What is a poem, exactly?

It all started when Amitava Kumar posted a poem on his blog. Called “Man Writes Poem” by Jay Leeming, from Dynamite on a China Plate. © The Backwaters Press.

Reading the poem made me start thinking, what exactly is a poem?
I started answering the question in Space Bar’s comment section. So the first paragraph of this poem was my comment in Space Bar’s blog. But the more I thought about it, the more my poem grew… and I ended up with this:

I am more and more confused these days
Not that I wasn’t confused before, just
that I am a little more lost and bewildered
I ask myself, and I ask passersby
the same question every time
No one responds, perhaps no one knows –
What exactly is a poem these days?

How does one write a poem?
Do you start off with eloquent lines
About the red earth and purple coneflowers
Swollen rivers and windy nights
Throw in some flying Chihuahuas
For that magical, dreamlike touch?

Or perhaps you write about emotions
Melancholy sounds a good word to use
Also grief, joy and passion.
Soon your poem will start to take form
The lines on the page even taking on new shapes
Like a saw-toothed blade, or a picket fence
That has fallen down.

But where is the rhyme, you ask
Here is no pentameter, this is just
Broken Prose, where is the rhythm?
But you see, we are not in the dark ages
When poetry was corseted in rhyming words
And metered lines.  We are modern.

Our thoughts are new, our words are new
Spelt differently, compressed,
vowels excised, numbers added
Thumbed rapidly into concise messages
Who has time for verse?
Our music is fast-paced, our life is a race
Our poems stutter to keep pace.

The dictionaries, you insist, define a poem as
Metrical writing. Perhaps the dictionaries
Need updating.
We update our Facebook pages
every fifteen minutes.
A new word forms every minute, yet
Why do we update our dictionaries only
once in several years?

Perhaps you may want to take
A course in Poetry Appreciation, 3 credits
And four thousand dollars.
Or buy the bestselling book,
“Poetry for Dummies”, that may (or may not)
Help you identify poetry.

So what is a poem, then?
I hate to break this to you, but you will find
If it is shorter than a novel, in most cases
(Though there are some that are really long.)
If the lines are short, even if the words are long
It must be a poem, but trust me
The real rule with a poem is
You will know it when you see it.

Sometimes, though, you may find
A beautiful poem, but the author
may have really intended to write prose
In which case you can always say
“The author’s lines are very poetic.”
For really, who knows what a poem is?


25 thoughts on “What is a poem, exactly?

  1. As a former English literature academic, I was familiar with various approaches to poetry, a subject on which your poem reflects wide-rangingly and interestingly.
    A.E. Housman thought that verse which sent a shiver down his spine rose to the level of genuine poetry.
    Homer’s “wine dark sea” and “rosy-fingerd dawn” still do that for me.
    An “experimental” French poet said that good poems are not finished, only abandoned, the sense of incompleteness and suggestion being the essence of poetry. For Baudelaire, Poe was its consummation .
    There is Robert Frost’s comment on “free verse” (free of constricting meter and rhyme) : like playing tennis with the net down.
    Some have written “prose poems”. In his Oxford Book of Modern Verse (1936 or so) W.B. Yeats included a well known Walter Pater passage on the Mona Lisa.
    W.H. Auden loved crosswords, and he was certainly verbally ingenious in surprising ways. Others have stressed that poetry is made not with ideas but with words.
    Some say that of all forms of literature poetry has the closest affinity with music.
    And one 20th-century poet wrote, “A poem should not mean/ But be”.

  2. I should have added Wordsworth: the “spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings”; poetry “takes its origin from emotion recollected in tranquillity”.
    And that leads to the debate about the merits of the romantic and the classic. Is Horace sufficiently inspired to be a poet is a question that some unsympathetic readers have raised.
    In rebuttal of the view that Alexander Pope is versified prose, Dr. Johnson asked, “If Pope be not a poet, where is poetry to be found?”

  3. No, really – I would love to see you stop passers-by and ask them, What Is Poetry? They will try (in vain) to detach your fingers from their coats or t-shirts (depending upon the weather) as they try to hurry away, wondering which wind blew you in.

  4. I quite enjoyed your poem-question, even though you have tagged it as “humor”:)

    //To paraphrase a screenwriter, poetry is incredibly easy for an amateur to write and nearly impossible for a poet. I’m sure Space Bar will agree :))

    ///Space Bar: That would make a cool short film, no? Stopping people at random and asking them “what is poetry?”

  5. Candadai Tirumalai: I love the way you make my poem seem like part of an ongoing, centuries-long conversation on what constitutes poetry. I do agree with Wordsworth that poetry can be recollected emotion.

