What is a Poem?
Teaching poetry over many decades, I would ask my poetry students this question at the beginning of every class.
Their answers would almost always fall into these three categories:
Emotion-Based "Words that move us," "The deepest truth," Words that come from the heart," "Our inner selves speaking to each other,". . .
Non-Logical-Based "Language of mystery," " Words that don't have to make sense," "Meaning beyond meaning," "A poem can be anything you want it to be," "Language free of rules," etc.
Non-Rhyming-Based "A poem doesn't have to rhyme!" (if the discussion goes on long enough, someone will usually offer this as a definition.)
From hundreds of these conversations with students, poets, and poetry-lovers, I learned that there is no wide understanding of what a poem is--even though everyone recognizes a poem when they see it. And I also learned that this lack of understanding was hurting poetry. People were being taught that real poetry, unlike other art forms, is sublime and indefinable. As a result, many were reluctant to even try poetry at all. Here's how I described this situation in the Introduction to my book A Poet's Craft:
"The view of poetry now prevalent in our culture tends to ignore the importance of craft, focusing instead on a paradoxical combination of stereotypes: the mundane assumption that “true” poetry is natural, unschooled self-expression, and the mystical sense that “true” poetry is impossible for mere mortals to reach. The word "poetic" is applied so indiscriminately that I’ve found it used in popular journalism to describe a film sequence, the movements of a dancer, a work of architecture, a sublime landscape, and a delicious dessert. This usage creates a bit of a problem: if "poetry" or "poetic" can apply to just about anything lyrical or graceful or inspired, that implies that just about anything lyrical or graceful or inspired can be poetry, and by the same token, that there is really no way to learn to write poetry except to try to become inspired.
The Romantic belief that poetry is not simply a certain way of writing but no less than, in Shelley’s words, “the record of the best and happiest moments of the best minds” can put a lot of pressure on someone who is simply trying to do their best to learn how to write a poem. Some beginning poets are afraid to read poems by anyone else, fearing to damage the purity of their inspiration. Others are hesitant to revise and improve their poems, because they feel that only their first drafts have been sanctified by direct contact with the Muse. Taken to its extreme, the fetishization of poetic inspiration at the expense of craft has led many poets to a romantic machismo of self-destructive behavior. . .."
— A Poet's Craft: A Comprehensive Guide to Making and Sharing Your Poetry (University of Michigan Press, 2013), p. 13
Even if we try to express poetry's specialness with a phrase such as "moving words" or "liberated words," these terms are so subjective that it just brings us back to "words." All that these definitions really say— all that most people today know for sure about poetry— is that a poem is something made of words.
And yet a poem is NOT just words. That's exactly what's valuable about it.
After years of frustration with these widespread misunderstandings about the art to which I have devoted my life, I set out to discover a definition of poetry that is based not in subjective experiences of how emotionally moving or mysterious words can be, are, nor on rebellion against somebody else's ideas of what poetry should be, but in attention to real poems and what makes them be poems, instead of prose.
I felt that poetry deserved to be recognized as something in itself, as the special kind of language that it is--but without locking it into definitions that are too narrow and rigid. Over almost twenty years of thinking and discussing, writing and teaching, and especially editing books of poems (editing turned out to be a very useful way to clarify thinking and pinpoint definitions), I built a definition has worked well for many people:
A POEM IS LANGUAGE STRUCTURED THROUGH THE REPETITION OF ANY LANGUAGE ELEMENT
The language element that repeats can be anything. It can be a rhyme sound or a pattern of accents and syllables. It can be a repeating word or phrase or refrain. It can be a dictionary game (like the Oulipo game S+7) or an erasure technique. It can be a line break (which makes the poem free verse) or simply a hiatus or ending (which makes the poem a prose poem--in this case the ending only repeats once, but we still recognize it as a pattern).
