What Is a Poem, Anyway?

Ink runs from the corners of my mouth
There is no happiness like mine.
I have been eating poetry.
from Mark Strand, “Eating Poetry”

I’ve written poetry. I’ve had poetry published. I’ve won minor poetry contests. But when I hit my first college class on the subject, I found out I wasn’t even sure what a poem is.

Our teacher wrote some lines on the board and asked us, “Which one of these is a Real Poem?”

Here were our choices:

“You could not hear, I thought, the voice of any bird
The shadowy cries of bats in dim twilight
or cool voices of owls crying by night–”


“The night was still,
you could not hear the howls
of birds or bats or owls–”

Which one would you have chosen? I picked the second one. (So did almost half the class.) It made me want to read on. I found the first one choppy, repetitious (variations of “voice” and “cry” were each used twice in three lines) and badly rhymed (to rhyme “twilight” with “by night,” the stress would have to be on “by”).

I chose wrong.

(Since then I have read the winner, “The Leaning Elm” by Francis Brett Young. In context, I like these lines very much.)

I went on to take several graduate courses in poetry, two semesters of Yeats alone (because of schedule, not desire, although the extended exposure led me to grudging appreciation of him). I’ve read Beowulf to Blake to Whitman to Sylvia Plath to Billy Collins. It isn’t easy to find a definition which embraces them all.

Finally I decided to let the poets themselves tell me what poetry is.

Something to instruct and delight

Horace, back in the days when people only had one name, defined poetry in terms of its purpose. He said that the ultimate aim of poetry is to instruct and delight. In my opinion, that definition is not narrow enough. A salsa class can instruct and delight. An Xbox can instruct and delight.

Longinus rejected the idea that poetry has to instruct, but retained the idea that it should delight. According to him, the aim of poetry is “not persuasion but ecstasy”–through a combination of vehemence, great ideas, and passion.

Yet it can instruct and persuade–profoundly. Not as overtly as a sermon might. But it can appeal to the mind as well as the heart. Think of the powerful anti-war poems that have communicated from the hearts of disillusioned patriots the insanity of war itself (despite its sometime necessity) to the conflict created in the soldier and the pain caused in families on both sides. Two of my favorite such poems are “The Naming of Parts” by Henry Reid http://www.solearabiantree.net/namingofparts/namingofparts.html and Joy Davidman’s “Snow in Madrid” http://journey-woman.blogspot.com/2007/07/little-poetry-for-you-davidman.html

Poetry not only can have a serious purpose but may be able to make its point more palatably than other forms of communication.

Something to instruct and delight by leading to a universal truth

Robert Frost, who gave us many good definitions of poetry, said, “[A poem] begins in delight and ends in wisdom.” Plato wrote, “Poetry is nearer to vital truth than history.” And Aristotle wrote, “[P]oetry is something more philosophic and of graver import than history, since its statements are of the nature rather of universals, whereas those of history are singulars.”

Something to instruct and delight by leading to a universal truth captured in choice words

“One demands two things of a poem. Firstly, it must be a well-made verbal object that does honor to the language in which it is written. Secondly, it must say something significant about a reality common to us all, but perceived from a unique perspective. What the poet says has never been said before, but, once he has said it, his readers recognize its validity for themselves.” W. H. Auden

A word about words. Auden speaks of a poem being a “well-made verbal object.” Frost says “Poetry is when an emotion has found its thought and the thought has found words.” Word choices are key. Not just any words but the exactly right words–to the ear as well as the eye, imagination as well as reason. Nothing extraneous.  Frost has written some of these perfect jewels-of-poems himself. “Fire and Ice,” for instance. http://www.poetryfoundation.org/poem/173527

“Poetry is a deal of joy and pain and wonder, with a dash of the dictionary,” Kahlil Gibran says. How about a Thesaurus?

Well-chosen words which instruct and delight by leading to a universal truth, engaging the emotions

Longinus, agreeing with Horace that poetry should “delight,” made a good point about the aim of poetry being “ecstasy”–through “vehemence, great ideas, and passion.” (An aside: Aren’t vehemence and passion kind of the same thing? I guess passion is content and vehemence the expression of passion. Fine line.)

Will Wordsworth defined poetry by its emotive content: “Poetry is the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings; emotions recollected in tranquility.” (But don’t some of your best, most indignant poems boil out of emotions felt in all their intensity as you write? “Batter my heart, three-person’d God–!” John Donne http://www.luminarium.org/sevenlit/donne/sonnet14.php) No tranquility there.

Yes, poetry certainly captures emotion, but if it’s nothing more than that, someone remembering his first view into the Grand Canyon would be creating poetry by merely saying, “Wow!” (Perhaps Wordsworth would argue that he had!)

Delight and ecstasy as experienced by whom? The writer? That’s certainly satisfying. “Poetry is the language in which man explores his own amazement,” says Christopher Fry. But is it enough? We once had a mother cat who, when her kittens were gone, nursed herself. Is poetry simply self-gratification, a kind of narcissism? (I am not suggesting Fry took it this far.) Don’t we write to communicate with someone beyond ourselves–even if there is no reader there? Isn’t this self-expression a reaching out, a longing to be heard and understood?

Well-chosen words which instruct and delight by leading to a universal truth that yields personal application, engaging emotions.

