Poetry: What is It?

What is poetry? The artist in us will revolt, even rebuke the attempt to define poetry. Nevertheless, this literary form or genre called poetry transcends our feelings. The genre must be preserved. And in that context, there is an obligation that the poet (and other writers) at least attempt to recognize that there is a difference between poetry and prose, regardless of how much that boundary might be blurred.

Before I attempt to answer this question, I want to address another one: Why is poetry important? In answering this, the original question will be partially answered in the process.

In the February 2010 winter issue of Liquid Imagination (Issue 5), I have an essay called “Why Poetry?” Why is poetry important to me and to the world? The short answer is because it is a literary treasure. An excerpt from the essay posits, “There are some remarkably distinguishing features that poetry might possess that other literary forms might not. Poetry will possess, more often than not in contradistinction to prose, some of the following: emotional impact that might be revelatory about the human condition, fresh distilled language with the rhythm of the ocean, often imbued with metaphor and imagery (or a host of other poetic devices), often layered with more than one meaning and cast in an effective structural form. And it is through these things that help make the inexpressible, expressible. This allows the intensity of connecting with the reader to be amplified. In my opinion, there is no other linguistic form that allows such a wide emotional dynamic range than poetry.”

In that essay, I mention the things that I think are important in poetry—critical elements—that I have determined by a judicious examination of various poetic forms through its history for a commonality. I see these things (in varying proportion) in ancient Hebraic poetry seen in sacred literature, Classic Greek poetry like Homer’s The Iliad and The Odyssey, Traditional form poetry, such as the Shakespearean sonnet, and Modern poetry, which is mostly free verse, arguably popularized by Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass. A form which is ubiquitous in most journals today.

My earlier investigation did not go much beyond that. But in all fairness, the anecdote should be addressed, too, because we see a lot of it in today’s publications, even though it appears more like prose because of its easy prose-like language that might include dialog. Anecdotes, little bits of narrative salvaged from some memory, seem easy to write. However, the mere tacking on of a punch line in an attempt to give the poem significance is not satisfying. In his book, “The Poetry Home Repair Manual” (University of Nebraska Press, 2005), Ted Kooser, U. S. Poet Laureate (2004-2006), stresses that “a poem must be something more than an anecdote arranged in lines” (p. 85). Most of us call this “cut-up prose.” He continues to say, “don’t rely on just the details of a good story to lift it into poetry…The story itself is merely the material. You have to do something special with that material if you want it to be a poem” (p. 91). And now I can safely concur without fear of impeachment.

There is a temptation for a poet to call his work poetry out of intent to write poetry, as if the proclamation validates the assertion, and that it should not be contested. Out of respect to the poet, we humor him; out of respect to Poetry, we gently advise or at least question, lest a dangerous precedent would be set. (Perhaps this is already the case.) But I have digressed.

For now, let me leave you with the thoughts of some publishers concerning what they seek in poetry submissions. The list of venues has been randomly selected from Newpages. (It is noteworthy that many well-established journals don’t even define what they want. They expect you to already know what good poetry is and also expect you to read their previous issues.) You will be able to draw your own conclusions and at least have a better feeling for what poetry is today when you examine the following statements and the information in this essay.


American Literary Review
“The poetry we search out should challenge the reader’s imagination through fresh language, precise imagery, formal artistry, and it should demonstrate an attention to the craft and tradition of poetry. We tend to prefer poems that are pleasing to the ear as well as the imagination.”

Beloit Poetry Journal
“Once in a while, I’ll pick up a lit mag and read a great poem by someone I’ve never heard of. A poem that knocks me down and steals my shoes and makes me walk back to my own poor town over rocks and thorns. A poem that knocks the oomph out of my status quo. A poem I want to read to everybody. One that works and risks while it works. The Beloit Poetry Journal offers such poems.”

“We are always watching for new poets, quickened language, and poems that offer a new purchase on the political or social landscape.”

The Comstock Review
“What we like to see is well-crafted poetry, either free or formal verse, written in understandable and grammatically correct English. We like metaphor and fresh, vivid imagery. It can be about any subject, although we have a slight bias toward poems dealing with the human condition in all its poignancy and humor.”

Indiana Review
“We look for poems, stories, and nonfiction that are well-crafted and lively, have an intelligent sense of form and language, assume a degree of risk, and have consequence beyond the world of their speakers or narrators.”

“We’re looking for poems that move us, pieces that might make us laugh or cry, or teach us something new… and only those that are unique, insightful, and musical stand out.”

The Spoon River Poetry Review
“publishes high-quality poems in any style that are as intellectually and emotionally ambitious as they are attentive to technique.”

So when you see a poem that looks like prose that has been versified, ask yourself the question, “How is this different from prose?” If there isn’t some striking difference, then it’s probably nothing more than cut-up prose.

