What is Poetry? by Eric Chock

September 1, 2009

When I kiss my dad good-night
the rattles of his fat
shake away

When confronted with the task of creating a poetry assignment, one of the main questions teachers have is simply, What is a poem? Without having some grasp of this issue, the teaching of poetry is groundless. Since most of the general public has little interest in poetry (right?), most teachers don’t have much knowledge in this area beyond a few cliché ideas. And this is the heart of the matter: What is cliché and what makes a good poem are two opposite things.  All art develops standards of original form and content, and all art seeks to evolve in these areas. On the other hand, writing formulas (limericks, acrostics, 5-7-5 “haiku”) usually focus on superficial aspects of writing, not on seeking an original expression of genuine human feeling—and students as well as teachers soon get tired of these stock poems. So how can teachers develop a deeper sense of what it is they’re supposed to be teaching (aside from taking a class in poetry, which they probably should)?  And, can we expect students to perform to such high standards of art?

To answer the latter question first, Yes we can! Originality in content is relatively easy for kids since their minds are not rigid and their lives are so unique.  Dad’s belly is a new kind of rattle, he has so much fat it rattles, it’s easy in the imagination to rattle your fat—and it sounds fun! It bends your mind in a slightly different way.  In fact, originality or creative spark is the main ingredient that readers crave in a poem.

To address the former question regarding what teachers can do, one basic practice that helps teachers better understand poetry is simply to read and discuss poems.  In doing so, readers can gain a sense of personal likes and dislikes and a perspective on the elements that make up a poem.  It’s like food.  You may not know all the ingredients it takes to make a custard pie, but after tasting a few (or quite a few) you begin to identify what it is that makes one better than others.  Later, you can learn more about the process of making the best pies, but first it helps just to develop some sense of taste with specific details. Poetry appreciation is not simply being able to say which poems you like—you must also be able to say what it is that makes them work for you.

Start with basics like original imagery/content, metaphoric value, or original perspective on a topic.  Then, the focus is on what makes a good poem work, not on what a poem is.  To explore what is or is not a poem can be a far more complicated issue, and far less productive than simply identifying what makes a particular poem work.

Example

What works to make this a good poem? (Take notes to answer the question with specifics, not general statements about what is good. If your answer is that it is not a poem, have specific reasons for that answer, especially for what it should have to make it one.)

When I play marbles
my eyeballs feel like
joining in

Example

How about this one? (Take mental or actual notes.)

In my body
there are caves
leading to different places.
I see dark and nothing but dark—
and bones and veins and meat.
I am scared to be the dark
so I think of my dog, Pierre,
who died of heartbroken.
He is a poodle and is not
supposed to be alone.
I let him go and he walked
out of the gate.
Usually he runs.
I cried and cried and I
cannot forget about him,
my best dog I ever had
for a long time.
Now I only have my cat, Timothy,
who is a kitten but who wants to mate.
And that’s why I feel so lonely
inside of my great big body.
Nobody to love and care for.
Nothing but dark and death.
Sometimes, I miss my father
who left me in kindergarten.
I visit him in summer.
Now I am nothing to him
but a body of dark and blood.
I live with my mother who cares for me.
What else can anybody expect?

Now, compare what you’ve given as responses for the different poems. While you’ve been given elementary school poetry samples, the reasons and characteristics of poetry can apply, whatever the writer’s age.  Hopefully you’ll also get the chance to compare your responses with others.  Then, you’ll develop a sense of what elements go into making good poetry, as well as what variations in taste exist and how to respond to them. After all, as teachers we face a wide range of students, and we need to be prepared to respond to them all.

Here’s a typical list of responses: I liked it cause it was funny, the poem reminds me of my own dog, the style was good, I could relate to it.

Okay, this kind of reader response is a start, but these responses are too general. They’re too reader-response focused, not analytical enough about what makes a poem, about structures of language that function in specific ways to create certain effects. If you don’t know what I’m talking about here, take a step back and pull up the obvious answers all college grads should know. Poetry usually focuses on metaphor and imagery, in addition to the sound patterns that please the ear. There are levels of meaning, not only the straightforward literal level. The concept of theme usually applies to all discussions of poetry, and interpretation is required to explore the themes.  Notice, for example, how the humor in the initial example creates or focuses on a positive father-child relationship, and how this kind of thematic representation in creative form helps the writer to reinforce a base level of interaction upon which they can build.  Though there is teasing in the imagery, it reinforces the idea that the child can interact with the parent, and that child development can continue with this level of ease.

Also, in compiling the range of elements and characteristics that make up good writing, in practicing what you can say about a poem, you begin to see that there is no set list of basic elements that make up a good poem, and hence you realize that there is no one answer to the question of what makes a good poem.  Instead, there are numerous qualities, characteristics, structural elements, techniques, themes, and theories, and your job as a teacher is to be aware of how to use them in various combinations in focused lessons.  Maybe you’ll just focus on one element at a time, or maybe you’ll combine two or three.  In this brief introduction, my main point has been originality—which I view as paramount, whatever your theory or style of poetry may be—and which I’d put ahead of all other elements if you must rank them individually. The originality can be applied to form or content or both, but without it, there is less of a poem. At the same time, I recognize the value of simply getting young students to write at all, to gain some fluency and confidence in their own written expression.  If that’s the focus, I must be clear about my goals and expectations, and the value of the outcome. In this case, the primary focus is not on elements of poetry, but simply on general writing or grammar. Or, I often synthesize a technical exercise with a focus on originality, such as practicing simile writing but making sure that no cliché similes are allowed.

To summarize:

*Instead of focusing on what a poem is, try to focus on concrete elements that make a poem work.

*Just read a bunch of poems and practice identifying what elements or characteristics highlight the writing, and what thematic interpretations can be supported.  Form a group if you can, set a regular hour at a bookstore/coffee shop or at lunchtime.  Make it informal and fun.

*List and categorize the responses. From there, develop your own sense of what it takes to make a good poem. Prioritize your primary and/or secondary goals and objectives.

*Start with this online interaction. Post your responses and reply to others’ posts.  Enjoy!

* * *

About the author: Eric Chock is one of the founding editors of Bamboo Ridge Press, which last year celebrated 30 years of promoting local literature. He received the Hawaii Award for Literature, was a Distinguished Visiting Writer at UH Manoa, and is now a professor in writing and literature at UH West Oahu. For over twenty years he was Poets in the Schools Coordinator for the Department of Education, and he still does PITS workshops during summers. Visit Bamboo Ridge online here.

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