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What The Hell Is Poetry?

by Jough Dempsey
21 February 2002

All anyone knows for sure is that must rhyme. That's usually the first entry in non-poet's personal lexicon when they recognize something as being a poem. Of course, we know that a great deal of poetry does rhyme, but a lot of it doesn't. You may be hard-pressed to find a poem that rhymes in a contemporary poetry journal.

Another supposed criterion of "that which makes something a poem" is often meter, which is just a not-too-fancy word for the beat, or rhythm of the line - all lines of spoken text have a meter, although when something is said to be written "in meter" is usually means that it is written in a regular meter. The meter is just the differential between stressed and unstressed syllables. For example, the word "cucumber" would have a hard stress followed by two softer, "unstressed" syllables. The word "diagonal" would have an unstressed syllable (DI) followed by a hard stress (AG) followed by two unstressed syllables (ON AL) - although you may have noticed that the "DI" is actually somewhat stressed, although not as much as the "AG." I'm basing these stresses on how English is spoken in the Mid-Atlantic United States, too (I'm in Pennsylvania) - you can imagine that regional dialect would have quite an impact on the meter of a line of poetry. So meter is not absolute, but there if there is a general regularity to the frequency of stressed and unstressed syllables, a line is said to be "in meter." The meter, or rhythm, must be repeated if we're to be able to sense rhythm in a poem. Poetry that is written in meter is often called "verse." More on meter and rhyme in a later article.

Them poets sure do talk funny.

Another sign that what you're reading is a poem is a device called "poetic diction." This is that highfalutin language that turns off a lot of readers to reading a great deal of poetry written before the twentieth century. Much (if not most) contemporary poetry is written in plainer, more "natural" language - the poets who write in this more conversational style also strive to make art of their language - they still want to write each line with precision and beauty, and usually poetry written in "free verse" (no regular meter, no fixed line length, more natural language) is harder to write, rather than easier, because the writer doesn't have the crutch of the meter to lean on. That isn't to say that a great deal of the world's best poetry is not written in meter - just that free verse has grown in popularity for both poets and modern readers of poetry.

Yet another "signifier" of a piece of text's "poem-ness" is that poetry is often laid out in specified line-lengths. A lot of the aforementioned contemporary poetry is often just prose with line breaks . Prose is regular paragraph text, like this article, although text that is not broken up into lines does not necessarily mean that the text is not a poem. Confused yet? So are many people who are purported to know a lot about poetry. There is a strange "bastard stepchild" of poetry called a "prose poem" that usually ends up being neither prose nor poetry, but something else. Yes, the prose poem will be covered in another article. I'm going to have to make a note of these future articles so I'll actually write them. Yes indeedy.

What the hell are you talking about?

Okay, it breaks down like this: despite what you may have been taught in school, poetry has very little to do with how words are arranged on the page, or any of the other techniques, devices, or mechanics (the rhyme, meter, line-breaks, strange indents, or highfalutin language) of poetry. The ancillary devices of poetry do offer clues that THIS THING I AM READING IS A POEM, but they aren't sufficient to actually make a piece of text a poem.

When a poet writes a poem, he is in effect saying "I mean for this thing on the page to be a poem." All art uses a frame of some sort - for painting it's an actual frame - or the corners of the canvas.

A poem exists in an invisible "frame" - at some point the poem begins, and at some point it ends. Everything in between is inside the frame of the poem. Without the frame, we don't know where the poem stops and the "real world" recommences. That doesn't mean that what's inside the frame is good poetry, or even that the text inside the poem's frame functions as poetry at all. It simply means that the text was intended to be perceived as poetry.

If a poet delineates a frame around something that they're calling "art", we should (at first, anyway) examine that piece of art within the context of the frame. When we know that the text before us was meant to be a poem, we MUST approach it as one, and reserve our judgment of the quality of that poem after we've given it its full due. Thanks to Frank Zappa for the frame idea.

I'll give you a shoddily constructed analogy to try to explain what I mean. Let's say a construction crew builds a house, but when you open the front door, there is no floor, stairs, or rooms inside the house. The outside skin is there, it looks like a house, but it doesn't function as a house. There's no denying it a certain sense of house- ness, because it does, after all, have four walls and a roof - but without the floor, no one can really live in it. It's just a façade. There may be people who will argue that you could live in it, and therefore it really is a house, but the rest of us would know that they were deluding themselves, as fools are apt to do.

A poem, like a house, needs floors, and stairs, and furniture. It needs to start with a strong foundation before it can be lived in. Many poems by amateur poets are like our façade - they don't have "legs" - they can't stand up to close scrutiny. Mostly the text (anything written by an author can be referred to as a "text") will simply not function as a poem. Poor poems may look like poems and may be intended to be poems (see the sidebar for a quick overview of "Authorial Intent"), but as soon as you open the door to examine them you fall through to the basement. Ouch.

I'm growing impatient.

