“What is a poem?” – index

April 4 – Lisa Dordal

April 6 – Joanne: What is a poem?

April 8 – Joannie Stangeland

April 11 – Dawn McDuffie

April 13 – Joanne: Power in that quiet space

April 15 – Pat Valdata

April 18 – Joanne’s Facebook friends

April 20 – Mary: You can lead a horse

April 22 – Jim Seavey

April 25 – Sherry Chandler

April 27 – Joanne quotes Rebecca Lindenberg and some other writers

April 29 – Peg: Running out of bras before knives

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.

Guest Post: Sherry Chandler

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.

Sherry Chandler 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.

Guest post: Jim Seavey

I’m tempted to offer the tautology that a poem is what a poet claims as a poem. One of my all time favorite poems is a “found object” poem by Charles Olson: “Barbara Ellis, ramp.” That’s it, the whole poem, taking up a whole 8 x 11 page in Maximus Poems IV, V, VI (Cape Goliard, London, 1968).

Jim Seavey is an artist and teacher in Nashville. View some of his creations at jimseavey.com.

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

Guest Post: Pat Valdata

What Is a Poem?

Multiple choice:

    a) The answer to one of the hardest questions in literature.
    b) An ancient art form, older than cuneiform.
    c) That thing we compare other art forms to.
    d) If we’re getting really sloppy, it’s what some people call a natural event with no art to it whatsoever: waves crashing onshore in the winter, blowing frozen spume.
    e) I know it when I see it.

What is a poem?

A trick question. You’d think we’d have a decent definition for it by now.

Until the 20th century, everyone knew what a poem was: that form of speaking, and then writing, with rhymed words and a regular rhythm. Whether it took the form of a chant, a psalm, or a rondeau, we had no trouble identifying a poem. We even had field guides to its various forms, helping us to distinguish among types of sonnets the way birders recognize Willow, Alder, and Acadian Flycatchers (or try to, anyway).
Then came Modernism, and we ripped away poetic conventions the way flappers ripped off their corsets. After a wave of wild experimentation, poetry settled into a free-verse, lyrical groove that has lasted for decades. Every few years or so, some movement comes along to expand the boundaries again: L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E, Oulipo, New Formalism (which has been around for more than 30 years, so maybe we should stop referring to it as “new”), Spoken Word.

What is a poem?

A magnanimous form of writing, as short as a haiku, as long as a blank verse novel. It treads the treacherous marsh between prosaic and singsong.

What isn’t a poem?

It isn’t a paragraph, unless it’s a prose poem. It isn’t simply a paragraph broken into irregular lines, either. That’s a rookie mistake.

What is a poem?

Don’t ask me. I write poetry, but I’ll be darned if I can define it.

Pat Valdata is adjunct associate professor at the University of Maryland University College with an MFA in writing from Goddard College. Her publications include Where No Man Can Touch, winner of the 2015 Donald Justice Poetry Prize. For more information, please visit her website.

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.

Guest post: Dawn McDuffie

What is a poem?

Poetry is what in a poem makes you laugh, cry, prickle, be silent, makes your toenails twinkle, makes you want to do this or that or nothing, makes you know that you are alone and not alone in the unknown world, that your bliss and suffering is forever shared and forever all your own.

    — Dylan Thomas, A Few Words of a Kind

I wish I could define the quality that makes me realize I’ve just read a poem. Honestly, my mind doesn’t always know why, but my body always recognizes true poetry. I read a set of well-chosen words, and I feel I’ve been hit by verbal lightning. The hair on my arms stands straight up. Is it clarity, depth of image, language choices, or unity? A poem has all of those qualities, but a piece of persuasive writing could also claim identical poetic qualities. I’ve never memorized an essay for the joy of claiming it as my own, but I have memorized poems when I had no other way of holding them. I took a standardized test in third grade. What made the test special was that it included a complete poem with comprehension questions following. I sat there among my classmates, and I memorized that poem before the testing period was over. The following year we took the same test, and I checked to see if I remembered the poem correctly. I still know it by heart.

Snow Toward Evening

by Melville Cane

Suddenly the sky turned gray,
The day,
Which had been bitter and chill,
Grew soft and still.
From some invisible blossoming tree
Millions of petals cool and white
Drifted and blew,
Lifted and flew,
Fell with the falling night.

I could say I was only eight years old, but I can’t deny its hold on me, sixty-two years later. A poem is a crafted collection of words that travels from one heart to another, a treasure that can last long after other collections of words have lost their charm.

Dawn McDuffie has an MFA from Vermont College and has taught creative writing at Detroit’s Scarab Club and Opera House. Her poems have appeared in Rattle, Driftwood, Diner, The MacGuffin, Feminist Studies, and the anthology Mona Poetica. An essay, “Humor in Poetry,” was nominated for a Pushcart Prize. Her books include People in My Head (1997 Heartlands Today Prize), Carmina Detroit, and Flag Day in Detroit. She taught high school English in Detroit for twenty-five years.

Guest Post: Joannie Stangeland

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.