When I offered to ask students what a poem is, i would get answers like “a paint in words,” or “a medium for self-expression,” or “a tune that rhymes and displays beauty.” nobody of these answers ever before really solve me, or them, and so because that a if I stopped asking the question.

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Then one time, I requested that mine students lug in to class something that had actually a personal meaning to them. Through their objects on their desks, I gave them 3 prompts: first, to create a paragraph around why they carried in the item; second, to write a paragraph describing the article empirically, together a scientist might; and third, to write a paragraph in the first person native the suggest of see of the item. The first two were warm-ups. Over the third paragraph i told lock to create “Poem.”

Here is what one college student wrote:


I could look weird or terrifying, but really i’m a an equipment that helps civilization breathe. Under normal scenarios nobody requirements me. Ns mean, ns only supplied for emergencies and also even then only for a limited time. If she lucky, you’ll never have to use me. Then again, I have the right to see some future time once everybody will have actually to carry me around.

The item he had carried to class? A gas mask. The allude of this practice wasn’t just to highlight the malleability the language or the playfulness the writing, but to present the idea the a poem is a strange thing that operates together nothing else in the human being does.

I suppose most of us have actually known poems space strange ever due to the fact that we were infants being put to bed v lullabies like “Rock-A-Bye Baby,” or were kids being teach prayers that begin “Our Father, that art in heaven …” The questions soon arose: What idiot put that cradle in a tree? and what’s art got to do with mine Daddy-God? however this kind of strangeness we got used to. And later, at some allude in school, us asked or were made come ask again: What is a poem?

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For example, in high school, my English teacher handed me Matthew Arnold’s “Dover Beach” and also said I had to compose an essay around what the meant. Ns couldn’t do heads or tails out of the assignment, and the poem became the thing of my hatred. The poem seemed willfully not to make sense. I soon found every city to it is in an irritation, a blotch the words, a ludicrous puzzle that obtained in the method of true understanding and true feeling.

Unless you room a poet or a writer, it’s most likely that poems have actually apprehended girlfriend less and also less as the years have passed. Occasionally, in a magazine or virtual you see one—with the ragged ideal edge and arbitrary-looking line breaks—and that announces itself by what that is not: prose that runs repetitively from the left to the right margins that the page. A poem virtually dares you not simply to look however to read: I am different. Ns am special. Ns am other. Ignore me at her peril.

And for this reason you read it and also too often end up being disappointed by its blandness, exactly how it deserve to be paraphrased with straightforward moral, such as “this as well shall pass” or “getting old sucks”—how essentially it’s no various in content than most of the prose approximately it. Or, you become disappointed since the poem baffles early comprehension. It’s inaccessible in its broke up syntax and grammar, or obscure in its allusions. Nevertheless, friend pat yourself on the back just because that the trying.

How numerous of us think poetry is useless? How plenty of of united state don’t even treatment to ask the question, “Is city useless?”

Comparatively, a poem moves a reader, physical or emotionally, very rarely. Various other media are much better at bringing us to tears—television, the movies. And also if we desire the news, we read an write-up online or glean our Twitter feed. If we desire something in between tears and the news, we just stare in ~ our children when lock ask a concern that sounds an ext like a statement: “Why perform grown-ups drink so lot beer?”

But seriously, isn’t a city a residence for deep feelings, stunning images, beautiful lyricism, soft reflections, and/or biting wit? I intend so. But, again, various other arts or technologies seem far better at those jobs—novels offer us actual or imaginary people to explore or escape to, tweets sell us touching epigrams, painting and design market us eye candy, and music—well, face it, poetry has actually never been able to complete with that sublime combo of lyrics, instruments, and melody.

A poem helps the mind play v its well-trod trends of thought, and also can even aid reroute those fads by making us see the familiar anew.

There is at least one kind of utility that a poem deserve to embody: ambiguity. Ambiguity is not what school or society wants come instill. You don’t want an pass out answer regarding which next of the roadway you must drive on, or whether or no pilots should put under the flaps before take-off. That said, day-to-day living—unlike sentence-to-sentence reading—is filled through ambiguity: go she love me enough to marry? must I fuck him one more time before I intake him?

