sharing a poetic LIFELINE with the world

What makes a poem

When I was a child, my definition of a poem was something that resembled “The Highwayman,” rhyming lines formed into stanzas, with evocative imagery, and that told a story. As I grew older, and discovered poets like Sandburg and Amy Lowell, I realized poems didn’t need to rhyme, and, as my poetic horizons expanded to include Whitman and Elliot, I realized that they didn’t have to tell a story. My definition of a poem became lines and stanzas with evocative imagery. Then I encountered prose poetry.

Now I’m not a big fan of prose poetry. For me, I need lines and stanzas to feel that it’s a poem, but modern poetry doesn’t agree with me.

So what makes a poem, beyond the let me read it, and I’ll let you know if it’s a poem? The use of language to move beyond literal meaning, to evoke a mood, a sensory image, by the way that language is used is the basis for poetry.

If you studied poetry in school, you may have studied poetic devices: rhyme, meter, alliteration, assonance, consonance, metaphor, simile, to name a few.

Rhyme is probably the most familiar: cat, hat, sat, bat, rat, with meter, the rhythm that the words form when read aloud, a close second.  Alliteration, where words begin with the same consonant sound, assonance, where words have the same vowel sound, as in black cat, and consonance, where words have the same internal or ending consonant sounds as in near cure.

Here’s a poem of mine, in the tradition of Walter De La Mare’s The Listeners: It appered in the June, 2010 issue of ezine Dark Eye Glances. Notice how the first and last stanzas are   nearly  identical —
At Midnight

Three to ride the shadowed road,
two to catch them as they slowed,
one to flee and try to warn,
none to live to see the morn.

Three rode out one moonless night
beneath the shafts of silver light
of stars above in a cloudless sky
and none of them demanded why.

Not one of them asked why they rode,
why they left their snug abode
to ride the woods that dark, dark night
beneath the shafts of silver light.

When midnight chimed they stopped and stared.
Two strangers stood with broadswords bared.
Two brothers dead without a fight,
one brother left, one to take flight.

One brother turns and flees in fright,
rides and dies that dark, dark night,
killed by strangers with broadswords bared.
Three brothers caught all unprepared.

Three to ride the shadowed road,
two to catch them as they rode,
one to flee and try to warn,
none to live to see the morn.


Comments on: "What makes a poem?" (4)

  1. I like your definition of poetry. It really is about the language, the mood, the imagery.

    And on the note of mood and imagery, great poem. Thanks for sharing it. Is it a specific form?

    • Mary, I didn’t write it as a particular form — when I write rhymed poetry, I simply decide on stanza length and where the rhymes are going to go. In this case, I wanted the first and last stanzas to echo each other.

  2. Peggy, I like the sense of mystery and violence in “At Midnight.” It makes me wonder how often situations like this happen, leaving broken lives in their wake. Impressive writing!


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