JCM August 2010


20 Responses to Poetry: What is It?

  1. Elizabeth Ceith says:

    I think that poetry should stick in the head. Just my opinion.

    Good blog, John! I’ll be back.


  2. Thanks Elizabeth!

    I like what a couple of famous poets say about poetry, or what it is:

    “Poetry is what gets lost in translation.”
    — Robert Frost

    “If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know that is poetry.”
    — Emily Dickinson


  3. David Woodruff says:

    Nice discussion, John, about what is poetry. Personally, I like Emily’s definition.

  4. mary says:

    Poetry, for me, makes me feel something. Connects me either to an emotional experience, forcing me to confront something within myself, or poetry is a visual dance that penetrates my senses, leaving me breathless (hopefully)

    • Thanks, Mary.

      Indeed, good poetry will connect with the reader on a very emotional/human level and often through sensory experience. Good poetry will leave me breathless and with a moist smile stretched across the desert of my face or with eyes. as shimmering oases, glutted with tears.

      Thanks for posting

  5. avalanche says:

    It’s a short-circuit, in a way….but that means you gotta know about electricity.
    Respect the power.

    • Thanks for posting, avalanche. Not quite sure what you mean about “short-circuit,” but you are right about knowing the electricity. I always respect the power of words, whether in poetry or in prose. Both are powerful distinct venues.


  6. avalanche says:

    What I was saying was that in poetry, we often break with conventions, like punctuation and context, that is part and parcel of prose. This short-circuit often differentiates an average poem from a great one, as it accesses a completely unexpected and new insight.
    A shock, if you will – not unlike some of the most successful TV ads, memorable if only for the strangeness or surprise factor.
    However, as I said before, you have to understand the power in order to control it this way.

  7. Between me and my husband we’ve owned more MP3 players over the years than I can count, including Sansas, iRivers, iPods (classic & touch), the Ibiza Rhapsody, etc. But, the last few years I’ve settled down to one line of players. Why? Because I was happy to discover how well-designed and fun to use the underappreciated (and widely mocked) Zunes are.

  8. I conceive you have remarked some very interesting points , regards for the post.

    • Thank you, Jonathan. I am in the process of updating my pages and will soon make the link I am doing here for you that you might find useful: I was interviewed by Six Questions and might have some useful information about crafting poetry, but especially what I look for as poetry editor of Silver Blade.

  9. Thanks for some other informative blog. Where else may just I get
    that kind of info written in such an ideal manner? I have a challenge that I am simply now operating on, and I’ve been at the look out
    for such information.

    • Thank you, Gielda. I wish I could lead you to other sources. It’s scattered all over the place (and mixed with bad information too). You know, there are a number of poetry workshops available for free on the Internet. I just looked into the Iowa workshop (How Writers Write) and it was fantastic.


  10. janrssor says:

    I’m glad I found your blog, I’m restless with anticipation to learn from your imagination. However I’m burying rhyme in a shallow grave, just in case. I have a friend, a published poet, painting why rhyme’s not accepted at this time. She’s burning with new poetry’s spirit, so clearly there must be merit. I’m reading Billy Collins and finding inspiration, Bukowski I can’t understand while he’s dreaming of damnation. I’m here to learn, I hope you’ll teach me, but still a poem of a tree does beseech me 🙂 🙂

    • Hi Janr, I’m glad you found this site, too. I’ve been recalcitrant, but hope to become more regular in posting valuable material. I keep placing stuff, literary stuff as well as academic things, on my plate, instead of going the other way. It’s a blessing to like so many things; it’s a curse to like so many things.

      Many folks (poets and non poets) like Billy Collins for different reasons: his work is accessible, turns “on a dime” what might be a funny poem into something serious, effective long titles… And his visual poems are very good too. Bukowski was a genius, but his oppositional attitudes never got him the acceptance he might have deserved. I’m not a fan of ending a line on an article just to make a statement of defiance. (On one rare occasion I did, not for syllabic count, but for structure and rhythm…it works, but I might revise the line to avoid that eye sore. I like Ted Kooser quite a bit. Unlike some poetry snobs, I like his short poems (see A Rainy Morning, Heat Lightning, and After Years).

      Your friend is mostly correct about rhyming poem (See my short article (Is Rhyming Out?) supporting her viewpoint, but it is far from dead. Occasionally I will write a rhyming poem, but subvert the traditional metrical demands (but the rhythm must still be impeccable). I don’t deliberately use end-stopped lines and use slant rhyme (occasionally hard rhymes too, but only when it is very natural). These rhymes may be subtle. The poem will not sound like a traditional rhyming poem, but visually it would be apparent. I’m glad your grave for rhyming poems is shallow, I suspect you’ll be exhuming them from time to time.

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