When is a poem a poem?

I’ve been pondering a question about poetry, which came to me via a friend’s blog.

The question asks: Is poetry defined merely by when you hit the return key?

That’s a great question. It’s one I’ve asked myself many times. I don’t think it’s cynical to answer in the affirmative. My answer is yes. A poem is defined by when you hit the return key.

Note that I’m making a distinction between poetry as an abstract noun and poetry as a concrete noun.

Poetry as an abstract noun – a quality.

 

“Poetry” is any collision of words that paints a picture. This collision doesn’t have to occur in a poem. It is in the joyous sparkle of language all around us, like when my son once said “the boats are dancing on the water.”

Great writers create these wonderful collisions all the time. In Black Swan Green, the novelist David Mitchell writes one of my favourite sentences: “The cow of an awkward pause mooed.” It’s not a poem, but it is poetic. This quality of poetry has nothing to do with layout.

Poetry as a concrete noun – the poem in front of you.

 

In your hands is a poem. This thing, this poem, is defined by its shape. You can take any ordinary sentence and arrange it like a poem and it will become a poem. Not necessarily a good poem, but a poem nevertheless.

This is no reductionist strike against poetry. The act of repositioning those words is the creation of art. Art will take something ordinary and reframe it so that we see it differently.

A flower plucked from a field of flowers becomes a different thing when arranged alone in a vase. Suddenly our focus is on the single flower.

A photograph or a painting transforms the mundane into something transcendent simply by drawing our attention to it. A poem will do the same thing in its own way. A poem is an act of focus, of zooming in, distilling down. It is a bunch of words arranged deliberately so as to spotlight them in a way that only a poem can.

If prose is the waterfall, a poem shows us individual drops of water.

If prose is the scotch, a poem pours a single shot from the bottle.

If prose is the ocean, a poem draws our attention to the rock pool.

Speaking of oceans, I read once that “sea-weed sways and sways and swirls as if swaying were its form of stillness; and if it flushes against fierce rock, it slips over it as shadows do, without hurting itself.” That’s a wonderful nugget of writing which you might find buried in a novel or in an essay. But it’s actually a poem by D.H. Lawrence:

 

Sea-weed

Sea-weed sways and sways and swirls
as if swaying were its form of stillness;
and if it flushes against fierce rock
it slips over it as shadows do, without hurting itself.

I’d argue that hitting the return key makes all the difference.