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.

Animated poetry

In a conversation on the Poets & Writers Speakeasy forum, poet Wendy Babiak mentioned videos of poetry animations and short films, citing as a favourite “Forgetfulness” by Billy Collins (animation by Julian Grey of Head Gear).

That’s one of eleven animations of his poetry commissioned by the Sundance Channel’s Action Poetry Series, which includes: “The Best Cigarette” (David Vaio/Will Hyde/FAD); “Budapest” (Julian Grey/Head Gear); “The Country” (Brady Baltezor/Radium); “The Dead” (Juan Delcan/Spontaneous); “Hunger” (Samuel Christopher/FAD); “No Time” (Jeff Scher); “Now and Then” (Eun-Ha Paek/Milky Elephant); “Some Days” (Julian Grey/Head Gear); and “Today” (Little Fluffy Clouds/Curious), which is my favourite animation, although I think “Walking Across the Atlantic” (Mike Stolz/Manic) is my favourite of these poems.

SamuelChristopher also animated “Angel,” which is from Hashisheen by Bill Laswell and read by Nicole Blackman, who I recognize from The Golden Palominos’ album Dead Inside.

Here’s are some other animations and short films based on poems:

Finally, the Poetry Foundation, in association with docUWM at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, has a Poetry Everywhere series, which includes: “I started early…” by Emily Dickinson (Maria Vasilkovsky); “The Language” by Robert Creeley (Chad Edwards); “Mulberry Fields” by Lucille Clifton (Jason Walczyk); “Paradoxes and Oxymorons” by John Ashbery (Kate Raney); “Snowmen” by Agha Shahid Ali (Kyle Jenkins); “Some Words Inside of Words” by Richard Wilbur (Anna Wilson); “Those Winter Sundays” by Robert Hayden (Allison Alexander Westbrook IV); and “Tornado Child” by Kwame Dawes (Nicole Garrison).

Modal Difficulty and Political Speech

The Slate article “The Poetry of Sarah Palin” put me in mind of Donald Rumsfeld’s poetry (compiled by the same Slate writer):

A Confession

Once in a while,
I’m standing here, doing something.
And I think,
“What in the world am I doing here?”
It’s a big surprise.

and Jean Chrétien’s:

A Proof is a Proof

What kind of a proof?
It’s a proof.
A proof is a proof.
And when you have a good proof,
it’s because it’s proven.

(which is a bit unfair as a criticism, since English isn’t his first language). It was online awhile back formatted as a poem, from memory as above (the quote isn’t from memory – it’s all over the damn place). I wish I could find the original link.

I’m not so much interested in the politics of these satirical pieces (which made me laugh despite how humourless I’m about to sound), but about what they say about the public conception of poetry. The underlying assumptions seem to be (a) that anything broken up into lines is poetry and (b) that poets talk funny, and that’s pretty much all there is to it. What the satirists are really saying is that these politicians talk a non-standard version of English from which they (the satirists) suffer a modal difficulty – and if they (the politicians) aren’t speaking in prose, well, what’s left? It must be poetry. There’s no third thing, right?

There’s a possible third thing: nonsense. (Ask me to define the difference between poetry and nonsense and I’ll have to refer to that old saw: I know it when I see it. I doubt I could come up with a definition which includes Wallace Stevens and Wesley Willis but excludes the above. I can only hope you all know what I’m talking about.) But these politicians aren’t speaking nonsense – what they’re saying makes sense if you can just ignore their bizarre sentence structure – so if it isn’t (quite) prose and it isn’t (quite) poetry and it isn’t (quite) nonsense, what is it?