“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

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.

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.

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.


When I started reading the collection of 100 poems previously published in Poetry, put together by Don Share and Christian Wiman—called The Open Door—I didn’t intend to wonder about the publishing choices of the magazine, just read some poems.

However, the amount of rhyme really surprised me. I began to wonder how it varied with time, because the poems included in the collection were published between 1913 and 2011. Was there some pattern? I would have assumed more rhyme earlier in the history of the magazine. I mean, didn’t free verse smash formal poetry, or why did we have that renaissance of Formalism?

I am assuming here that the “best of” choices made by Share and Wiman reflect both the best poems of the time in which they were published, as well as posterity’s take, in some way. I am also assuming that the form of the poem chosen was in some way representative of what was popular at the time it was published, which is also a bit iffy.

So here’s the breakdown, with rhyming poems indicated in blue and non-rhyming poems in orange. Some years from 1913-2011 had no published poems chosen for the collection; some years had more than one.

There were 39 rhyming poems, by which I mean poems which used end-rhyme in any way; the remainder didn’t use end-rhyme.

bar chart showing rhyming and non-rhyming poems from best-of Poetry magazine

(Click graphic for larger version.)

I think what I expected to see was a pattern.

I think I expected the first half of the 20th century to be full of rhyme and see that change as time progressed. That does happen a bit, but there’s also a surprising increase in rhyming (blue) poems near the end of the timeline.

While the number of rhyming poems does decrease as time passes in the plot, the non-rhyming poems are there pretty much from the beginning. This also surprised me. I guess I had thought that free verse got popular later than it actually did. Just my ignorance.

And something the graphic doesn’t show, but which I noticed with my eyes currently working to understand the ordering of manuscripts: the front of the collection included a number of rhyming poems, including the first one, while the ending began to pull in more rhyming poems as the final page approached, and the final two poems of the collection rhyme. Which says to me that Share and Wiman believe that a rhyme is a wonderful choice to provide closure.

NaPoWriMo Fail

napowrimo_plum I’ve not been as dedicated to NaPoWriMo this year as I was last year, and as a result I’ve written, so far, ten haiku and five poems (one of which was very very long, but still). It’s day 24 and I don’t think I can write nine poems today to catch up, so I’m admitting defeat. However, it was still worth doing – I wrote five poems and ten haiku! I’ll continue to post the inspirational poems at my blog in case anybody is benefitting from them.

Instead this weekend I’m going to try to finish the transplant story I’ve been picking away at for the past two months, and get at least partially caught up on submissions.

the saffron dies the jar

napowrimo_plum Update: I’ve written a seven haiku, and two short-to-medium-length poems, and one two-and-a-half-page poem. Today I’m going to try my hand at a short narrative poem. We set up a tent in the backyard yesterday, a really tall gazebo-like one, and it’s sunny and warm in Nashville, so I’m going to take my laptop outside and enjoy the weather.


napowrimo_plum I’m doing NaPoWriMo again this year. Like last year, I’ll be posting NaPoWriMo inspirational poems here and at my blog, and linking to cool prompts at sites like Read Write Poem. I won’t be posting my poems (I want to be able to submit them for publication later) but I’ll be talking about what I’m working on and how my process is going. And I’ll be tweeting to keep my sanity.

NaPoWriMo postmortem and other news

I think I probably got a good 15 poems out of NPWM, once all the dust settles and I’ve edited the heck out of them. Thanks, Mary, for suggesting we do it.

In other, perhaps more exciting, news, my poem “Deaths on Other Planets” — which appeared in the April/May 2008 issue of Asimov’s Science Fiction — has won their Readers’ Awards for Best Poem of 2008. (You can read it here.)

* * *

A new (to me, anyway) wrinkle on the classic writing contest scam has appeared on the Poets & Writers Speakeasy, Absolute Write and craigslist (the craigslist ad was removed by craigslist):

It’s called ‘The Great Publication Contest’ for poems and short stories. By entering the contest you have a 1 in 8 chance of having your poem or short story published in a national publication in a book coming out in the summer of 2010 called ‘A Great Collection of Short Stories and Moving Poetry.

According to posters who visited greatpublicationcontest.siteusa.biz before it disappeared, the “contest” especially targets young people and has a $35 entry fee. In case you’re wondering, it’s not a good idea to enter this contest. For a guide to writing contests, read this, which I wrote when I worked for the Writers’ Federation of Nova Scotia.