What is a poem?
That’s a question I’ve been trying to answer for as long as I’ve been trying to write one of the devilish things. I’m flying my broomstick without instruments. Let us see where we land.
Once upon a time, as no doubt you all know, the definition was easy: a poem in English was language measured in specified ways adapted from Classical literature, written in high rhetorical style, again borrowed from Latin and Greek.
A poem often rhymed at the ends of lines in specified ways.
A poem, then, was high-toned language poured into a pre-existing mold appropriate for the subject, sonnets for love, rhymed couplets for epic narrative, the ballad for low stories, etc.
These forms, most of them borrowed from the Italian or the French, are called verse, from the Latin versus, meaning “a turning.” They dominated English poetry from the time of Chaucer, that is, the 14th century, until the 20th century dawned on the Modernists.
Modernists and their successors weren’t satisfied with the long-standing definition. Pound, Eliot, William Carlos Williams, et al. found the ornate forms inadequate to express the violence, economic hardship, and loss of faith in a society shaken by the slaughter of two world wars and torn between Fascism and Communism. Moreover, Williams argued that English in the American melting pot had a unique immigrant-influenced sound that demanded new forms. The upshot is they “freed” poems; took linguistic wedges and split poem from verse. As with many previous rebellions, a certain amount of chaos ensued until a new dictator arose.
Free verse—no specified form, ordinary language, commonplace subject matter.
The dictum now was “a poem finds its own form,” but if that is so, how do you know whether the words you found make a poem? You might say it’s a poem but do other people accept it as such?
Somewhere in my reading someone, Annie Finch I think, said, essentially, if you’ve broken the material into short lines, it’s a poem by definition. (I apologize for failing to supply a link or a title but I can’t find this statement again.)
I rejected that definition for a long time, because it seemed arbitrary. I could put instructions for operating my rototiller in short lines, but would that make it poetry?
I held that negative opinion until I read in Kenneth Koch’s Making Your Own Days (Touchstone, 1998) that Line breaks . . . draw attention to tone and sound. In doing so, they make poetic sense . . . One becomes more conscious of the words. (p 30)
Dress appropriately when operating the tiller.
Always wear sturdy footwear. Never
wear sandals, sneakers or open shoes, and never
operate the tiller with bare feet. Do not wear
loose clothing that might get caught
in the moving parts.
I promise you I picked that Operating Manual from among the papers and books lying on my desk as the item least likely to be poetic. And really, the six lines above do not comprise a poem. However the line breaks I chose create a sort of rhyme scheme in the first four lines: tiller/never/never/wear. In turn, that rhyming emphasizes the internal rhyming and repetition of wear, footwear, and bare. Also, placing prohibitive words at the ends of lines strengthens them from advice to warning.
I would not have noticed this language if I hadn’t introduced line breaks.
So okay, line breaks. But what about prose poems?
Back to square one.
For Koch, the one essential ingredient of poetry is music: Poetry, he says, and by extension a poem would just as soon come to a musical as to a logical or otherwise useful conclusion . . . (p 21). But again what about those oxymoronic prose poems?
. . . a poem comes right with a click like a box says Yeats. Yes, that could be it; even those boxy prose poems can click closed.
But a poem must resonate outward at the end says most every writing teacher I ever had.
Cleanth Brooks asserted that a poem cannot be paraphrased. A text is non-paraphrasable if and only if a paraphrase neither can replace the text nor capture its essential meaning. In that scenario, a poem’s rhythm, style, sound, images, emotional flavour and intellectual aspects, the denotations and connotations of its words, and even its content and graphic aspects, are inseparable. http://hdl.handle.net/2027/spo.7523862.0002.008
This definition makes a poem larger than its component parts, which may well be true but may be as true of poetic prose as of prose poetry. It also implies that the poem clicks shut and not even the poet can make changes. In that case, a poem would be rara avis indeed.
One day at the beginning of second grade, my teacher asked each student in turn to recite the alphabet. I couldn’t recite the alphabet. What to do? Certainly this was no time to memorize the letters strung out above the blackboard; she was already at the head of my row, and now it was my turn. ‘I can’t say the letters in order,” desperation spoke, “but I know them when I see them.” She laughed and I got away with it.
Possibly poem can’t be defined, only recognized by those who are immersed in poetry the way a beginning reader is immersed in the alphabet. Maybe the definition is different for every reader and maybe it is different at different stages of life.
So all I can offer is a sort of paraphrase of what I said to Miss Nell in 1953: I may never be able to say definitely what a poem is but I know one when I read one.
has published two chapbooks and two full-length collections of poetry, most recently The Woodcarvers’s Wife
(Wind Publications). She lives on a small farm in Kentucky with her woodcarving husband and an ever-changing population of wildlife, an ever-changing source of inspiration. For more information, please visit her website