How do you know it’s a poem?

Joanne saved me by pointing to Reginald Shepherd’s discussion of difficulty in poetry. I’m relieved to know I’m one of a crowd that asks “Why is this a poem?” I have the modal problem.

I’ve spent a lot of energy reading poems and berating myself for disliking them when instead (I think) I was simply frustrated by being told it was a poem although it exhibits no traits I would considered poetic.
(I’ve even done this on the IntarWebs and disconcerted and hurt people who write things I don’t consider poems because I could not articulate my own difficulty. I’m a little ashamed.)

How do you know it’s a poem?

They do exhibit at least one trait: these things which may or may not be poems are usually lineated. (I am leaving out prose poems here because I do not know what to do with them. Correction: I know what to do with them: I call them “vignettes” and consider them prose. This does not make them less powerful or moving.)

But how much poetic device does a lineated group of words require before it becomes a poem? If we throw in metaphor and simile and call ourselves done we have cheated the prose fiction writers, and the prose non-fiction writers, who use both of those to tell us stories made up and of ourselves.

Do we require rhyme or onomatopoeia?

How do you know it’s a poem?

The Portuguese and Spanish had monorhyming stanzas. That made it pretty obvious when someone was speaking a poem.

How do you know it’s a poem?

In English I am at a loss to know, if I’m not looking at it, unless the poem is end-rhymed. There’s nothing else for my ear. No measure, no indication. Meter will out, yes, but it doesn’t give you the anticipation or the closure.

Actually, it isn’t the rhyme per se, it’s the repetition of sound. Because a ghazal would sound like a poem in English, with that repeated word/phrase ending the second line in each couplet. It would probably sound like one long line to the ear. (Plus there would be the excitement of when you could chime in and chant along.)

How do you know it’s a poem?

Sometimes, when I have worked to set aside my definition of “poem” I have been able to enjoy a piece for what it is, rather than what I am hoping for.

And yet I sit down to read poems for a reason, with a visceral need to feel the way a poem makes me feel, with anticipation, with yearning. At that feverous pitch, it is difficult to respond well to pieces that don’t sing.

How do I know it’s a poem?

I know it by its repetition, be that assonance, alliteration, consonance, meter, refrain. By something unnamed that surprises me with its music.

I have so much difficulty finding poems like this. Sing me names, please? And tell me, because I genuinely want to know:

how do you know it’s a poem?

2 thoughts on “Refrain

  1. This is a challenge I have teaching students who believe poetry rhymes. I blame this on years of high school teachers teaching 17th century poetry to the exclusion of anything modern. I have to teach them that poetry does not have to rhyme, or even have line breaks. It doesn’t neccessarily tell a story, or act with linear logic (which we might expect from prose, whether fiction or non-fiction.) How, then, to determine what a poem is?
    Well, I believe prose poems are poems. How do you know? Because the prose poem acts like a poem – visually it looks like prose, but auditorially, it sounds like a poem, it moves like a poem (jumps, dream-like conclusions, less narrative), it utilizes metaphor and rhythm, maybe slant-rhyme, imagery. Those are the ingredients of poetry, in my mind regardless of line breaks. Reading poems out loud is a great way to help students recognize – which of these things is a poem? Which is a technical manual? What is the difference between flash-fiction and poetry? It’s the nuances that really help them learn about the art form, I think.

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