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What Is a Poem?

Does a poem have to rhyme in order to be a poem? Does it have to have line breaks? Does it have to be about metaphysics or can it be about tin openers – can it be about both? Is a poem still a poem when it is ‘deliberately opaque’? What about if it’s been spray-painted onto the sides of sheep who are wandering around Northumbrian farmlands? Perhaps the definition of a poem is little more than the 1960s US Supreme Court Justice’s test for pornography: ‘I know it when I see it’? Hmm. Or perhaps we can say a little more than that…

When Claudia Rankine won the Forward Prize for Best Poetry Collection in 2015 with her prose poetry book Citizen, I heard various respected poets suggesting afterwards that ‘it’s not really poetry though, is it?’ I’ve heard the same whispered about Sophie Collins’ recent debut Who Is Mary Sue? that also incorporates prose poetry. A friend ventured: ‘It’s not because it’s prose poetry, it’s because some bits of it are just plain old prose.’ Ah, well that’s different, then. Or is it? Claudia Rankine says, ‘I really believe that form and content should always be in dialogue.’ Where is the line between prose poetry and prose? Who gets to define it? Are we doomed to take the poet’s own word that what they’ve created is poetry? 

Unsurprisingly, we are not the first to mull over the question of where the boundaries of poetry might lie. In fact, it sometimes feels as if part of the condition of being a poet is to figure out what constitutes a poem at all. We like describing poetry through metaphor. Consider this definition from Anne Carson: ‘If prose is a house, poetry is a man on fire running quite fast through it.’ Does that definition resonate with you? Does it help? Or perhaps things are rather bleaker because, as Michael Donaghy said, ‘We haven’t even got as far as defining poetry.’

Edgar Allen Poe once said of poetry that ‘Its sole arbiter is taste.’ Does this mean there’s no objective set of criteria we can all agree on as to what constitutes a poem(or, even worse, a ‘good’ poem)? We often see poets go beyond merely questioning each other’s taste levels, though. Hugo Williams seemed pretty confident when he objected to experimental writers such as John Ashbery and JH Prynne, calling their poems ‘counterfeit madness’ and suggested they were ‘tongue-in-cheek hipsters playing the cross-eyed loon to impressionable academics’. I can imagine him in a fist-fight with Prynne, Prynne yelling back: ‘I want a poet to break out of his or her poetic identity, to establish a whole new set of possibilities for the reader and for him- or herself’ as he swings for the jaw.

Surely they’re ultimately fighting about taste, though? Not arguing about the right for each other’s poems to exist materially as poems? Who is right and who’s wrong? Can anyone be truly right and wrong about such things? Maybe Wallace Stevens had it cracked when he said: ‘All poetry is experimental poetry.’

Of course, Wallace Stevens also said ‘Definitions are relative. The notion of absolutes is relative.’ And let’s not forget something that TS Eliot said: ‘Most people’s rules about poetry derive from the kinds of poems those people like’. So maybe it does all just come down to taste?

We rarely talk about taste in poetry classes. There’s something implicit in the way poetry is taught which tells us that we, as sensitive thinking human beings, owe poetry our attention. We talk about appreciating what the poet is doing, as if we’re all under a human, even a moral, obligation to read the work in front of us, to regard all poetic outpourings with the same reverence. All I’ll say about that for now is it would lead to an infeasibly large reading pile. 

On this course I want to talk about these different notions of taste and quality, to figure out what a poem is, or isn’t, to us. The way I want to get there is by looking at all sorts of different work, because I agree with Louis Zukofsky that ‘The best way to find out about poetry is to read the poems.’ I’ll be sourcing poems and critical texts, and we’ll be looking at the evolution of the sonnet, the prose poem, found poetry, spoken-word poetry, sound poetry, poetry painted on sheep and all sorts of wonderful things.

Everything you’ll need will be supplied in class, including context for any critics or poets whose work we look at – all you need to bring is an open mind and a little curiosity. The course will also require you to write new poems in response to the different types of work discussed in class. You will get feedback, but very much in a fun and friendly environment. Don’t worry. Fist-fighting will be absolutely discouraged.

Join the discussion and ask yourself ‘What Is a Poem?’. Chrissy’s course runs from 24 January to 21 March. Book your place here.

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(Image credit: ‘Véronique Debord-Lazaro’)