What is a Poem? by Violet Nesdoly

In my last blog post I asked and tried to answer this question: “What is poetry?” Even as I was coming to my conclusion, I realized I would need to answer another question before we went on to other things poetic: “What is a poem?”.

You probably left the last piece thinking, “Well, all I have to do is go about pulling out intense, condensed bits of colourful writing from my journals to gain a collection of poems. The truth is, recognizing fine writing is only our first step in creating actual poems.”

The word poem comes from the Greek word poiema. It means something that is made, a product or design produced by an artisan. It’s a word that even appears in the Bible where it refers to people who have been made new in Christ. Paul says, “For we are His workmanship (poiema) created in Christ Jesus for good works” (Ephesians 2:10 NKJV).

Edward Hirsch says, “The word [poem] became English in the sixteenth century and it has been with us ever since to designate a form of fabrication, a type of composition, a made thing.” (How to Read a Poem, pp. 31-32)

John Drury’s The Poetry Dictionary adds more meat: “Poem . . . A text or verbal composition often written in lines, whose language is compressed and resonant and which conveys an experience, an emotion, or simply an aesthetically pleasing arrangement of words.” (p. 215)

So, that paragraph of poetic writing from our journal may need a little to a lot of workmanship before we are satisfied with it as a poem. Here’s where we need to drag out our poetry toolkit of hammers and chisels, drill bits and screwdrivers, plaster and sandpaper. Well, that’s not exactly what the poet’s toolkit consists of, but we do have tools with which to go to work on our constructions. Here are some of them, any of which we may use at any stage in our crafting. These lists contain examples only. They’re not complete.

Idea or concept – Ideas can range from the humour of homonym wordplay to a lyric poem about love.

Form – haiku, limerick, sonnet, villanelle, pantoum, etc. There is a multitude of forms.

Rhythm – Depending on the form, a repeating rhythm may or may not be necessary. Regular poetry rhythms are expressed in feet (e.g. iamb, trochee, dactyl, etc.) with the numbers of feet required for each line (e.g. iambic pentameter = ten iambic feet in a line, common for a sonnet).

Image – metaphor, simile, personification, allusion

Sound – rhyme (perfect or imperfect), assonance, consonance, repetition, alliteration, onomatopoeia

Space – line lengths and divisions, enjambment, more than the usual one space between words to substitute for punctuation, words run together as in e.e. cummings’ poems

Sight – use of capital letters, punctuation or its absence, poems constructed in shapes to augment meaning (concrete poetry)

(For definitions of the above, consult Glossary Terms from The Poetry Foundation.)

So many tools! So many choices! But the goal of poets everywhere is the same: to construct aesthetically pleasing, memorable poems that connect with readers.

C. S. Lewis has left us with a good test for any poem: “The only two questions to ask about a poem, in the long run are, firstly, whether it is interesting, enjoyable, attractive, and secondly, whether its enjoyment wears well . . .” (quoted by Luci Shaw in Breath for the Bones, Kindle Location 2432)

In addition to the answers above, here are a few more definitions to ignite our imaginations when we ask, “What is a poem?”.

“A small or large machine made of words.” (Williams Carlos Williams, The Poetry Dictionary, p. 215)

“. . . the device through which the ordinary world is seen in a new way—engaging, compelling, even beautiful.” (Ted Kooser, The Poetry Home Repair Manual, p. 8)

“The poem is wordplay.” (Luci Shaw, Breath for the Bones, KL 2503)

Violet Nesdoly (small)Violet Nesdoly is a freelance writer and poet who lives near Vancouver, B.C. Her poems have been published by Utmost Christian Writers, Time of Singing, Your Daily Poem, Prairie Messenger, and others.





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