What is a poem?
I must have talked about this question hundreds of times over the past 30 years, with poets, friends, teachers, and students. When I ask students this question, no matter what age the students are, from fourth graders through adults, I almost always receive the same three kinds of answers. And the group usually offers them to me in the same order:
"A poem is words that come from the heart."
"A poem can be anything you want it to be."
"A poem doesn't have to rhyme."
There's something odd about these answers, isn't there? Can you imagine definitions like this for any other art form—dance, or music, or painting? These definitions are so vague and toothless that all they really say—all most people know for sure— is that a poem is made of words.
After years of frustration with these vague definitions of the art to which I have devoted most of my life, about thirty years ago I set out to discover a better one. It took a while, but I did.
Here is the basic definition. It's the version I offered when asked to define poetry for a 7-year old:
A POEM IS WORDS PUT TOGETHER IN A SPECIAL WAY, SO THAT IT FEELS LIKE MAGIC.
Here is the adult version, explaining what that "special way" is:
A POEM IS LANGUAGE STRUCTURED THROUGH REPETITION.
And here is the most complete version of the definition:
A POEM IS A TEXT STRUCTURED (NOT MERELY DECORATED) BY THE REPETITION OF ANY LANGUAGE ELEMENT OR ELEMENTS.
What is the difference between structure and decoration? A decorative element is optional; it can be removed and nobody will know it's gone. But when a structural element is missing, its absence is glaringly obvious. Try reading aloud the beginning of "The Night Before Christmas" while cutting out the last word of the second line, and you'll see what I mean.
But if poetry is defined by its structure, what about all the other wonderful qualities of poetry? What about its power to move us, to say the ineffable, to use the magic of language in striking ways?
These are great powers. But none of them actually defines poetry, because none of them is unique to poetry. When you think about it, emotional power and linguistic freshness, along with all the other qualities we usually think of as "poetic," could occur just as easily in prose (think of a lyrical piece of prose like the ending of Joyce's Ulysses). This is true of eloquence, concision, rhythm, musical patterns of consonants and vowels, carefully chosen diction, an emotionally moving tone, metaphors, similes, "the best words in the best order"—all just as evident in lyrical prose as in lyrical poetry. Furthermore, we can easily imagine a text that anyone would agree is a poem that has none of these qualities. So the truth is that none of these elements defines poetry. And even elements such as extreme rhythmicality, rhetorical repetition, and high amounts of word music don't necessarily make a text a poem either—as long as we can't predict when they will occur.
It was the process of editing the anthology An Exaltation of Forms (2002) that helped me finally to hone and complete the definition of poetry I had been pondering since entering graduate school in creative writing in 1983. Having mulled over and tested this definition continually with poems of all kinds in the 15 years since the anthology came out, I am confident that it works. It's a definition both capacious and exacting. Because any language element can be repeated to create a poem, as long as the "structured, not decorated" distinction is maintained, this definition encompasses any type of poem: sonnet, slam performance poem, haiku, Paradise Lost, procedural poem, free verse narrative, erasure poem, prose poem, blues poem, pantoum.
Any text that is structured through repetition is a poem. The more physically conspicuous (palpable, audible, tangible) are the repeated language element(s) that structure the text, the more "formal" the poem will feel to us.
The taxonomy below lists just some examples of the many language elements that can be repeated to structure poems, and the types of poems they create. It is hard to arrange such different kinds of repetition along one continuum; I tried to arrange the list to proceed roughly from ear towards idea, body towards mind, perceptible towards conceptual. Of course, most poems are structured by more than one kind of repetition.
Here is my taxonomy of repeating elements, with the poems that develop from them, followed by responses to some FAQ's.
Taxonomy of Poetics
Annie Finch, Expanded from “A Taxonomy of Poetics”
The Body of Poetry: Essays on Women, Form, and the Poetic Self
(University of Michigan Press, 2002)
REPEATING ELEMENT TYPE OF POEM CREATED
AURAL REPEATING ELEMENTS
|numbers of beats/accents||accentual poetry|
|accented/nonaccented syllable patterns||accentual-syllabic poetry|
|sounds of stressed syllables (final, medial, internal, etc)||rhymed poetry|
|groups of lines (independent of other lines)||refrain poems|
|conversational or voice patterns||call and response, litany, etc.|
|single lines||repeating poem (pantoum, villanelle,blues, etc)|
|groups of words (part of lines)||chant, catalog, ghazal, etc|
|initial consonants of words||alliterative verse|
|syntactic and grammatical patterns||chants, the house that jack built, etc.|
|numbers of syllables||syllabic verse|
VISUAL REPEATING ELEMENTS
|numbers of words per line||counted verse|
|line breaks||free verse|
|shape of poem repeats meaning||carmina figuratum|
|physicality of words repeats meaning||concrete poetry|
|fields on page||open field poetry|
|terminal hiatus/perceptible ending||
prose poem (occurs only once per poem, but very predictably; in the absence of any other repeating device I believe it structures a text
and hence defines it as a poem)
CONCEPTUAL REPEATING ELEMENTS
|intratextual physical operations (add, drop, alter letters,words, etc.)||procedural poem|
|intratextual meaning operations such as puns||pun poems, etc.|
|extratextual operations||extra-procedural poem ( " S + 7," etc. )|
- But there can be repetition in prose, too.
The difference between the so-called formal elements we sometimes see in prose or free verse and actual poetic formal constraints is that the poetic constraints are structural, not decorative. Structural constraints are predictable; breaking them will feel like a violation and everyone will know you have broken them, and where. That is not true of the formal elements in prose; if it were, that passage of the prose would become a poem.
2. Does this mean that all poetry is formal?
Yes. Once you accept that the free-verse line break is a language element that can be repeated, then all free verse poems can be considered formal in the sense that they are structured through repetition. Even prose poems, at the furthest end of the spectrum, can be considered formal and structured through repeition: because of their short length their endings, though repeated only once, have the rhythmic resonance of a repeated element.
3. Doesn't this idea privilege doggerel? A Hallmark verse has structural repetition, but nobody should dignify that by calling it a poem. Only true products of the spirit deserve the name of "poetry"!
Does the existence of hackneyed amateur paintings threaten the definition of the Mona Lisa as a painting? Why should poetry's definition be so fragile compared to the other arts? In my opinion, the idea that the only good poems can be real poems is 1. impossible to uphold; 2. elitist; and 3. a backhanded compliment that actually hurts the dignity of poetry by denying poetry a real existence.
4. Isn't this reductive? What about mystery? What about power?
I feel that this pragmatic and simple definition of poetry actually brings me closer to the true source of poetry's power. Repetition—of the breath, of the seasons, of the heartbeat—is an ancient and sublime path to mystery, predating written language by millenia. Poetry's intimate association with the repeating power of the spell and the chant only enhances its unique powers.