What’s in a poem?

Ask anyone to define poetry and they will struggle to give a concise definition. We probably think we can recognise the look or the sound of a poem, but what exactly is a poem? How is it different to prose? Are there any rules? If there are, should there be?

A consideration of these questions can be useful to would-be poets and even to very experienced poets who can always benefit from re-evaluating how they write poetry.

It is helpful to think of these questions in terms of art first – because some of the issues and debates that come out of understanding how we describe ‘art’ apply equally as well to poetry.

If you ask people to describe art, you will get a wide range of answers, but most people will tell you what they don’t like and what they do like, or more specifically, what they would buy and hang on their own walls. That might, however, be the one factor that separates art from poetry. The fact that it has, over the centuries, been increasingly associated with value and wealth, has tended to affect judgements about what constitutes ‘good’ art. Some artworks carry price tags of millions, but does that mean it is ‘good’? How do you define ‘good art’? Taste and monetary value can often become confused. Not so in the case of poetry, of course. Poetry is the poor relation to prose as photography has often been thought of in relation to art. It is difficult to make a living from poetry alone and no poem, as a singular artefact, has ever been valued in the thousands let alone the millions.

As we consider these points about ‘art’ we may be thinking of framed 2D pictures but art can be separated into several distinct categories – fine art, illustration, graphic design, ceramics, textiles, photography, culture and digital art which then sit within the broader art categories of music, dance, theatre, literature, cinema and architecture. It is fairly easy to recognise the broader categories and even to define them; similarly, we can almost certainly define the differences between, say ceramics and textiles. So why is it so difficult to define poetry and why are there so many ‘debates’ about what constitutes poetry?

Within the category of ‘literature’ – it seems to be widely agreed that there are five broad forms:  Fiction, Nonfiction, Drama, Poetry and Folktales. These can then be sub-divided into more types and also into genres (such as thrillers, sci-fi, horror, romance, historical etc).

Why do we have these labels? What function do they fulfill? There are at least two immediate answers to that. The first is that humans have, since classical times, categorised and classified everything in the world as a means of identifying and understanding it. The second answer is the commercial one. It is much easier for advertising and marketing companies to target specific products to people who have demonstrated an interest in those specific products – think of Mills and Boon and the romance novel. So placing literature into forms and genres makes profitable sense. Authors write within genre so that they can produce works that are familiar to a ready-made audience, who will buy those works because they contain the features they really like.

All of this makes complete sense when we think of prose (fiction and non-fiction). But poetry doesn’t tend to fall into marketeable genres in quite the same way so, in book stores, all the poetry tends to be grouped together in one section, despite the fact that it could be classified as: Epic, Ballad, Elegy, Epigram, Limerick, Haiku, Ode, Sonnet, Satire or Villanelle – or even, more simply, Epic, Lyric and Dramatic with Comedy and Tragedy as sub-genres of Dramatic.

So, if the mainstream publishers and retailers don’t see the finer distinctions between different genres of poetry, as they do with prose, it is not surprising that they are reticent about publishing poetry at all – unless it is written by very well-established writers (who often have a reputation in other types of writing too) or it is classical poetry that has achieved elite status and longevity. However, none these facts seem to be off-putting to the thousands of enthusiastic and ambitious poets who turn instead, to independent publishing houses and, increasingly to self-publishing (especially on Amazon), which used to be known by its less savoury title of vanity publishing.

Amazon was not slow to recognise the profit potential (for them) in this new approach to publishing but another phenomena that occurred at the turn of the twentieth century, changed the face of poetry and could, potentially, have led to a crisis in its identity.

If there were traditional forms and structures for poems up to the end of the nineteenth century (and it is generally agreed that there were), the twentieth century saw a rejection of those traditional forms and structures for poetry, marked by a questioning of the purpose and meaning of poetry and of distinctions between poetry and prose, particularly given examples of poetic prose and prosaic poetry. Modernism had arrived and poets freed themselves from the tyranny of tradition (e.g. forcing a line to end with a specific word, just to achieve the rhyme but compromising meaning in the process). Rhyming verse gave way first to free verse and then to blank verse. Form became more flexible and less structured.

