What makes a poem a poem?

September 13, 2011 | By | 15 Replies More

A few weeks ago, I found a treasure at a used bookstore: a copy of Tom Peters’s 1997 book “The Circle of Innovation” – with an extra treasure – the signature of the author). The book is filled with quotes to punctuate Peters’s themes. One in particular resonated with me:

Expose yourself to the best things humans have done and then try to bring those things into what you are doing.

– Steve Jobs [pre-iPod, pre-iPhone, pre-iPad]


Jobs was talking about art, poetry, history. Peters tied the quote to the Mac (I have all three of the above gadgets, but I’ve sampled the Mac Kool-Aid and the lingering cyanide taste was too much for me) and the mixing of artists with engineers to create the Mac and its operating system. Despite that, it’s still brilliant.

It struck a chord because I’ve recently gotten a baptism by immersion in the art world. Now that we’ve stopped moving and have established a presence here in North Texas, my wife last year took her art from “interests” to “profession”. Since then it’s been a whirlwind of new and different – for her and me. In that short time, she’s explored a variety of media (requiring reconfiguration of the garage – uh, studio – several times) and done things she never dreamed of being able to do. Shameless plug here: check out her website and you’ll understand the multiple reconfigs I’ve had to facilitate (drill deep – there is a lot there and all produced in just the last year and a half.) Collateral to this evolution, this spring she was elected president of one of the art associations she joined and just two weeks ago became the publisher of a fine art engagement book. Now she’s attending exhibition openings and receptions to support the artists of the association, network with sponsors of the book, scout out art for the book, and simply enjoy the art. And unless I have something more pressing, I am also going to these openings. We went to two last Friday night and have another tomorrow night.

I know the artist for one of the openings last weekend and am impressed with her work. I was more impressed listening to an appreciator talk about what he saw in a couple of her paintings – things I certainly did not – but things that the artist responded to with an emphatic, “YES!”

I just listened. Trying to see. Trying to learn.

It was like I was in a foreign country and not able to speak the language. My wife spoke of a couple of pieces she wanted and what she felt when looking at them. She used words like “motion”…“emotion”…“composition” (that one I sometimes get). I’ll admit that too often my frustration at not being able to comprehend what is so apparently obvious to others gets to me. I know I can’t always understand something even when it is explained to me, but I don’t like not being able to. Particularly art and literature. It shouldn’t be that hard, and yet, for me, it is.

I’ve written before on the difficulty I have with finding “meaning” in art, movies and literature. Even when an interpretation is explained to me in direct terms, I may not see it. I am usually always amazed when I hear an actual artist or author explain what she/he was trying to accomplish with a particular piece – but the amazement is rarely accompanied by a light or epiphany.

Still, to expose myself to the best things, I try to tackle the difficult subjects. Like, gulp, poetry.

I picked up David Orr’s “Beautiful & pointless: A Guide to Modern Poetry” last month in yet another attempt to get a clue. Judging from some of the reviews I checked out after I read the book, I wasn’t the only one who thought Orr fell short of the mark – he guided neither me nor most of the (few) Amazon reviewers. I won’t recount descriptions of his

Image by Helga1984 at Dreamstime.com (with permission)

connection themes of personal, political, form, etc. But as a guide, I would have preferred more of a docent approach. Of course, I recognized none of the poets Orr named.

Orr included many poems and fragments, but here are a couple he cites as good:

“A Step Away” from Them” by Frank O’Hara (beginning fragment)

It’s my lunch hour, so I go
for a walk among the hum-colored
cabs. First down the sidewalk
where the laborers feed their dirty
glistening torsos sandwiches
and Coca-Cola, with yellow helmets
on. They protect them from falling
bricks, I guess. Then onto the
avenue where skirts are flipping
above heels and blow up over
grates. The sun is hot, but the
cabs stir up the air. I look
at bargains in wristwatches. There
are cats playing in sawdust…


“Home to Roost” by Kay Ryan

The chickens
are circling and
blotting out the
day. The sun is
bright, but the
chickens are in
the way. Yes,
the sky is dark
with chickens,
dense with them.
They turn and
then they turn
again. These
are the chickens
you let loose
one at a time
and small –-
various breeds.
Now they have
come home
to roost –all
the same kind
at the same speed.