But such monitorings still don’t tell us much about what a poem really is. Try crowd-sourcing because that an answer. If you find Wikipedia because that “poem,” it redirects to “poetry”: “a form of literary art which offers aesthetic and rhythmic features of language—such together phonoaesthetics, sound symbolism, etc.” fine English-professor speak, yet it belies the beginnings of the word. “Poem” originates from the Greek poíēma, meaning a “thing made,” and also a poet is defined in ancient terms as “a maker of things.” for this reason if a poem is a point made, what kind of point is it?

I’ve heard other poets specify poems in necessary terms: wild animals—natural, untamable, unpredictable, raw. Yet the an allegory quickly falls apart. Such pets live on your own, utterly unconcerned with the names human beings put ~ above them. In not natural terms, the poet william Carlos Williams dubbed poems “little machines,” together he cure them as mechanical, human-engineered, and also precise. However here too, the metaphor breaks down. A worn-out component on an auto can it is in switched out with a almost identical part and run as that did before. In a poem, a word exchanged for another word (even a close synonym) can alter the whole functioning the the poem.

The most abundant thing about trying to specify a poem v comparison—to an animal, a machine, or every little thing else—is not in the compare itself yet in the suggesting over it. Whether or no you check out a city as a an equipment or a wild animal, it can change the machine or wild pet of your mind. A poem helps the mental play v its well-trod trends of thought, and can even assist reroute those fads by making united state see the acquainted anew.

An example: the sun. It deserve to be dictionary-defined together “that luminous celestial body approximately which the earth and other planets revolve.” but it can additionally be explained as a 4-year-old intuits while staring the end the car home window on a long winter’s drive: “Mom, isn’t the sun simply a type of room heater?” an additional example: honey. According to the dictionary, that “a sweet, difficult yellowish-brown fluid made by bees native the nectar they collect from flowers.” follow to mother everywhere, it’s “bee spit that can kill one infant.”

Like no various other book, a book of poems presents itself not as a thing for the marketplace however as a point for its own sake.

The city as psychological object is no difficult reach, especially if we think about the level to i m sorry pop-song lyrics can literally obtain stuck, as the neuroscientists call us, in the type of “earworms” in the synapses of the brain. The intermingling of words and melody has actually a historied potential going back to schoolyard rhymes that contact attention to metalanguage: “Sticks and stones may break mine bones, yet words can never hurt me.” the line itself deserve to hurt, paradoxically, together it probably invokes the storage of being dubbed hideous names, even if it is personalized (Yakich jock-itch) or generalized (camel-jockey).

But when are words many like sticks and stones?

Consider a city lurking in the pages that The brand-new Yorker. Over there it is staring girlfriend in the face: do you review it and it reads you? In terms of ink ~ above paper, the does nothing an ext than the prose around it, however in terms of apprehension, that draws in her eye and also places the city in a rarefied position and a completely ignorable one every at once. Oh, look, it’s a precious tiny chit that words! What a garbage of my time!

But there’s likewise all the white room surrounding it. Just how much did the cost? The magazine provided up valuable an are to publish the poem instead of to press a longer write-up or one advertisement. Nobody to buy the copy of The new Yorker because that the poem, other than perhaps because that the poet who wrote it. A city is a text—a product of writing and rewriting—but uneven articles, stories, or novels, it never ever really i do not care a point made in bespeak to end up being a commodity.

Readers have a certain amount of “freedom” in navigating the poem. The caveat is that flexibility often requires much more work, much more self-motivation, and a particular degree that confusion.

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A new novel, a memoir, or also a short-story collection has actually the potential for earning large bucks. That course, this potential is regularly not realized, yet a new book the poems that yields its author an ext than a thousand-dollar breakthrough is exceedingly rare. Publicists at publishing houses, even the biggest ones, dutifully write push releases and send the end review duplicates of poetry collections, however none will certainly tell you that they suppose a collection to offer enough copies to break also with the prices of to press it. Prefer no other book, a book of poems gift itself not as a point for the marketplace but as a point for its own sake.

The summary of such “sake-ness” are poems that placed their “made-ness” right in her face. Variously referred to as visual poems, concrete poems, shape poems, or calligrammes, George Herbert’s “Easter Wings” is a canonical instance from the 17th century: