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What Is a Poem?

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Christina M. Rau

Staff Writer

Christina M. Rau is the author of the sci-fi fem poetry collection, Liberating The Astronauts (Aqueduct Press, 2017), and the chapbooks WakeBreatheMove (Finishing Line Press, 2015) and For The Girls, I (Dancing Girl Press, 2014). In her non-writing life, she teaches yoga occasionally and line dances on other occasions.

What is a poem? The definition can be tricky. A poem is not prose, meaning it’s not a short story or a novel or a screenplay. But what is it? I like to say it’s a bunch of words that captures a moment in time or a feeling in unexpected ways. That’s a bit abstract. One way to define it is to think of the two-line poem by Ezra Pound called “In A Station of the Metro” that appears in his collection Personae.

Read it here at The Poetry Foundation.

It’s one of those tricky pieces: That’s it? That’s a poem?


It doesn’t even rhyme!

Actually, it does.  The two lines end in a slant rhyme: “crowd” and “bough” both have that “ow” sound. They almost rhyme if not for the consonant at the end of “crowd.” But that’s not what makes this piece a poem.

It also uses alliteration, the repetition of a consonant sound at the beginning of successive words: “black” and “bough” both use the “b” sound. Additionally, the “p” in “petals” makes a very similar sound and is, therefore, part of the alliteration (perhaps a slant alliteration?). But that’s not what makes this piece a poem.

Onomatopoeia means a word that makes a sound, like buzz, honk, or meow. While none of these words quite do that, the alliteration mimics the sound of rain pitter-pattering as it hits ground, people, and leaves. But that’s not what makes this piece a poem.

Juxtaposition means placing unlike images next to each other, allowing the contrast to become a comparison, or, showing how the two items that don’t seem to go together actually do go together. Usually, when we find ourselves in a busy subway station, we do not think of nature after the rain. However, that’s the image we have here. But that’s not what makes this piece a poem.

The juxtaposition of images shows a metaphor: the “faces in the crowd” are the “petals on” the “wet, black bough.” The metaphor is a comparison that does not use “like” or “as.” But that’s not what makes this piece a poem.

This piece is a poem because it combines all of these rhetorical devices to take note of a small moment in time. It’s a quick observation of something that seems to be an everyday occurrence. Instead of grinding through, the poem steps back to see the beauty of the action.

Pound helped create the Imagist movement. The poets of this movement believed that the words in the poem should create a picture without explaining the emotion. The words themselves should be exact enough to convey the emotion without any narrative or commentary. Classical Japanese and Chinese poetry acted as influences on this movement.

This very short poem compares to the seeming simplicity of haiku. Haiku looks very minimal, but it’s got layers, just like this Pound poem. You can get deeper insights into these origins with One Hundred Famous Haiku collected by Daniel Crump Buchanan and try your ink at them with The Haiku Handbook by William J. Higginson.

That imagist idea is super to keep in mind when reading any poem, because instead of searching for a meaning, we can simply let the poem be. We can recognize anything that might make an impression on us. We can simply say, “That sounds pretty” or “That looks sad.”

Poetry allows us to see life through fresh eyes, to rejoice in the daily day-to-day business of life, and to feel that everything that has become commonplace can become new again.

Random fun fact: When you look up Ezra Pound on GIPHY, you get a lot of  Pretty Little Liars gifs instead!


If you’re interested in official poetry forms, check out this piece by Rioter Rebecca Hussey, “A Beginners Guide to Different Types of Poems.”