I tried reading that last poem as prose:

The chickens are circling and blotting out the day. The sun is bright, but the chickens are in the way. Yes, the sky is dark with chickens, dense with the,. They turn and then they turn again. These are the chickens you let loose one at a time and small – various breeds. Now they have come home to roost – all the same kind at the same speed.

Neither made sense. I have such a hard time distinguishing what makes a free-verse poem a poem. Rhyme and meter? Much easier. Linefeeds at odd points? Not so much.

When the parsing is eliminated and the result compressed, “Home to Roost” predictably makes even less sense than the poem version, and yet I can’t figure out how breaking up sentences makes it poetry.

Orr included one by Franz Wright, a Pulitzer Prize winning poet, who wrote


The black balloon
tied to her wrist again, thin hand
an inch above the white
white sheet

The body
a word to be said
into death, one
which no one else knows
completely on her own –

Night just the shadow of her hell

Is that poetry because it looks like poetry? Because the author says it is poetry? Because someone else says it’s poetry? What if I looked at it as I did “Home to Roost”?

The black balloon tied to her wrist again, thin hand floating an inch above the white white sheet
The body a word to be said into death, one word which no one else knows completely her own –
Night just the shadow of her hell

I’m not asking the audience to try to explain what Wright’s poem means, or even what makes it a poem. I have a feeling it wouldn’t register anyway.

Orr prints the “start of Billy Collins’s best poem, which focuses on the wildly unpromising subject of writing workshops and is called, appropriately enough, ‘Workshop’”:

I might as well begin by saying how much I like the title.
It gets me right away because I’m in a workshop now
so immediately the poem has my attention,
like the Ancient Mariner grabbing me by the sleeve

And I like the first couple of stanzas,
the way they establish this mode of self-pointing
that runs through the whole poem
and tells us that words are food thrown down
on the ground for other words to eat.
I can almost taste the tail of the snake
in its own mouth,
if you know what I mean.

But what I’m not sure about is the voice,
which sounds in places very casual, very blue jeans,
but other times seems standoffish,
professional in the worst sense of the word…

Deep breath. Look left and right. Okay. Anyway, always digging, I found a Collins fan site. Didn’t help – language barrier, I guess – but I am glad that there are people who can appreciate his work.

Orr says that “[t]he best that we can do is to say that only through poetry can we understand poetry.”

Uh oh.

Later on the same page, to dispense with a personal connection as the means to understand poetry, Orr says

The basic problem with declaring that poetry is associated in some unique way with our innermost selves is obvious: The overwhelming majority of English-speaking humanity knows nothing whatsoever about poetry, yet many of those people seem to lead inner lives that are perfectly satisfactory. So we can assume that these seemingly contented people are deluded, and doomed to a soulless oblivion of which they’re sadly unaware, or we can acknowledge that whatever one gets from poetry must also be obtainable from other sources.

Now that makes sense. Sort of. I (apparently sadly) am unaware of the soulless oblivion into which I descend for I outside of Dr. Seuss, some of Shel Silverstein, and limericks, the only poems that…reach me…I suppose that’s the phrase, both have to do with roads: Frost’s one not taken, and Tolkien’s one that goes ever on. I wonder what that says about me?

So what makes a poem a poem? Like as not, I’ll never know for sure. But, with art openings and exhibitions aplenty, and occasional foray into literature (or as I’ve been advised…Literature) and a far less than occasional side trip into poetry, I’m trying to expose myself to some of what most would call the “best” things humans have done.   And I’m trying to bring them into what I’m doing. For I work in a marvelous world of architecture and engineering and like most, enjoy the benefits of science, both full of evidence of some of the other “best” things humans have done, and yet are too often taken for granted.


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Category: Art, Culture

About the Author ()

Jim is a husband of more than 27 years, father of four home-schooled sons (26, 23, 16 and 14), engineer delighting in virtually all things technical, with more than a passing interest in history, religions, arts, most sciences (particularly physics) and skepticism.

