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What Makes a Poem a Poem?


Rob A Mackenzie got himself in slightly hot water with some comment writers on his blog last week for daring to suggest that he might not consider Magi Gibson’s work poetry. Unfortunately, instead of following the question of what makes a poem a poem, which could have thrown up some interesting ideas and insights, the comments took a rather more personal and abusive turn. Disgraceful and disturbing. I for one don’t want to inhabit a space where perfectly legitimate aesthetic judgements attract abuse, so good on Rob for standing by his judgement.

Anyway, what does make a poem a poem? I’m interested to know what readers of this blog have to say on that. L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poet Charles Bernstein has an intriguing go at answering this perennial aesthetic question here. In 60 seconds. Of course, his answer throws up all sorts of questions. What does he mean by “the timing”? Is it something intrinsic to the poem or is it about the relationship of the poem to a moment in history and, therefore, to society? If the former, in what way does it differ from prosody, if at all? If the latter, is it possible for a piece of writing that once was a poem to cease being a poem and for one that formerly wasn’t a poem to become a poem? Or is that more about the poem’s relationship to time and is that different? If, as some scientists think, time is an illusion, where does that leave us?

11 Comments leave one →
  1. Sorlil permalink
    28/03/2008 01:00

    I liked that! I took him as referring to the internal timing of any/every poem. The way in which a word is placed, the placing of an image, a turn in tone and rhythm, which all work together to impact the reader in the way that only poetry can.

    If he was referring to timing in place and history then that would make poetry relative to its age but of course it’s not. I think if a poem could ever cease to be a poem then it was never a poem in the first place.

  2. Jim Murdoch permalink
    28/03/2008 19:28

    I’ve already addressed this topic at length in my post It’s a poem because I say it is but I do have to say as I get older and less interested in squabbling about minutia I’m beginning to care less and less about labels. To my mind it’s like arguing that being left-handed is better than being right-handed. Me? I’m ambidextrous – I can write with both sides of the pen. I write across forms all the time. There is no poetry, no prose, no dialogue. There are only words, good ones and bad ones.

    The ‘lecture’ was a bit of fun. As regards timing, good writing doesn’t go off. It’s why Shakespeare will be around when all the young pretenders have gone.

    BTW I never include the date on my poems when I submit them in case some editor looks at a poem and says, “Oh, that one’s ten years old. It’ll have gone off by now.”

  3. Andrew Philip permalink
    10/04/2008 11:30

    Sorlil, it’s nice, isn’t it? Fun and thought provoking. I like your interpretation of what he’s saying. Is that also your conviction on what makes a poem a poem?


    “There is no poetry, no prose, no dialogue. There are only words, good ones and bad ones.” Radical, Jim! I appreciate your concentration on the quality of the writing (I assume that’s what you mean by “There are only words, good ones and bad ones.”), but I can’t go as far as you in denying a genre difference. The boundaries continue to collapse to a certain extent, but surely there is a difference in the quality (in the sense of nature, not value) of poetry as opposed to prose, even prose of greatness?

  4. Jim Murdoch permalink
    10/04/2008 13:01

    This is one of those half-joking half-serious statements. I’m not so daft that I don’t realise there’s a difference between prose and poetry. I just think some poets make too much of a thing about being poets and not writers. You never really see prosers looking down their noses at poets the same way.

    BTW I’ve added a bit of a plug to your site on my latest blog if you want to check it out.

  5. Andrew Philip permalink
    10/04/2008 13:43

    Well indeed, Jim, I didn’t really think you were! Actually, what really annoys me is the obverse: non-poets (writers and readers) who use “writer” when they mean “novelist”. My wife occasionally accuses me of not reading “books”, which is nonsense, of course. What she means is that I seldom read novels and not usually the ones she’s reading. Isn’t a collection of poems a book?

  6. Andrew Philip permalink
    10/04/2008 20:27

    Oh and cheers for the plug.

  7. Sorlil permalink
    10/04/2008 22:25

    Yes, I think it is. It’s not the use of poetic technique alone(rhyme, image etc) that makes a poem, it’s knowing where and when to use them.

  8. Dick permalink
    13/04/2008 07:18

    I have bluetacked above my laptop desk this from Carl Sandburg: ‘Poetry is the journal of the sea animal living on land, wanting to fly in the air. Poetry is a search for syllables to shoot at the barriers of the unknown and the unknowable Poetry is a phantom script telling how rainbows are made and why they go away’. And this from Yeats: ‘Out of the quarrel with others we make rhetoric; out of the quarrel with ourselves we make poetry’.

    They’ll do for me until something better comes along.

  9. Glenn Ingersoll permalink
    15/04/2008 05:28

    A poet makes a poem!

    Or that was what I was going to say until Murdoch beat me to it. Don’t that guy beat all?

    But I’m so tired of people drumming others out of poetry — That’s not a poem! they huff. If such were accepted as poetry, why, the world would collapse!

    As it has over & over through the years.

    I’ve been reading the linguist John McWhorter. Poetically he likens a language (English, say, or Cantonese) to a cloud. It looks solid. It looks well-formed and definite. Given a little time that shape changes utterly … or vanishes away. Same thing happens with every language over time.

    Buddhists say something similar, don’t they? Everything changes. That’s why my definition of Poetry is so broad. Art crafted from Language. Naturally it ropes in everything from prose to screenplay to sonnet but why not? Get away from arguing about generic categories. Does the piece itself work?

  10. Art Durkee permalink
    15/04/2008 17:07

    Most typical definitions of poetry (vs. prose) focus on the technical aspects of what separates poetry apart from prose. Poetry is almost always defined as not-prose. Among that list I’ve heard (and probably quoted): poetry is heightened and exalted speech; poetry contains musical form and musical elements (rhythm, cadence, meter, repetition, sonic structures) regardless of formal linguistic elements; poetry doesn’t have to follow the syntax and grammar rules of prose; etc.

    Most definitions, like Bernstein’s which I found amusing but not very deep or helpful, don’t define their basic terms. What is meant by “musicality”? I’ve written an opinion or two that poets shouldn’t have to turn to music theory to bolster their arguments; but I digress.

    But I write mostly prose-poems, or haibun and haiku, or unidentifiable forms that don’t have names, or an extant body of criticism. I straddle these definitions all the time. Who I am is an artist who has spent his entire life on both sides of the fences of all kinds of borderlines.

    I think the best definitions of poetry I’ve ever read are those of Rilke, especially in the Sonnets to Orpheus and the Letters to a Young Poet.

  11. Andrew Philip permalink
    19/04/2008 20:10

    Art, we could talk about the sound structure of a poem and analyse it in much the same way as I do with rhyme. That would have considerable value and I’d advocate poets learning more about phonetics and phonology to understand the subtelties of what’s going on in poetry, but the appeal to music, which is metaphorical, focuses the non-technical reader’s understanding on a readily shared realm in which sound is appreciated for itself at least as much as for any capacity to convey meaning. In so doing, it helps to demonstrate that poetry is fundamentally an aesthetic use of sound; it happens that the sound is language, which is also our primary means of communicating meaning.

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