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

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.

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.


Guest post: Lisa Dordal

What is a poem?

A poem is the inside of one person becoming the inside of another. Words together, not words alone. Words alone can’t make a poem, any more than a sacred text can make the divine. A poem is strangers talking across centuries. A meal shared between two people who’ve never met. The past breaking open the present. The present breaking open the past.

A poem is not about something but is something. An experience or emotion that passes holy into cell, sinew and vein, changing us with its dark, abundant breath. A poem is a rage at bombs and the odor of death; or snow geese, lovely, coming out from every page. A poem is the eggs of monkfish knitted into a gauzy shroud, buoyant, built for dispersal. A poem is gods in low hills holding thunder and flame. A poem is one eye, round as a coin, fixing fear upon you, the other, half shut.

A poem is sound and breath and feeling, rising from the page like the heat of summer rising from a road. A poem is fear braided into the strands of sinew connecting good-girl muscle to good-girl bone. A poem is atoms, quarks, and auras and all the love that lies between.

A poem is a door through which we move and are changed. A poem is the world aware of itself, alive to its own being. A poem is the gentle pressing of heat, the perfect distance from flame.

A poem is a sudden flock of birds across a blue wake; an eye that rises and falls. Wisp of seeing and being seen. A poem is quarrel, confusion and descent. Fragment of exaltation. A poem sings about the eye, billowing as if body and sky are one. A poem dreams of birds. Dreams of rain and ruin. Wisp of seeing and being seen. A poem dreams of itself dreaming of rain, its muscle sweet to its skin.

Lisa Dordal (M.Div., M.F.A.), author of Commemoration from Finishing Line Press, teaches in the English Department at Vanderbilt University. A Pushcart Prize nominee and the recipient of an Academy of American Poets Prize, her poetry has appeared in a variety of journals, including Best New Poets, Cave Wall, CALYX, The Greensboro Review, and Nimrod. For more information about her poetry, please visit her website at

No Joke: What’s a Poem?

This month, to celebrate National Poetry Writing Month, we’re going to host a number of poets and writers and thinkers who will be sharing their response to that dreaded question: what is a poem?

Please check back periodically to see whose words are up and let us know what you think of them.