    My own sense is that poetry is something beautiful that stirs something in you – could be emotion,or an appreciation of something beautiful or wonderful. What it is not, is mundane. I mean, I can imagine someone writing a poem about IPL cricket, or an ipod, but not about brushing one’s teeth.

    ??! I think all art is in the eye of the beholder, don’t you agree? For instance, I would definitely not call this art, yet the Tate has paid $50,000 for it.

    Speaking specifically of poetry, I really cannot get myself to understand why Leeming’s lines constitute a poem. It’s not that one cannot write a poem about writing a poem. I can imagine a poem that talks about someone going about writing a poem on a friend with cancer, and struggling to express one’s thoughts/ feelings, and even put pen to paper..

    But a poem that talks about how he has put down his pen and gone to brush his teeth..to me, that’s not a poem. I am happy for Leeming that he was able to get someone to publish it, though 😉

    Space Bar: Maybe if I had a microphone in my hand, and a TV cameraman behind me, people would stop and try to come up with funny responses 😉 Is that MTV Bakra still around? I can imagine Cyrus Broacha doing exactly this kind of thing 🙂

    km: WordPress thinks everything I write is “humor” by default. Who am I to argue? 😛

    Poetry hard for poets? Hmm…I guess if I am being paid to write poetry, then it would become just another chore to earn my living 😉

  6. km/space:
    This film would be the sequel to the one of the over-enthusiastic poet walking round bookshops, bursting out of corners and spouting poetry at unsuspecting public, yes? Or is it the prequel?

    >>all art is in the eye of the beholder
    Oh aye. And Art art is the stupidest of the lot. It’s no longer about whether anything has intrinsic value or beauty, it’s just about hyping it up enough so that idiots will throw their money at it.

  7. I actually think it would be the same film. What? Who said location has to be the same throughout? Maniacal is maniacal whether it’s on the street or in a bookshop.

  8. lekhni, what a coincidence!..I was reading your page, when I found your comment in mine..I am sorry that I have missed so many wonderful posts!…never mind, I will read thr all of them now…how have you been?…I know you are in your fittest health by that poem that’s flowing!..:)

  9. ArSENik: Since you were missing the sarcasm, you’ll note that this poem has some, buried, hidden, sarcasm 🙂

    padma: Actually, the poem wrote itself. The first paragraph, especially, (which I think was the best, it was all downhill from there 😉 ) I think it’s just beginner’s luck, or maybe as km says, amateurs have it easy 🙂

    A Cynic in Wonderland: “Prose with a soul”- that’s a really good definition!

    Srivalli: Welcome back! My spirits improve when the sun comes out 🙂 I am so glad winter is finally gone. Though it really overstayed, and left only last week 😦

    Sujatha: I agree, exactly the sentiment I was expressing when I said “This is just broken prose”.

    My own theory is that, sometimes, if you hit the “Enter” key at random intervals in a paragraph of prose, you would have a poem.

    e.g. The first paragraph in my post on tulips can be a poem. Not a great one, but passable, I think?

    Gray Day. The rain
    has been falling
    for the last couple of days,
    obliterating my sunny mood,
    pouring water over any
    weekend plans, and reminding me
    of the cold winter days
    I thought I had left behind.
    But the rain is good
    for my tulips.

    Anil: True. But then, one can find poetry in anything really – if you don’t write just about the action, but can relate it to something higher. For instance, I can think of a poem about washing clothes. I can write about how separating whites from colored clothes is like, I don’t know, identifying the best students, watching them tumble through life..something like that 🙂

  10. These are just letters on a page~
    a way to release my rage!
    to and fro~
    ’bout to let my head blow
    if they don’t let me outta this cage!

    Could this be the beginning entry
    to my first book of poetry?
    Who would ever know
    if they never let me go~

    Or should I just try my hand at
    painting another Van Gogh?

  11. A poem now
    is taking a slice
    just a slice of the world and…
    bringing emotion
    light to a previously unknown expanse of

  12. What is a poem?


    What is art?


    What is a painting of a poem about blogging?

    a thing

  13. I think such thoughts everyday,
    well, each day almost;
    Of the routine and the mundane
    Of things to do and lists to make
    or of things past,
    of what could have been and dreams undone,
    of regrets now and path to take
    for morrow’s dawn and journey unknown
    Such thoughts in my head, I think
    Poetry you say, when I ink

  14. Hello, I would like to invite you to join; The Poetic Voice Community. It is a writer’s site where you can enter contests – add poetry and get feedback. The latest entries are listed on the blog posts. Click on link, and check us out! Then join, and post.

    Website: http://poeticvoice.ning.com/

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