(This post was published this past April by Beyond The Margins)
It’s national poetry month, and the dogs are intoxicated. These two things are not totally unrelated, or at least not in my universe. After a too-long winter, April means I finally get to write my poetry out on the front stoop while my dogs get to hurtle and root and plow their noses into the softening earth. It’s a trade-off: I let them dig, they let me write. If we’re lucky, I’ll end up with a serviceable poem; they’ll wind up with dirty snouts and a mouthful of grubs.
It’s a win-win situation.
As both a novelist and a poet, and most recently a prose poet, I think a lot about what defines poetry and what distinguishes it from its first-cousin prose. In some sense, it matters to me very little: more and more, I find myself writing without intention – without any definable form in mind. But I also recognize that I seem to know poetry when I write it, and when I hear it, no matter how innovative or well-disguised; and I wonder at just what it is I am responding to, because poetry communicates on so many different levels that it’s often hard to unpack just what and why a poem is. So in honor of National Poetry Month, and because I need to figure some things out for myself, I’m presenting here just a few of my own impromptu thoughts on what makes a poem a poem…
The answer that occurs to me first and foremost is music. For me, writing and reading poetry is a thoroughly musical experience. Sentences and phrases announce themselves in cadence, phrasing and meter; words arrive as much for their mouth-feel as for their meanings. When I write poetry, I’m completely tuned in to the sounds and the textures of language. My internal ear determines where specifically it wants some beats emphasized over others, or when it requires a pause rather than a full stop, or whether it is more suited to a meandering or more rapid-fire pace. I need to hear the sounds in my head in order to write them, and in hearing them I hear their own particular music. It needn’t be beautiful or even appealing, but it is there. Every sentence or phrase is its own composition. Every word that fits into that composition must bring to it so many things: rhythm and repetition and rhyme (or slant rhyme), its own specific constellation of beats and stops and syllables.
Another defining ingredient is metaphor. Poetry is first and foremost about making connections, and these can work in ways both small and large within a poem. I think it’s just the way the poet’s mind works: seeking to clarify things – to pin them down precisely – by finding the perfect analogy. To both the reader and writer these connections surprise and delight, offering a kind of deep resonance that feels both more simple and more elegant than any lengthy explanation could possibly provide. This is one of the things I love most about poetry: the way it reduces and enlarges at the same time, reaches and flies and leaps, pulling disparate things together in ways that make a kind of perfect and exquisite sense.
Distillation is also key. Writing poetry is a process of natural selection – of identifying only what is absolutely essential and letting go of everything else. While poetic forms and styles vary dramatically, I’d venture to say that every successful poem does a heroic job of identifying itself as much by what it leaves out as what it includes. In poetry there is never the imperative to tell the full story – only to create something exalted out of details and sounds and rhythms and well-chosen breaks, the building blocks that send a poem soaring.
The last item on my short-list would have to include discovery. I often find when writing poetry that I uncover things I’ve been thinking or feeling or muddling without even being aware of it. When I begin a poem, I rarely have anything more than the first few words in my head. By some ineffable magic, those first words lead me tripping down this ladder of other words until I find myself at the bottom of the poem — the very last line like an answer to a question I hadn’t even known I was asking. I never fully understand why I have to write a particular poem until I finish it. Only then does it expose itself — an image revealed by the final puzzle piece. So I think for me the process is about discovery, and self-awareness – about processing the world so that it makes some kind of cosmic sense. This is also also my experience of reading poetry: before it can be fully comprehensible – and fully evocative — a poem must be experienced as its own whole thing. Its beauty lies in its gestalt – the fact that it is its own best description of itself.
These are just my own musings on my own experience of poetry – both written and read. I’d love to hear how others experience it — what makes a poem a poem — and where you see the line falling between poetry and prose. Certainly the membrane is fluid and porous: all of these qualities figure themselves into other forms of writing, although I would argue that they are not definitive in quite the same way. A successful novel can be written with or without musicality – or even metaphor – but a poem that doesn’t sing and dance, that doesn’t make compelling demands of those precious words it chooses to bring in, that doesn’t discover itself in its wholeness, is not a poem, not in my universe.
I’d like to think that my dogs might agree, if only they’d pull their noses out of the dirt.