Comments (15)

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  1. I think poetry has to convey emotion. All literature is an act of provocation. Carl Sandburg said, “Poetry is an echo, asking a shadow to dance.”
    I prefer micropoetry because you get the picture right away. You like it or you don’t. It talks to you or remains closed.
    You might want to check out these (same poet).



    • Jim Razinha says:

      Well, thanks for the interesting links…but unfortunately they were not any more helpful than Sandburg’s description…to me. (Also) to me, they look like code fragments, missing the rest to be functional. And I was left with the questions “that’s it? where’s the rest of it? what’s that supposed to mean?”

      I’ll admit I stop at the first roadblock of form and ask myself every time, “How is this a poem?” Which I understand defeats the purpose of poetry. In this case, I also observed, “Why these aren’t even complete thoughts.”

      So deeper into
      that soulless
      oblivion I fall. Questing
      (not especially in earnest) for
      the explanation as to what makes
      poem a poem.

      (reads a lot better if you imagine a Kirk parody reciting it – that’s what I do)

      This will sound sad to those who broke the (poetry) code, but if I have to spend a lot of energy trying to 1) figure out how something I’m reading is a poem and not just parsed prose, and 2) decipher what orange fireflies over a campfire is supposed to mean, then the poet fails to convey any emotion; instead one is evoked – frustration.

      One of my favorites:
      Roses are red,
      violets are blue.
      Some poems rhyme,
      but this one doesn’t.

    • Jim Razinha says:

      I shouldn’t have rushed that response. I wanted to say that more examples don’t really answer the question. I’m looking for an analytical explanation, which probably opposes the spirit/intent of poetry.

      My wife (the artist) very easily establishes an emotional connection to a book, a painting, a movie. But then she’s from Venus. I, being from Mars, do not so easily establish any such connection (actually, almost never). I am always fascinated by our differences in writing preferences. When we discuss our opposing views on the few reading overlaps we share, because my disconnects are known and well established, I am usually wrong. Mars again. but that’s okay.

      So, even thought Coyote Sings didn’t make much sense to me, I am happy that it speaks to you and will share should the topic come up in conversation over the spreadsheet or design drawing (or much more likely at one of those many openings and exhibits I am attending now.)

  2. Joel Pickett says:

    My “not” poetry.

    Memories locked in time.
    I tell myself the beautiful memories will always be there.
    A memory to be recalled and enjoyed.
    Recalled when needed most.
    Images of a time past.
    The way things were.
    We could not imagine at the time we were investing so much.
    Investing so easily.
    Making moments. Making memories.
    Memories given to me by friends and loves.
    Gifts given without a cost to anyone.
    Maybe the most valuable things in this life.
    Take the time now.
    Enjoy the memories.

  3. Erich Vieth says:

    Jim: This post should have been dedicated to ME. Gad. In high school, the final exam in an English class was to analyze a poem. The experience is clouded by PTSD at this point, but I can recall that the poem concerned a lion hovering over the planet Earth, and that’s about it, because it made no sense to me. I did my best, and I received a “D,” which was crushing because I was a pretty good student generally, and I otherwise liked English class.

    That has too often been my history regarding poems: I read them, and I don’t get them. I get lost 7 words in. How can I go on unless I at least understand the first sentence, I think.

    There are some exceptions, including most (but not all) of “The Road Not Taken,” and Sandberg’s “Fog”:


    THE fog comes
    on little cat feet.

    It sits looking
    over harbor and city
    on silent haunches 5
    and then moves on.

    OK, fair enough. In fact I enjoy “Fog.” And I enjoy and marvel at many of Shakespeare’s works.

    But how about if I segue into song lyrics? I don’t get most of them. I like to hear the music, but if I focus on meaning of the lyrics, I often get frustrated. There are many exceptions. For instance, I think I “get” many of the lyrics of the Beatles, Cat Stevens and James Taylor.

    And not to get too far afield, but how often each day do we nod when someone says something to us, but if quizzed on the spot, we really wouldn’t be able to explain what that particular sentence “meant”? How often does a string of words mean something different to the speaker and the listener, and we just accept it as the way it is during the day?

