|August/September 2008: What is a Poem?
At first, this might seem like a simple question. Let’s take a poem like Robert Herrick’s “Upon Julia’
s Clothes,” written not too long after the time that Shakespeare was writing.
Upon Julia’s Clothes
Whenas in silks my Julia goes,
then, then, methinks,
how sweetly flows
that liquefaction of her clothes.
Next, when I cast
mine eyes and see
that brave vibration each way free;
O how that glittering taketh me!
I think we can all agree that this is a poem, but what makes it a poem? Well, to begin with you
might point out that the endings rhyme. If you read it out loud a few times, you might notice that it has
four regular beats per line. This regular pattern of beats (or meter) and the end rhymes give the
poem a musicality that contributes to the fluid feeling of the poem, a fluidity somewhat akin to the
liquefaction of Julia’s clothes. If you probe even deeper, you might point out that the poem is a more
intense, image rich form of talking than the standard, “Gosh, you look nice tonight Honey.” So a
poem has rhyme, meter, and intensity.
But what about this poem, a little haiku, written by Shiki in the late 1800’s:
By that fallen house
the pear-tree stands full-blooming
…an ancient battle-site
The rhyme is gone. The regular meter is gone. It has some nice images but they aren’t
developed very much and they’re sort of choppy. So why do we call this a poem?
The difference between poetry and most prose is that poetry deepens in meaning as you think
about it. Good poetry brings as much enjoyment in the hours or days after you read it as it does
while you are reading it.
So as you think about our little haiku, how does it deepen in meaning? Let’s look at each line
individually, starting with the middle line:
the pear-tree stands full-blooming . . .
OK, we’ve got a beautiful pear-tree in full-bloom. This pear-tree represents nature, so we’ve got
nature in her glory. Pear-trees bloom in spring, so we have the whole rebirth thing happening as
well. What about the works of man? Let’s look at that first line:
By that fallen house
Uh oh, doesn’t look good for the home team. The only thing man created, a house, is fallen. Just
like every work of man is ultimately destined to crumble. Now let’s look at the last line:
an ancient battle-site
We don’t know what the battle was about, much less who won or lost. The field may be littered
with buried corpses for all we know, but what has survived? Nature, as represented by the glorious
pear-tree in the spring of rebirth. In fourteen words this poem addresses the transience of man’s
accomplishments, the futility of war, and the triumph of nature.
Or how about this poem about old age and death by Robert Creeley from his book Just in Time
(New Directions Publishing).
There’s a way out
of here but it
hurts at the edges
where there’s no time left
to be one if
you were and friends
gone, days seemingly
over. No one.
So the thing that differentiates a poem from prose isn’t rhyme or meter or even imagery. It’s more
the way it leaves you thinking after you’re done reading. Can the lyrics to songs be poems?
Absolutely! Can a work of prose such as a novel contain portions of the text that are poems, or at
least, poetic? Sure! Could a portion of dialog from a play or movie be a poem? Definitely! We have
poetry all around us, if we just look and notice. Let me end with a little poem called “The Haw
Lantern” by Seamus Heaney from his book Opened Ground (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, LLC.).
The riverbed, dried-up,
half-full of leaves.
Us, listening to a river in the trees.