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Wednesday, May 13, 2009

How Do You Tell If It's Poetry?

I guess any writer of free verse faces this question from time to time: "What makes this poetry and not just chopped-up prose?" After participating recently in the latest April Poem A Day Challenge at Poetic Asides, I was asked it again by a friend who read all my entries. The funny thing is that she herself is a poet (and a very good one too) who writes only in free verse. Maybe someone had asked her and she was hoping for a few clues how to answer.

If anyone else wants to express an opinion on this issue, please do!

Here is our email exchange:


Bin reading your poems. Hate to be an ignoramus, but what makes them poems, rather than journal entries broken up into shorter lines? Citing 'Andrew's 80th' and the one about the angel voice that came in this morning.
love, Me


Legitimate question. As I've said in one of them, I wonder myself at times about the plainness of the language. My Muse seems to want me to be particularly colloquial of late.

However, the answer to your question is, in most cases, form. "Andrew's 80th" was a double Anacreontic verse – and I know I said so, and even gave a link. It's a particularly suitable form for the subject matter, being traditionally used for festivities, everyday life, and love.

The others include acrostic, pantoum, sestina, shadorma.... Also I often create my own forms, sometimes with verse structure, often with syllabics, and quite often both at once. And I still sometimes use a loose metric pattern instead of syllabics. Today's "Farewell" uses caesura throughout, and linked verses (by carrying sentences over). There is also always attention to the sound when read aloud, which among other things dictates where and how lines end and begin.

That last applies also to free verse, and indeed needs even more attention there.

At this point, let me say I think it's more useful for this discussion to distinguish verse and prose rather than poetry and prose. "Poetry" can mean an innate, ineffable something, an essence hard to define (though it may be easy to recognise). It's the question of what makes something Art with a capital A. In that sense, prose can be poetry - and, alas, vice versa. So let's talk about why I think my pieces have a claim to be considered as verse, i.e. non-prose.

If there is a verse form I'm seeking to follow, that covers it. Even if I do it badly, it's still a pantoum for instance, if it follows the rules – it's just a bad pantoum. (Haiku is a different story, as many great haiku break the "rules", but we'll leave that aside. Some haikuists say it's not poetry anyway but a genre in itself.)

Free verse is trickier to defend. Again it lies in the crafting. Even a found poem is crafted to some degree. Although I like to think I can write quite well naturally, a journal entry is not crafted in that way, any more than this email is. The angel poem is free verse, as are some of the others.

There is always some sort of rhythm or pattern singing in my head – though, (ha!) as I am fairly unmusical, this could be suspect! Still, it's there, from the beginning. I know that prose can be highly crafted, and the best prose is supposed to have its own rhythms, and the boundaries can blur as in prose poems – even so, a thing will present to me as clearly one or t'other.

There is also crafting in the form of revising and tweaking after getting the first draft down. It is VERY important to say free verse aloud, just to make sure it is distinct from a chopped-up journal entry. It's important to weigh every word, every piece of punctuation, every line ending and beginning, every space, every verse break... That is important for all poetry, but ever so much more crucial in free verse.

You're not a spoken-word poet, so I wonder if you don't know to make a slight stop at the end of a line even if there is no punctuation there, and to give each piece of punctuation that is there its due weight (one beat for a comma, four for a full-stop, and so on). These things must be taken into account when reading prose aloud too (except of course for line endings – prose being that stuff where the lines go right to the end of the page regardless of what word happens to fall there). In poetry these considerations are even more vital, if that's possible. By those criteria, the angel one is definitely verse! (Also my grammar would be different for prose.) I actually thought I had succeeded in MAKING the reader read it in the way I intend – but of course that only works if they are going to observe the conventions of reading poetry, not if they ignore them.

I read an article a while back by an American poet (alas, forget who) on this very question. She was invited to a Book Club or something and the people there didn't know why her book was poetry – until she read it to them, and then they could hear it the right way. She said that the general public don't have the cues for reading free verse on the page, as they get in more formal verses, so they automatically read it as if it was prose. So for them, I guess, it becomes so.

And then ... there is also the fun of pushing boundaries, exploring how far you can take something before it turns into something else. I don't necessarily want to remain frozen within the accepted criteria. I'm interested that my Muse is directing me to be more and more plain and colloquial for the most part! At first I was disconcerted and uneasy, now I am rather liking the experiment.

Love to You!


  1. Interesting post. I worry about this issue sometimes with my own poetry (ie. is it really poetry? Why isn't it prose?) I worry about it but I don't think about it: it just is poetry or it just is prose. Your arguments here will help me if I'm ever asked the same question! Hopefully it'll make me think a little more about form in my own work too - I could do with that!

  2. Yeah, know what you mean (the worrying about but not thinking about; "it just is ...")

    If it's any help, I always relate to your poems as poems and your prose as prose!

  3. Interesting...I've had this discussion many times with people, and I can never quite seem to hit the nail on the head the way you have.

    I think what's interesting to me is that a lot of people consider stuff like Eliot and Pound (imagist Pound, not Cantos ridiculousness Pound) poetry without giving it much added thought, despite the employment by both men (in some works) of free verse. I think what helps, for me, is to look at something that seems like it could just be chopped-up prose and think about different things than one might when approaching a traditional "poem." For instance, I constantly argue with Bukowski over the nature of is poetic-ness, but he always wins, because there's always something, some reason for a line break, or some clever image, or some tension that I wouldn't get from it if it were prose.

    I really enjoyed reading this.

  4. Thank you. I think you nail something too, with the phrase, "some tension that I wouldn't get from it if it were prose".

    Yeah, Bukowski always wins!

    (I giggled over your description of the Cantos. They have always defeated my attempts to read and make sense of them. Maybe I can let myself off the hook!)

  5. I thought this very crisp and definitive, Rosemary, so I looked up a couple of books to see what else has been said. First, for those for whom English is a second language, my Cobuild Dictionary says that poetry is "poems, considered as a form of literature ..." so that wasn't very illuminating! The Budget Macquarie, on the other hand, was itself somewhat more poetic: poetry is "the art of rhythmical composition, written or spoken,for exciting pleasure by beautiful, imaginative, or elevated thoughts." The trouble with this is, you have to pin down those last three adjectives, to look at whether your writing qualifies. So finally, I checked out a textbook for secondary schools printed in 1981 by Longman Cheshire. Unfortunately, I found out that nothing I write can be considered poetry if we believe Sir Alan Bullock (creator of The Bullock Report)who said, "that it [poetry] is a man speaking to men, of his and their condition, in a language which consists of the best words in the best order, language used with the greatest possible inclusiveness and power" (inclusive except of women - can you believe this was said so recently??) Thanks for the oportunity to make such an interesting excursion. I prefer your analysis to any of these. Love, Jaywig

  6. 1981??? I'm shocked.

    Interestingly, this post still gets a lot of hits. It seems lots of people want to know the criteria.

    Thanks for adding to the discussion with your research and thought.