What makes a poem?

You may have seen Henkki’s question in response to “Yesterday” – he asked me what would be different about the poem if I had written it today. My answer was that it would probably be in free verse. I spoke of the risks of rhythmic, rhyming poems sounding trite or laboured, but on reflection, that puts the focus on the wrong reasons why I prefer free verse now. The key thing for me is that free verse uses language like the brushstrokes of a painting, juxtaposing form and colour to build up an image that moves us.

But some people have difficulty recognising the craft of the strokes or the colours of the canvas. They are not used to poetry or have had negative experiences of it (in school, for example, which is ironically the place where our love of knowledge and appreciation of thought is supposed to be fostered). So they see free verse as anything but “poetry”. For them a prototypical poem must have a rigid rhyme and rhythm – in their view these elements are what make a good poem because they are recognisable elements of craftmanship, but the language disappears from view. So a poem in free verse doesn’t even qualify – and a poet who uses it is just a wannabe.

Poetry, much more than prose, needs to pick up people where they are for them to feel spoken to. The compact, narrowly focused nature of a poem means that we do not offer a broad range of access points for the spectrum of potential readers. So in a school context, to teach someone the playfulness of poetry and heighten their sensitivity for the access points, we need to choose poetry that picks up the pupils where they are, packages it in a medium they can relate to, and even gives them chances to try it out for themselves.

The text of the poem is the texture of its meaning – much more intensely so than prose. So we need to call to mind what using the language entails to our message. This includes its sound, its meaning, its relation to other parts of language, but it also includes our own knowledge, our sensitivities, our culturally conditioned sense of the aesthetic, and our expectations arising from all of this.

As I said in an earlier post, when we respond to words, we are also responding to their sound, and this plays a significant role in poetry. The sounds of the words have a certain tonal quality and length that give the speech a particular stress pattern to create a rhythm or beat. This in turn influences the pace or speed of the text. The sounds combined with their meanings conjure up certain images and emotions and evoke a tone or volume. And this all combines to create a certain cadence, which we “hear”.  Can you hear how this poem stumbles and then attempts to flow, echoing the speaker’s state of mind? Can you hear how the images are linked through alliteration?


Scattering the shards of
shattered self
to pull the pieces into place
Interludes strung in a
Courtship with callousness
Ineffectual effort
to crowd out
Leaving hope


What is striking about poetry is its form. Some think of free verse as having no particular form, but this is a mistake. Free verse relies much more on this feature to produce an effect, and uses line breaks to frame and focus on ideas or images, as you can see above. Compare the above to a prose version:

 Broken. Jumbled. Scattering the shards of shattered self. Stumbling. Powerless to pull the pieces into place. Interludes strung in a courtship with callousness. Ineffectual effort to crowd out solitude, leaving hope jumbled and broken.

Firstly , in a genuine prose version, who is meant would be more clearly stated and we would be unlikely to be as sparing with the words. As a matter of fact, I like this version, too, since it hasn’t fully conceded to being prose. It still has a poetic quality due to the strong imagery and the literary “sound effects”, but the counterpoint of stopping and starting is obscured. The visual strategy of the line breaks has been removed, and the need for the prose text to express the boundaries of imagery through punctuation, for example, causes a different effect. The line breaks of a poem force a focus and allow us to dispense with punctuation or bend the boarders of a clause or phrase, thus introducing the opportunity to make images merge into each other. You could also dispense with these elements in a prose text, of course, but this would require the reader to engage in a lot more processing for understanding and throws a dense block of undifferentiated text at him.

So to come back to Henkki’s question, I would probably choose free verse today because I savour the sound of the words as they are placed in juxtaposition to each other and I enjoy the opportunity to create an effect and subvert expectation by breaking the “rules”. My poems are my paintings of windows on our lives.

© Cate Kimberley and Word and Affect, 2012.


5 thoughts on “What makes a poem?

  1. Sure I read this, Cate. All true. But there’s also the context of time. Times and fashions change, and sure it is much more fashionable to use free verse today, liberate oneself from the strict bounds of verse and rhyme. I have made the experience that rhymed poetry in verse is being looked down upon by those “in the know”. By those who think they have outgrown that state. But it is not to be frowned upon if done well, with measure and purpose, not imitating the old masters, but of its own originality. And it can actually be much much harder than free verse, especially on the background of todays reading habits.
    I guess there are also two groups of people (at least). Those who usually don’t read poetry, for whom a poem is just rhyme and verse, who think it should be like the homegrown stuff in friendship books and on wedding cards, and on the other hand the people who do read poetry, who immerse themselves and should be able to disciminate between the mere form and the content, the sounds, the textures that make a poem a good one. Having said that: who’s to say those on the wedding cards aren’t good ones? I shouldn’t judge. I do, but my judgement is valid just for me. I like both, free and bound verse, rhyme and other ways of playing with the sound of words. I just take the freedom not to like everything that claims to be a poem ;o)
    Hyvää yötä!


    1. Thanks for taking the time to reply, Henkki! Yes, there are so many factors that play a role in determining what an individual considers to be good or relevant or what he sees or understands. Not least of which are the period he lives in and what is happening in his life. Thanks for reading and thanks for letting me know that I am not just talking pointlessly into the ether!


      1. Well the ether…
        I have a lot of thoughs about that subject that mostly unfortunately lead to one conclusion: stop publishing. The only valid reason for any creative act can be the pleasure of doing it – or the strong urge to express something. Whether it is seen or not, whether we get any feedback? Shouldn’t matter. I say shouldn’t, fully aware that it does. Painfully aware of the influence that need can have on what we do. This might seem unrelated to the original question, but it is. The feedback-loop shapes what we do and how we do it. It even forms our perception of what is good and what is not. And suddenly we create to please, write and publish to be seen, every syllable crying out to the world: “see me, need me, love me!”
        I hate being needy.


  2. Well, since we have chosen to publish, we have chosen to communicate, and no one who chooses to communicate feels comfortable if there is no reaction at all. I have kept most of my writing to myself until now. And my choice to publish now means a choice to communicate and to accept the risks that entails. True, there is a feedback loop, but that does not mean surrender – feedback can allow ideas to blossom and grow. I like to call that “bouncing ideas off each other”. Your question planted a seed, and that grew into a piece of writing, for which I was grateful. Besides, humans are social creatures – wanting to communicate doesn’t automatically mean we are needy or require adulation. Nor is saying thank you an expression of neediness, but another form of light acknowledgement of the interlocuter’s welcome and valued presence.


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