Two things need to be emphasized to fully understand this definition:
- Structure is different from decoration. Structure is pattern that can be predicted, and we feel that something is broken if it changes. Decoration can't be predicted, and if it changes we won't feel anything is broken. A novel can use a lot of words that begin with "s" in certain passages, but we won't expect the pattern to continue or notice if it's broken. But if a piece of language uses "s" to begin every third word throughout the whole text, we will respond to the text like a poem--we will enter a holistic, physical interaction with the text (I think of it as a magical interaction), and our bodies will notice if the pattern is broken. That is structural repetition. If a free verse poem suddenly stops breaking lines and turns into a paragraph of right-justified text, we will notice that the structure of breaking lines has broken. If someone recites "Roses Are red, Violets are blue" aloud, but replaces the word "you" with "we" in line 4, someone hearing the poem will understand that the structural pattern of rhyme has been broken. We expect that it will happen at a certain point, and if it's left off, we will feel as if something's wrong and needs to be fixed. Poets can play with these expectations, and it can be fun to a point, but it needs to be done carefully because if the pattern is completely abandoned, we will no longer experience poetry-magic: the free verse with no linebreaks will become prose. For a contrast between structural and decorative sound effects, read "The Night Before Christmas" aloud but replace "long winter's nap" in line 7 with "long winter's sleep." You will see the rhyme is structural. On the other hand, if you read the poem aloud and replace the word "snug" with "tight" in line 5, nobody will notice (unless they already know the poem by heart). The consonance of the s's between "nestled" and "snug" is a skillful and satisfying sound-effect, but it is merely decorative, not structural. We can't predict it in advance, and we won't notice if it's gone. A poem may repeat numerous decorative elements of language, but so can a passage of prose. It is only the repetition of structural elements that make a poem a poem.2. Lyric is different from poetry. Lyrical language expresses feelings and emotions A lot of poetry is lyrical, but there are other kinds of poetry too--narrative poetry that tells a story, dramatic poetry that enacts a play, mnemonic poetry that helps us remember things. etc. So, if you think this definition is a cold, sad one that is missing the real point of poetry--connecting with feelings--then you are probably confusing poetry with lyric. Poetry is very good at lyric, but it's not the only thing poetry does; and prose can be very lyrical too! (think of your favorite love letters). Emotional power and linguistic freshness, along with all the other qualities we usually think of as "poetic," could occur just as easily in prose (imagine, for example, a lyrical passage of prose such as the end of Joyce's Ulysses). 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 these can be 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 absolutely none of these qualities. So the truth is that none of these elements defines poetry. Even repeating elements such as extreme rhythmicality, rhetorical repetition, and high amounts of word music don't necessarily make a text a poem—as long as we can't predict when they will occur. It is only when the repetition is structural that we have a poem.
Another question that may arise as you consider this "structural repetition" definition is, Ok, then what is the difference between formal verse and free verse? According to my definition, free verse is language structured by the predictable repetition of a single language element (the line break). A free verse poem is more formal than a prose poem, whose repeating element (the ending) only repeats once, but less formal than, say, a free verse poem where every line begins with the same letter (2 repeating elements). That free verse poem would be less formal than a syllabic poem where every line begins with the same letter and has the same number of syllables (3 repeating elements). That syllabic poem would be less formal than a rhyming syllabic poem where every line begins with the same letter and ends on a rhyme (4 repeating elements). And so on.
The definition of a poem as language structured through repetition allows us to see poetry as a continuum rather than a conflict between the two separate camps of formal and free. How formal a poem feels is a matter of how many repeating elements it uses and how physically obvious those elements are to us. In a formal poem such as Gwendolyn Brooks' "The Anniad," the structural repetition of line-break, rhyme, and trochaic meter are physically obvious; in a poem based on the S+7 dictionary game, such as Harryette Mullen's "Dim Lady," the structural repetition of using a word from the dictionary that is within 7 words of each word of the original poem being played with isn't physically obvious, but it is still there.
Your mind can determine whether a piece of language is a poem or not, by considering whether it is structured through the repetition of any language elements. Once you know something is a poem, your body is the final judge of whether a poem is formal or not. While editing An Exaltation of Forms, I formulated it like this:
Any text that is structured through repetition is a poem. The more physically conspicuous (palpable, audible, tangible) the repeated language element(s) that structure the text, the
more "formal" the poem will feel to us.
Any language element can be repeated to create a poem, as long as the "structured, not decorated" distinction is maintained. So, as you will see from the chart below, my definition encompasses any type of poem: free verse, sonnet, slam performance poem, haiku, Paradise Lost, procedural poem, blues poem, pantoum, erasure poem . . .
Here is my taxonomy of repeating elements, with the poems that develop from them, followed by responses to some FAQ's. The taxonomy lists just some examples of the many language elements that can be repeated to structure poems, followed by the types of poems they create. The list is arranged to proceed roughly from ear towards idea, body towards mind, perceptible towards conceptual. Of course, the majority of poems are structured by more than one kind of repetition.
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. )|
1.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.