    It seems like quite a bit of poetry takes that natural ambiguity of language and pushes it to the max. So might I suggest a double-blind study: Have a bunch of poetry experts read a poem (or two or three) and privately write down what it “means.” Then we compare the interpretations. If they aren’t pretty much seeing things the same way, doesn’t this prove the the “meaning” of poetry is not like the meaning of much ordinary language? Maybe it’s not meaning at all. Maybe it’s a mood. Maybe much poetry is a Rorschach test.

    ps. Please tell your wife that I really enjoyed her art, and that I simply like it. It didn’t try to interpret it. Love the soda can fish. She has done an amazing amount of high quality work in 1 1/2 years.

    • Jim Razinha says:

      I’m even weirder about lyrics. I don’t hear them. I have to really concentrate to 1) hear them over the music and 2) retain them enough to think about them. I’m baffled, but have adapted. I liked the song “Wild Thing” by Tone Loc and a couple of years ago, after almost 20 years of listening to it, the lyrics finally registered. I amused my wife when I told her I just then knew what the song was about. I like classical because there are no lyrics to get in the way of the music (that’s how I think of it, no offense intended) and I pretty much cringe at most ballads because the music tends to take a back seat to the lyrics/message – which I don’t hear or “get”.

      Meaning is in the mind of the beholder. If the interpreter’s takeaway doesn’t match the author/creator’s intent, then was the effort a failure or the interpretation? Or both or neither? I have seen some artists lose it when they’re not understood, blaming the feeble minded for missing whatever point was being made. I have also heard “Wow! That’s not what I was going for, but I see how you could see that in my work.” I call BS on a lot of what I hear (and I admit I am usually wrong), but when I hear a convergence – “yeah, that’s what I saw/felt, too” – and it still does not register as a personal truth…that’s the biggest frustration.

      I’d like to add one factor to your test: have the writer/artist/director write down what the message/meaning is/was and then compare to the independent assessments.

      I will tell my wife… Thanks. For what it’s worth, I (obviously) don’t interpret her work either. When it comes to art, I either like or don’t. And I am amused when I am told why I do or don’t, because this brain doesn’t work that way. Sort of like my take on individual psychology.

  4. Dan Klarmann says:

    Try reading (well, actually doing) The Ode Less Travelled: Unlocking the Poet Within by the guy speaking in this video:

    • Jim Razinha says:

      Wonderful, Dan. I like Stephen Fry and actually have The Ode Less Travelled in an ebook collection I inherited. I hope I have time to get to it on my vacation next week.

    • Jim Razinha says:

      He’s already lost me in the “How to read this book” section – savor, taste, enjoy? I have to adjust a paradigm or two in order to give it a fair shot.

      I can see this isn’t a vacation book…it will likely take me a very long time (Fry says I’m supposed to read poetry slowly and many times over), so I’ll read his book slowly…

    • Dan Klarmann says:

      The Ode Less Traveled has to be read more like The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy or anything by Roald Dahl; out loud. If you just read it silently, you miss the flavor of the words and the ways they audibly interact, the way they trip off the tongue and ooze through the sinuses. It helps me to hear his text as being in his voice as I subvocalize.

      It is also full of written and verbal exercises to try to get the reader to really understand what he is writing about. It is a textbook for using the language artfully.

      And arguably, that is what makes poetry poetry.

  5. Erich Vieth says:

    From the Quotations Page:

    Most people ignore most poetry because most poetry ignores most people.
    Adrian Mitchell

    The cloning of humans is on most of the lists of things to worry about from Science, along with behaviour control, genetic engineering, transplanted heads, computer poetry and the unrestrained growth of plastic flowers.
    Lewis Thomas (1913 – 1993)

    In science one tries to tell people, in such a way as to be understood by everyone, something that no one ever knew before. But in poetry, it’s the exact opposite.
    Paul Dirac (1902 – 1984)

    I think that one possible definition of our modern culture is that it is one in which nine-tenths of our intellectuals can’t read any poetry.
    Randall Jarrell (1914 – 1965)

    I have nothing to say, and I am saying it, and that is poetry.
    John Cage (1912 – 1992)

  6. Love the Franz Wright poem.

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