “Toy Boy.”

I’m working right now on a full-length book manuscript of poetry about the US. I saw Molly Peacock read last week, and she read her poem “Aubade,” which got me thinking about aubades, and I wrote one based on the “morning in America” Reagan ad. I’m feeling quite brilliant for that.

Everything that stinks is instinctual.

Since I last posted at the end of July, I’ve had a few publications: “The Casualty Notification Officer” and “Everything that Divides” at Prick of the Spindle (love their layout and design so much); “Improving on Nature” at Strange Horizons; and a scifaiku at microcosms.

I’ve also been playing with a text-to-movie application and have made two “movies”: Improving on Nature and The Queen of England Talks About Pigeons. Those have been a lot of fun. I end up spending all kinds of time with little fiddly details but the basics are dead simple.

My poem “Hamiltons” is a contestant in the 10-10-10 Poetry Contest. Each poem had to be ten lines of ten words each somehow relating to the theme of “ten.” Some of the other poems are pretty sweet too. I was initially undecided about submitting – Peg and I had dinner last week and had a long conversation about this market, which pays well (and the editor certainly has his heart in the right place) but which is more of a popularity contest than about the merit of the poetry (the winner is decided according to how many positive comments it gets). I ended up deciding that I wanted the exercise of writing within the limits he’d set, and I’d had what I thought was a pretty good idea for what to write about—and then once it was written I figured I might as well shoot for the $242 prize, and worse case scenario my entry fee would go to some other poet. If you like my poem, please say so in their comments!

the locals roll their eyestalks

Wow, it’s been a long time since I posted. My apologies, peeps. Some news:

NaPoWriMo Fail

napowrimo_plum I’ve not been as dedicated to NaPoWriMo this year as I was last year, and as a result I’ve written, so far, ten haiku and five poems (one of which was very very long, but still). It’s day 24 and I don’t think I can write nine poems today to catch up, so I’m admitting defeat. However, it was still worth doing – I wrote five poems and ten haiku! I’ll continue to post the inspirational poems at my blog in case anybody is benefitting from them.

Instead this weekend I’m going to try to finish the transplant story I’ve been picking away at for the past two months, and get at least partially caught up on submissions.

the saffron dies the jar

napowrimo_plum Update: I’ve written a seven haiku, and two short-to-medium-length poems, and one two-and-a-half-page poem. Today I’m going to try my hand at a short narrative poem. We set up a tent in the backyard yesterday, a really tall gazebo-like one, and it’s sunny and warm in Nashville, so I’m going to take my laptop outside and enjoy the weather.