Forty years or so later, modernist poetry was replaced by post-modern poetry, which often included themes of restlessness, written in a very free format. Line breaks and structures could be erratic or seemingly meaningless to indicate the shapelessness of the world. The very form of this poetry served to reinforce the idea that forms are meaningless and that purpose cannot be imposed upon the work.

In this climate we could be forgiven for thinking that this new approach to writing poetry opened the floodgates to an ‘anything goes’ approach. Anyone, anywhere can be a poet. Poetry is no longer the preserve of the traditional and classical poets. There are no rules any more. Anyone can write a poem, simply by placing a series of lines on a page.

Here’s an interesting exercise to test this theory. Consider the ‘poem’ below:

I must not fear
fear is the mind-killer
fear is the little-death
that brings total obliteration
I will face my fear
I will permit it to pass
over me and through me
and when it has gone past
I will turn the inner eye
to see its path
where the fear has gone
there will be nothing
only I will remain

It looks like a poem. If sounds like a poem. But, is it?

The immediate and short answer is no, because it was taken from Frank Herbert’s novel, Dune. It is a piece of prose that was made to look like a poem by simply splitting it across lines of even length. Capitalisations and punctuation were removed in the interests of the exercise. So why is it not a poem even though it looks and sounds like one?

The longer answer can be that it isn’t a poem because it doesn’t present any of the characteristics that are still considered to be necessary to the form, despite its evolution. It is interesting to analyse the lines by referencing the key difference between prose and poetry:

Prose is about sentences, paragraphs and chapters. Poetry is about individual words.

In prose, meaning is derived from the structure, order and content of sentences and paragraphs. In poetry, every single word matters. If a word is superfluous to meaning it can be removed. After that, the length, ordering and ending of lines (and possibly stanzas) is vital.

So if prose is about sentences and paragraphs and poetry is about individual words, all we need to do is remove any words from the above example, that could be construed as superfluous, and we really do have a poem. Or do we?

The answer to that can take into account re-evaluations of the work of modernist and post-modernist poets, which have concentrated less on the thrill of its rebellious qualities, and more on its form and structure. Such studies have acknowledged that in order to subvert long-accepted features of form and genre, the modernists and postmodernists poets had to understand them really well and in the revisions they made, they actually drew attention to those rules and traditions in many cases. What had been mistaken for rebellion for its own sake was now recognised as a new form of poetry that experimented and played, knowingly, and often reverently, with established rules. Many examples of the modernist poetry of the 1930s through 50s, in the western world, for example, reveals that it was infused with poetic diction, rhythm and tone even though that might have been established through non-metrical means.

It is worth bearing in mind that significant challenges were also made to the form and structure of the novel at the turn of the nineteenth century (as indeed they were to every type of art and culture). Stream-of-consciousness writing was pioneered by James Joyce and Virginia Woolf, for example, but none of these or any other revisions to the narrative structure of the novel, changed it beyond all recognition. The individual elements of the novel have been experimented with but the novel is still recognised.

And so it is with poetry. It can be written in verse or non-verse, in rhyme, free or blank verse but it is not prose. It has not become dissipated or subsumed into that or any other literary forms. It still has its own distinct characteristics that have endured despite all of the experimentation with it. Its long history (four thousand years) is evidence enough of that.

So, is there a way of distinguishing ‘pseudo’ poetry from the real thing? Is it wrong to frame a question about poetry that way? Should we accept that anything that is presented as a poem is a poem? How can anyone write a poem if there are no rules and no defining features? There are no absolute answers to these questions but they would make for interesting debates within writers’ groups, book clubs and even literature and creative writing classes.

What might be helpful to the novice poet (who might be wrestling with how to write a poem in a climate of ‘anything goes’) would be to return to the explanation of the way that poetry can be differentiated from prose:

Prose is about sentences, paragraphs and chapters. Poetry is about individual words.

So the starting point might be to consider the words and the arrangement of those words in lines; to think about the length of the lines and, in particular, to consider where a line should end; should a sentence be carried over to the next line (enjambement)? Should it be punctuated (and in what way)? Does it need to be capitalised at the beginning of the line? Are the lines going to rhyme? If so, in what structure? Will there be any verses? Will the verses have a pattern? If these elements are paid attention to, in a way that will be obvious to the reader, then a poem is in the making. None of these points were taken in to consideration when turning the Dune extract into a series of lines.

