What makes a poem a poem?

One of my college students said something about hating poetry until she realized that she could just throw some words on the page and call it a poem. I both smiled and cringed. What makes a poem a poem? Why is a poem not just some words splashed onto the page?


What the fuck does that mean? Beginning poets have wondered this since the beginning of time. Before I throw down some rules here, I want to say that there exceptions to all of points. However, as the old saying goes (in music, I think), you gotta know the rules before you break them.

1. Is there an intensity of language?*

One of my favorite quotes that I can’t remember and can’t find again, but was from one of the Best American Poetry books, is that poetry is what happens between the lines. And it’s true. The poem gives you the tools and the final emotional impact happens in your brain, in the reader’s understanding of the poem. This doesn’t mean you have to use big words. It doesn’t mean that you have to use odd images, necessarily. Take my favorite poet Jane Cooper (and I apologize about the double spacing, I’m too technologically inept and/or lazy to fix it**):


If you want my apartment, sleep in it

but let’s have a clear understanding:

the books are still free agents.


If the rocking chair’s arms surround you

they can also let you go,

they can shape the air like a body.


I don’t want your rent, I want

a radiance of attention

like the candle’s flame when we eat


I mean a kind of awe

attending the spaces between us—

Not a roof but a field of stars.

It’s a series of images that build up to the final image. Blam. Kick in the gut. We get it. It’s a poem. It’s a combination of the images and the final image that makes sense of all the ones that come before.

2. Do your line breaks work with the speed of the poem?

I’ve actually answered that here.

3. Could you say something in a more interesting/specific/true way but without being a pretentious asshole?

4. How come Shakespeare doesn’t sound like a Hallmark card when he writes in meter and rhyme?

It’s called metrical substitutions or variation (not to mention the diction and vocabulary of the English Renaissance). Endless lines of meter and perfect rhyme sound like a bad dream involving Edward Lear and Robert Frost in an unholy alliance. (My respects to both poets.) So shake it up. Allow yourself a hiccup in meter for effect. Add slant rhymes. What’s a slant rhyme? Let’s start with perfect rhyme: cat/bat/sat/shat. Yawn. Slant rhymes are more tricky: cat/sat/bit/bet/shit. The sound still echoes, but it’s not perfect. Or throw a perfect rhyme in the middle of a line. Shake it up. It’s the twenty-first century.

*Thank you Downith and Sparks for helping my slow brain move forward.

**This is a blog full of emotional energy, but very little actual effort for formatting, etc. You’re lucky I have enough professional pride on a good day to proofread. xo


2 responses to “What makes a poem a poem?

  1. I love that poem. I have to remember her name.

    Thanks for the primer. I’ve been feeling the need to know what rules I may be breaking. It feels good to know that I usually have the first one in mind. I hope it stays there while I work on not being a pretentious asshole, or at least while I edit the assholey parts.

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