Salvatore Quasimodo says this well with his observation, “Poetry is the revelation of a feeling that the poet believes to be interior and personal which the reader recognizes as his own.”

Poetry imparts the passion of its creator, and it deals with themes which resonate in all of us and have throughout history: love, loss, God. But a sermon can be a combination of vehemence, great ideas, and passion, universal truth leading to personal revelation. What makes it poetry? (Actually I think the sermons of Peter Marshall, the one who died in 1949 and of Max Lucado come close.)

Well-chosen words which instruct and delight by leading to a universal truth that yields personal application, engaging the emotions through the attraction of the journey itself.

Sam Coleridge called poetry “combinations of elements” which produce pleasure, in their parts as well as in the whole. He wrote of the “attraction of the journey itself”–that is, of the process of reading poetry, where “at every step” the reader “pauses and half recedes” to savor and reflect on what he has read before going on.

I like that. That’s getting closer. There is pleasure in the writing as well as in the reading of a poem. Like a Baskin-Robbins pistachio almond fudge shake, there is pleasure in the cream, sugar,  pistachio nuts and hot fudge as well as the even greater pleasure of the sum of its ingredients.

The ingredients of a poem are sounds, in the form of words and emphasis and flow, and those combinations and arrangements of sounds–the product that results–can be delicious, giving consumers like Mark Strand gastronomic bliss. They have beauty which appeals to the other senses. Presentation, if you will. Like an apple peeled by a geisha, in one long curl: exquisite. The sum of them produces a pleasurable experience.

Well-chosen words which instruct and delight by leading to a universal truth that yields personal application, engaging the emotions through the attraction of the journey itself shared by  both poet and reader.

A.E. Housman defined poetry in terms of its effect on the reader, specifically himself. He said a great poem is one which “knocks me on my backside.” Emily Dickinson said, “If I feel physically that the top of my head were taken off, I know that is poetry.”

But haven’t we all experienced these qualities in a well-written short story or novel? Isn’t there pleasure in that journey, too? Doesn’t some prose “knock us on our backside” or take off the tops of our heads?

Maybe part of its uniqueness is that poetry says it sparely, succinctly. Even epic poems extract from their subject the substance, their juices. Poems are like sculptures of David, with the not-David chiseled away.

Poetry is a distillation of life. Individual poems are distillations of a piece of life.

Sometimes I practice expressing the heart of an idea by reducing (at least in my mind) a book to a short story, the short story to a book review, the review to a paragraph, the paragraph to a haiku. Poetry can be playful, like the popular exercise of summarizing your whole life or your identity in six words. It can be exhilarating to find out how much not-David there is.

The rule is, use as many words as you have to (book-length may be necessary) and as few as you can. You’re making a work of art here. Let it shine.

Jonathan Culler, a literary critic who stressed the importance of reader response, said a poem is “a way of reading, applying certain conventions to a piece of writing, coming to it with certain expectations.”

There is something to this. The goal-oriented reader brings specific, impatient expectations to a poem: “Make yourself clear. What are you getting at?” and the poem may shrink away, yielding nothing of itself or arch an eyebrow, fold its arms and just say “No!” On the other hand, the process-oriented reader is willing to sit awhile in the presence of the poem and listen to it aloud (over and over). As Archibald MacLeish wrote in his poem, “Ars Poetica,” a poem “should not mean/but be.” (On second thought, maybe that’s just a cop-out. Of course a poem should also “mean.”)

I’m sure all these poets are right: poetry instructs and delights; embodies vehemence, great ideas and passion; is the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings (or the product of years of writing and re-writing so it sounds spontaneous); and combines elements which create pleasure for the reader in the reading itself, depending partly on what we bring to it. It has intrinsic value, that is, value for its existence, not just for its meaning (like a painting) but it says something which is truer than history.

So maybe what a poem is, is not just something the writer creates, not just something the reader creates, but something intimate they create together. We each bring something of ourselves to the poem, and a chemical reaction takes place.

John Ciardi has captured this idea in his marvelous book, How Does a Poem Mean? He calls poetry “a performance,” an event which happens “when a poet and a reader meet inside the form in such a way that the reader makes real for himself those connections between things that the poet saw as real. . . Reading a poem is an act of participation in the poem. By participating, the reader not only makes the performance whole, but makes it, in one essential sense, uniquely his.”

“Yes, I’ve felt that! the reader discovers. Or, I didn’t know I knew that until you showed me that I did. Or, What a wonderfully different way of seeing!

But rather than a “performance,” a self-conscious act on the part of both writer and reader, I’d prefer to call it a shared experience, the closest thing we know in this life (apart from holding hands in silence) to telepathy of the heart.

Next, I’ll give you an example of how I make friends with a new poem.



About Jessica Renshaw

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2 Responses to What Is a Poem, Anyway?

  1. jrbenjamin says:

    I really like the example exercise of ‘which is a poem,’ and although I agree the second is the better stave, I’d say they’re both poems. I stand against the general idea that one person, or a single standard, may in fact determine what a poem is and what qualifies as poetry. To me, Wallace Stevens and ‘The cat/ sat on/ the mat.’ are each pieces of poetry.

    Mark Strand says poetry is a validation of the inner-life of human beings; and in using that (rather nice) standard, it’s thus impossible to uphold a mere stylistic standard for defining poetry.

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