For a long time I didn’t know what a poem was.
I mean, I would read a thing and have a feeling that I was reading a poem, or sometimes I’d read something labeled a poem and would have a feeling I wasn’t actually reading a poem, but I couldn’t really explain why.
Of course this might make you ask Who cares? Do we really need to be able to draw lines between poems and not-poems? Why do we have to DEFINE everything? Which, as questions go, are totally fair. That said, (1) I’m a teacher, so I am frequently called on to define things, and (2) it’s just about to be National Poetry Month, so maybe we should know what that even means, and (3) I find it a little off-putting when people just throw up their hands and say that anything can be a poem. A sunset can be a poem! A bear can be a poem! A pair of underpants can be a poem!
And anyway (4) I like defining things.
(If you don’t like defining things, you might want to stop reading. Or if you dislike definitions, but you do like being irritated, you might want to keep reading.)
There have been times in history when it was easy to decide what was poetry and what wasn’t. These were times when poetry followed formal rules about, say, syllable count, alliteration, stressed syllables, rhyme—or at least when poems insisted on having line breaks. But we’ve had free verse for a long time now, and prose poetry is pretty mainstream, too, so the fact is that we just can’t rely on those markers of formal rules as indications of what kind of thing we’re reading. And yet poetry is not dead. I don’t care what Robert Frost said about playing tennis with the net down—we still have poems. You can feel that, right?
That said, faced with the truth that we’re in a post-rules period, for a long time I figured that there was no way to define poetry with any reliability.
There was one thing I did know, though: reading poetry is, for me, a different kind of thing than reading prose. When I read prose—or at least literary prose—I pay pretty close attention; I’m alert for metaphors and nice turns of phrases and crucial plot points and significant dialogue and so on. When I read poetry, on the other hand, I pay extremely close attention. I’m watching for all the same things I watch for in a short story, for example, but I’m also taking in the sound of the words, the visual pattern of the piece on the page (including stanzas and line breaks, if there are any), repetition, the choice of each word and punctuation mark, and a lot more. My face is practically pressed to the page, trying to get every drop of fantastic into me. So there’s a difference there, at least in the reading.
For a long time that was all I knew.
And then one day I finally realized what was right in front of me: this approach to reading also leads inexorably to a definition of poetry. Specifically:
A poem is a piece of writing that rewards you for reading it as though it’s a poem.
That’s it: A poem is a piece of writing that rewards you for reading it as though it’s a poem.
Do you see what I mean? A poem, a real poem, gives you significant things—a rich experience, pleasure—when you read it with the focus and alertness to words and sounds and punctuation and everything else that a poem demands.
This definition rules sunsets out, and underpants. (They’re great, in their respective ways, but I’m telling you they’re not poems.) It also rules out a good deal of writing. An illustration: Go get a copy of the latest tax filing instructions and read the booklet extremely closely, paying attention to every aspect of the language—word choice, word length, spacing, vowel and consonant sound, rhythm, etc.—and squeeze those details to see if they yield any emotional and intellectual power. You will probably not find this activity rewarding. That’s because you’re reading something the way you would read a poem even though it isn’t a poem. And how do you know it isn’t? Because reading it like it’s a poem is such a waste of time.
Unfortunately, there are also some “poems” that turn out this way, too. Let’s say you read a particular “poem” with devout attention and discover that the thing is only skin deep. Some okay ideas with random line breaks, let’s say, and nothing else of note. I’m telling you that’s not a poem. Or maybe the “poem” is full of lots of ornate language choices everywhere—constant alliteration! punctuation explosion!—but at the end you don’t feel like anything significant happened as a result of all that ornamentation. You took in all the detail and found the detail self-indulgent and unrewarding. I’m telling you that’s not a poem, either.
But one of the things I like about this definition is that it doesn’t just rule stuff out—it also rules stuff in. Take the case of the “found poem.” By “found poem,” I mean some theoretically prosaic text—hand-washing instructions, a car’s owner manual, a memo—that the author didn’t mean to make so interesting, but (by accident or unconscious inspiration) the thing did turn out interesting. The typo in a menu’s “Hummus and thyme warp [wrap]” is unexpectedly delightful; the repetition of the word “don’t” in a list of instructions becomes hypnotically rhythmic; punctuation and a line break allow for multiple meanings in this great January headline about Donald Trump:
_Doctor: No Heart,
_ Cognitive Issues
And of course a lot of poems—things that the authors meant as poetry—are rewarding in these ways, too. That’s why it’s a pleasure to read them. They ask us to be attentive and thoughtful, and when we oblige we get something great out of the experience. In fact, a poem, if it’s really a poem, is inherently a pleasure. A poem is a risk that turns out well, an attentive labor (by the writer and then by the reader) that leads to bounty.
As writers we might keep this in mind ourselves when we hunker down to write a poem. For this National Poetry Month and beyond, let’s make every little thing matter. It’s okay for our work to be demanding—really that’s part of what makes it poetry. But our job is to make sure that meeting those demands is worth a reader’s time. If not, well, it doesn’t matter how many lines we broke, or semi-colons we dropped in, or rhymes we slanted; we’ve written something, but we haven’t written a poem.
David Ebenbach is the author of eight books of fiction, poetry, and nonfiction, including, most recently, the novel How to Mars (Tachyon Publications, 2021) and the poetry collection Some Unimaginable Animal (Orison Books, 2019). He teaches at Georgetown University. Visit him at www.davidebenbach.com. (updated 6/2021)
Ebenbach founded the AGNI blog in 2015 and edited it until 2019.