Another aspect of poetry, that has remained constant, is the way in which it is meant to evoke an image or series of images for the reader and an emotion or range of emotions. This is achieved through the use of very specific aspects of poetic language and when literary critics, or students of poetry, analyse it, they tend to look for these types of poetic language:

  • Aesthetic Qualities, such as Phonaesthetics and Sound Symbolism
  • Literary Devices, such as Assonance, Alliteration and Onomatopoeia
  • Stylistic Elements of Poetic Diction, such as Ambiguity and Irony
  • Figures of Speech, such as Metaphor, Simile, and Metonymy, which create Resonance between otherwise Disparate Images

Regardless of how few or many of these literary devices are employed, poetry should have, ideally, rhythm, meter and intonation – known collectively as prosody. Rhythm and meter are different, although closely related. Meter is the definitive pattern established for a verse (such as  the famous iambic pentameter which is created through a pattern of stressed and unstressed syllables – feet – across a set number of lines), while rhythm is the actual sound that results from a line of poetry – the timing that is set through the use of accents, syllables and intonation. Put very simply, we could say that:

Rhythm (tempo and pace) is the flow of sound while meter (the measured beat established by patterns of stressed and unstressed syllables) is the pattern in the sounds.

Poets who write in free verse often either de-emphasise or ignore meter and focus instead on refining and tuning their natural speech rhythms to suit the poem’s tone and content. Ezra Pound suggested that they ‘compose in the sequence of the musical phrase, not in the sequence of the metronome.’ However, even free verse needs to understand basic metric principles and it can be detected when these are not in evidence because certain lines will not ‘feel or sound right.’ Scanning a line to identify and fix the problem might involve replacing a one syllable word with a two syllable word, for example. Metric awareness is particularly important when writing in the blank verse form. The absence of any rhyming pattern at all could result in a series of random and incoherent lines that require rhythm and metre to compensate. If not, they will end up looking and sounding like the random sequence of lines in the extract from Dune above.

Another point to consider in the question of what defines a poem, is highlighted by what happens when someone reads their poem aloud. The poem might not be particularly well written, with many of the above characteristics absent, but the writer might, sub-consciously, compensate for that by the way they read it. Significant (or even dramatic) pauses, and undulations in volume and tone at various points, can mask some of the weaknesses in the poem. It is even possible to suggest a different line structure, simply by the way the poem is read. In other words, the writer might read the poem they wanted to write, but didn’t achieve because they didn’t pay attention to the elements that need to be in place. Getting another person to read the poem back to the writer will potentially flag up any issues. The objective ‘other person’ will scan it as they read it, pause where it has been correctly punctuated, and articulate rhythm and meter where they can.

So, although there is not a list of official rules for poetry and there is no organisation policing the production of ‘proper’ poetry, there are some recognised, distinct and defining elements of poetry that distinguish it from other literary forms. This principle can be as useful to the novice poet as it can be to the seasoned poet or even judges and publishers.

Comments and feedback about the ideas presented here are welcomed so that we can continue this discussion about what makes a poem and poem – and in so doing – keep poetry well and truly alive.

By A Boomer's Blog

I am a boomer, writer, veteran, mother and some other stuff. There are a lot of us boomers out here and I think we have a lot to say, now that we're all into our sixties. If not wisdom, then opinion will do just fine. I'll do my best to be relevant. Hope you like it.

2 replies on “What’s in a poem?”

Very interesting and thought provoking. While I appreciate the remarkable simplicity of the distinction “Prose is about sentences, paragraphs and chapters. Poetry is about individual words”, couldn’t it be also said that poetry is about lines, stanzas and sounds (flow of sound or pattern of sounds)? It seems to me that these are as important to a poem as sentences and paragraphs are to prose. Using a metaphor to approach the difference between prose and poetry that we human beings generally can perceive intuitively but find hard to explain, the French poet Paul Valéry said that prose was walking, poetry dancing:-)


I agree with you Anne-Marie – and the article does say that lines and stanzas are important too. I like the idea that poetry could be thought of as dancing but I don’t think that ‘walking’ works for prose (personally) – I prefer prose as dancing and poetry as singing. Thank you for reading the blog and please do continue to comment – that was the idea behind writing it – that we could have an extended discussion about poetry that we don’t always have time for in group meetings 🙂


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