Wednesday, July 20, 2011

When is a poem not a poem?

We’ve all read them in journals and heard them at poetry readings – poems that make us think, “Whaaaaaaat? That’s not a poem!” But there they are – in print and heard by audiences – poems that lack substance and surprise, music, immediacy, energy, and power.

How do we define what a poem is not? For me, a poem is not a poem:

when it’s sentimental, overly cerebral, or obscure,
when it’s self-consciously “poetic,”
when it’s clumsy, contrived, or cutesy,
when it leaves no gaps (when it “tells” too much),
when nothing in it leaps, trumpets, or thunders,
when its imagery fails,
when its “dismount” falls flat,
when it tries to be something it’s not,
when it’s forgettable.

Following are some insights from five poet and editor friends.

Diane Lockward
Author of Temptation by Water

A poem is not a poem:

when it's prose broken into lines,
when it's all brain and no heart,
when it's all syrup and no substance,
when its diction has no fire.

Donna Baier-Stein
Publisher and Editor-in-Chief of Tiferet: A Journal of Spiritual Literature

A poem isn't a poem when it could just as easily be laid out on the page as dull prose, when there's no unexpected magic in the language or rhythm in the sound. 

 Joe Weil
Author of The Plumber’s Apprentice

A poem is not a poem:

when it is part of a group sensibility (any group sensibility) and does not challenge, stretch, or try the reader's (or the poet's) aesthetics,

when the poet hedges his or her bets in the poem to the point of making no wager at all,

when the poem offends no one, baffles no one, troubles no one, and allows the reader or listener to go to bed comfortably still hugging the consciousness they had prior to reading the poem (while completely forgetting the poem),

when the poet relies on directness to the point of being merely overt or on indirection and ambiguity to the point of saying absolutely nothing in as bland and intelligent a way as possible,

when the showing does not tell, and the telling does not show and it's all done in neat tercets of medium length lines,

when the dog's the dog, and the tree's the tree, and the dying lover is the dying lover, and any old dog, tree, and dying lover would have done just as nicely,

when the poet employs one cliché after another and is as untroubled by it as a sociopath might be upon slitting a child's throat,

when the poem is ignorant of its own interior rules (it's organic necessity), and obeys some outward construct that destroys the virtue of obedience for the cheap rewards of conformity,

when the poem does not allow for at least the same amount of possibility as a white sheet of paper,

when there is nothing I could change, add, or correct in it and yet I still say: so what? In short, the equivalent of a pianist who can play all the notes correctly but never makes music. 

Adam Fitzgerald
Publisher of Monk Books Click Here to Order  

I wish there was an easy answer about how to know the difference between what is a poem, and what is not. The second one feels tempted to be a little bit reactionary, of course, it’s important to remember Shakespeare’s plays were not published during his time by the author because Elizabethan drama was considered entertainment, and the idea of anyone taking an interest in playwrights’ works would be equivalent to HBO screenwriters publishing their collected works. Emily Dickinson’s work, though published soon after her death, was also not considered “poetry” – what many of the early reviews praised were her themes, her provinciality, her mysticism. When it came to the mechanics of verse, she was considered faulty.

… the short answer as to what makes a poem still seems to me to be what William Carlos Williams said, defending Marianne Moore, whose admitted aesthetic was to write “well-ordered prose” – he said it qualified as poetry because it was intended to be read as a poem. Then again, as John Ashbery articulated shrewdly in an interview I did with him this spring, one has to be open to encountering poetry anywhere: a sewing manual, a train bulletin, an info-mercial, even a blog, no? 

Renée Ashley
Author of Basic Heart

A poem is not a poem:

when the poem feels for you rather than leading you to feel,
when all the narrative and/or rhetorical gaps are filled,
when it’s selling something,
when it lacks a modicum of doubt,
when it’s out there instead of in here,
when it doesn’t mean more than it says,
when it’s merely clever,
when you get to the end and have not been startled into deep attentiveness,
when it falls in the forest and no one hears it. 

In 1870, Emily Dickinson remarked to Thomas Wentworth Higginson, "If I read a book and it makes my whole body so cold no fire can ever warm me, I know that is poetry. If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know that is poetry. These are the only ways I know it. Is there any other way?"

What do you think? Your comments are welcome!


  1. I love this post and its content. I am going to post a link to it from my website - so that I can visit it and remind myself and remind other people.