We're almost there. Before we continue any further, I want to stress that POETRY IS NOT ABOUT SELF-EXPRESSION. I don't know where this outright falsehood began (probably with the acceptance of the "Confessional Poets," which I'll be writing about...), but it's an outright bald-faced lie. If you want to express yourself, there are plenty of media with which to do so - send a postcard, letter, e-mail, instant message, journal writing, etc. So I'll repeat: poetry is NOT (primarily) a means of self-expression. And to the small extent that it is, a poet's self-expression is usually reserved for how a poem is written (back to technique) and is not the basis for a poem itself. You can't avoid self-expression, but it should be a necessary symptom of writing, not a goal. The way a poet expresses something, or the way that he uses language to convey an idea is referred to as the poem's "style". Now, poetry can be "autobiographical" and still not be about self-expression. Generally what separates a poet from someone who writes lines of text in a journal to "get their feelings out" is REVISION. It is through the revision process that a poet works the text into a poem. The poem may have started out being an emotional outpouring, but a poet will take that outpouring (think about an unformed lump of clay) and mold it into a poem through revision.

This topic will be covered in greater detail in a future article (what else is new?) - but for now, I'm going to (finally) talk about WHAT MAKES SOMETHING A POEM. Brace yourself. It may be easier to explain if you understand a little bit about what poetry is attempting to achieve.

Poetry is paradoxical - to over-simplify things, poetry attempts to use words to say something that cannot be said in words. Poetry fills in the cracks, it's the empty space that's left after you remove the walls of the house. I think a practical example may be in order.

Keeping Things Whole

In a field
I am the absence
of field.
This is
always the case.
Wherever I am
I am what is missing.

When I walk
I part the air
and always
the air moves in
to fill the spaces
where my body's been.

We all have reasons
for moving.
I move
to keep things whole.

Mark Strand

You could probably describe Strand's ideas in prose:

Whenever you occupy a space in a field you displace the air that was there before you stepped there. When you move again the air fills the space where you just were. By moving, you displace air for as short a time as possible.

Hopefully, you didn't think that my little paraphrase above was anywhere near as finely crafted as Strand's poem. If you thought it was better than Strand's poem, maybe now would be a good time to try to dial-in some Picasso Porn on the Spice channel. Go watch some TV. You've earned it.

What's missing in the "translation" from poetry to prose is the poetry of the text. I think the poem is weakened by the explanation in stanza two (unified lines of text in a poem are called "stanzas," rather than "paragraphs," - the line beginning "When I walk..." is the first line of the second stanza - for more on poetry terms, check out this page). Strand hedges his bets a bit - he doesn't want to lose the reader through his metaphysical opening - so he softens the poem a little by providing a more literal stanza (although I don't think the poem could live without it, any more than a person could live without a heart, or a brain... you get the idea).

Poetry quite often attempts to capture a loss of some kind. The following example is even titled "Absences":


It's snowing this afternoon and there are no flowers.
There is only this sound of falling, quiet and remote,
Like the memory of scales descending the white keys
Of a childhood piano--outside the window, palms!
And the heavy head of the cereus, inclining,
Soon to let down its white or yellow-white.

Now, only these poor snow-flowers in a heap,
Like the memory of a white dress cast down . . . 
So much has fallen.
                               And I, who have listened for a step
All afternoon, hear it now, but already falling away,
Already in memory. And the terrible scales descending
On the silent piano; the snow; and the absent flowers abounding.

Donald Justice

Those absent flowers abounding is a perfect example of the paradox of poetry. Justice evokes an image of something that isn't even there, in the physicality of the poem. What I mean is that if you were to "draw" this poem (the scene) you would not draw flowers (because the first line clearly dictates "... there are no flowers." Yet the memory of those non- flowers is evoked in the last line - we see flowers abounding (although I'm at a bit of a loss to visualize the verb "abound") even though there are no flowers. That's poetry.

So that's it?

If only it were that easy... The main thing to keep in mind is that no one has been able to fully define what it is that makes something a poem. Line breaks, meter, rhyme, and poetic diction are all signifiers of poetry, but if it looks like a poem and barks like a poem, is it really a poem? Time will tell - and the beauty of it is that like all other arts, what a poem is changes every time someone writes a new poem. There are many different types of poems to choose from. A cursory look around this site will show you the breadth of poetry that is available.

So I guess I'm taking the easy way out by saying that no one knows what a poem is. There are rules, of sorts, and there are criteria by which one can gauge something a poem, or not a poem. But those rules and criteria are always shifting, always changing as critics and other poets re-evaluate the body of poetry. Poetry is a living, breathing thing. Styles and preferences change over time, although the spirit of poetry - of stating something in a precise and direct way, to use language artfully - that will continue to drive the art.

What am I supposed to do now?

This is obviously a terribly incomplete look at "What Poetry Is" but hopefully it's given you a start. The best way to understand poetry is to read lots of it. To that end, here are some recommended poems to get you started. Consider this your "homework assignment."

Read the following and try to figure out what the poem is doing. Don't worry about what the poem is "about," or even trying to figure out what it means, but just try to follow the course of the poem, the action that the poem performs. You may not be able to discern an action. That's okay, too. Just read through them and try to figure out what the author is attempting to achieve.

Your Assignment, Read:

Elizabeth Bishop - "The Fish"
Philip Larkin - "High Windows"
Frank O'Hara - "Why I Am Not A Painter"
Charles Simic - "Hotel Insomnia"
Louise Glück - "Snow"

Think you can do it? Tune in next time when we look at the process of writing a poem. Until then, keep reading, and please use our handy feedback form if you have any comments about this article.


    -- Jough Dempsey

Jough Dempsey is a poet & critic and the webmaster of this very site, an online poetry resource for the gangsters of love. In his spare time he enjoys reading, writing, and 'rithmatic.

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