Literary Hook: Defining poetry: Concepts to consider

Sometimes, an aspiring writer asks for guidance in writing modern poetry.

Modern poetry does not depend on the same set of “rules” that older, rhymed poetry did. Sometimes rhyming can enhance a poem. However, in today’s post-modern environment, we are already bombarded by rhymes.

Turn on nearly any radio channel, except for NPR, and it’s one rhymed lyric after another. Poetry occupies a different place in society than it did when wandering troubadours told rhymed stories by the campfire.

Poetry still does tell a “little story,” but it has more latitude for creativity. Sometimes, people think if it doesn’t rhyme, well, then it can’t be poetry. Well, yes, it can be poetry.

Here is some insight gleaned from three decades of poetry workshops, conferences, readings, writing and teaching.

What makes a poem different than prose, pure memoir or journal entry? Here are some concepts to consider:

suspended time that conforms only to the poem’s logic (not necessarily chronological)

blending of inner and outer events (reality/dreams/speculation)

sculpting of space (stanza breaks, white space, avoidance of perfect paragraphs)

potency and essence

not based on beginning, middle and end

the possibility of magical realism

metaphorical, resonating potent language

psychological resonance (Is it worth a poem? Can others bring their own, even different, experiences to it?)

creating a new experience for the reader/listener (take them somewhere they have never been)

an ear for subtle music within the poem (Eventually, this becomes intuitive, though at first it may result in overuse of devices, such as alliteration.)

intense focus

openness to what the poem really means as you write it

voice—the stamp of your own uniqueness (Hard to define. You don’t actually search for it, for it’s already there in those images, experiences and cadences that inform your work regularly.)

evolved sensibility without sentimentality

telling the truth (even if it means your family, lover, life isn’t perfect) without whining

resist the urge to commemorate

epiphany/revelation/discovery (This isn’t always the last stanza or line. It’s a kernel that indicates you have been open to the poem’s concerns and found something. A famous writer once said: “No discovery for the writer. No discovery for the reader.”)

weave narration subtly into the poem

remember: a poem isn’t vertical prose

Keep these in mind the next time you attend a poetry reading or the next time you are writing and wonder whether you are, indeed, writing poetry.

Christine Swanberg is a local author and poet who has written several books of poetry and formerly wrote a column called “The Writer’s Garret” for this newspaper.

from the issue March 14-20, 2007, issue

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