    This is my favourite line 'when the dog's the dog, and the tree's the tree, and the dying lover is the dying lover, and any old dog, tree, and dying lover would have done just as nicely,'

  2. Hi Kerry,

    Thanks for your comment - so glad you enjoyed the post!

    I agree - great line!

  3. When is a poem not a poem? When the writer is not "acclaimed", "renowned", "award-winning" or "published".

  4. Thanks, Anonymous! And thanks, Connie B., for posting the same on Facebook!

  5. Wonderful insights from all (even Emily Dickinson)!

    Renee Ashley has such an amazing sense of humor - a poem is not a poem "when it falls in the forest and no one hears it." Brilliant!

    Thanks, Adele - enjoyable and informative as always!

  6. Thanks, Bob's Mustangs! Yes, Renee has many gifts, and her sense of humor is one of them.

  7. This is great!

    I've found, and wonder if others have as well, that there's a cult of mediocrity being encouraged in Poetryland. Maybe because there are so many workshops there's a sense that anyone can write a poem. Perhaps anyone can write something, but to create real art is another story.

    It's good to read what poets and editors feel about what a poem isn't -- that's a great way to learn what a poem is!

    Thanks, as always!


  8. Thanks, Jamie! Interesting points!

  9. Great post, really I love it! But I am not sure when a poem isn't a poem. May be when it is a poem...For sure I' m going to link your post in my blog: and I'll finally know when a poem is a poem!
    Saluti from Rome.

  10. Hi Jago!

    It's always great to hear from you! Thanks for your comment. I'm so glad you like this post.

    Please send us the link to your blog.

    Tanti auguri!

  11. A wonderful post! Straightforward and genuine (and not without humor)!

    Thank you, Adele and friends!

    Máire Ó Cathail (Ireland)

  12. Hi Adele. It's really right what Mr Fitzerald says, poetry is ( or is not) everywhere. Some months ago I posted this "poem" on my blog:



    Choose two adjacent points that will provide enough space to hang your clothes.

    Try to pick a spot that is relatively flat
    and open.


    Tools Needed – A hammer, Pencil, Drill, Socket, Wire cutters, Punch.




    Depending on how you would like the elevator to operate, choose either a comfortable position

    to hang your clothes or the highest point you can reach.

    (Elevator should be mounted according to the reach of the user).

    The top of the elevator has the wheel inside the bracket.

    Hold elevator against the wall or post and mark the bottom

    mounting points with a pencil only.

    The elevator should be square, flat, leveland centre

    to opposite mounting point."

    For sure it's not a poem, but if we read it like a poem? ( I love the title)
    Here the link to my blog
    Thank you, Adele

  13. Wow, Jago!

    Thanks so much for sharing your writing/poem.

    Perhaps poetry, like beauty, is in the eyes of the beholder. It's good, though, I think, to look at things that make poems weak as a way to strengthen our skills. It's good, too, to read what other poets and editors think about poetry.

    Yes, Adam Fitzgerald is right - poetry is everywhere. We only need to look for it and translate to our own words.

    Thanks for the link to your blog. I'm going to visit right now!

  14. Thanks for the kind words, Maire!

    It's always good to see you here.

  15. I shared this post on Facebook, and here's an interesting comment from Don Preslar:

    Adele, I so love the concept of 'dismount'. Trying to put your soul on paper is so much like trying to ride a spirited horse, and so often I am pitched over the horse's head and thrown violently to the ground. If I rarely do achieve a pure dismount, it's like a grace .. that I don't really deserve. It's like a miracle from heaven, it's not of my own doing, it's .. a thing given .. for free .. a pure discovery .. a thing uncontaminated by ego. : )

  16. interestingly, whether we believe a word means something or not is moot in the grand scheme. how I define poetry is no more relevant than how i define sky or art or toe nail clipping. A thing is what it is. Whether it is a good version of that thing or not is subjective. In a sense, I read this as one might define obscenity, whatever I say is obscene is obscene. It is art is the artist says it is art. It is poetry if the writer says it is poetry. At some point, arguing over that gets tedious - and yet, like everyone, I have fallen into the argument more times than i care to recount.

  17. Thanks, Stephan, for your thoughtful and insightful comment! I think most of us have fallen into the argument more times than we ever intended.

  18. Great info and ideas..It gives me inspiration..

    1. Write a Book: thanks so much for your comment! It's great to know that you've found some inspiration here.