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Excerpt from Writing the Life Poetic

An invitation to read and write poetry.

“Poetry is a relationship with language. Discovering is part of the process. The fewer pre-conceived notions, the more openness, the better the relationship.” —Dan Raphael

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In 1964, Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart famously proclaimed, “I can’t define pornography, but I know it when I see it.” Many people feel the same way about poetry. It is difficult to summarize what makes a poem a poem, and what the experience of writing poetry might be. Poetry means something different to each of us, and our relationship with it as writers and readers is personal and individual.
And yet, in some ways, a poem is like a meal. There are a finite set of “ingredients” that may go into a meal (vegetables, grains, meats, cheeses, spices) and an infinite number of ways that those ingredients might be combined. Likewise, there is a basic set of ingredients that go into the making of a poem. And just as we know that a shoe does not belong in our chicken soup, there are certain parameters that distinguish poetry from other literary forms. Let’s take a look at the most common ingredients we’ll find in the poetry pot, and explore how they can be used to create some very diverse feasts.

Compression––the art of conveying much with few words––is one of poetry’s signatures. Whereas a novel has hundreds of pages to convey the arc of its narrative, a poem typically has a few lines or a few pages to do so. Meaning and feeling are distilled into a language where every word has weight, and therefore must be both precise and alive.

Lines and Stanzas

Lines and stanzas are one of the easiest ways to distinguish poems from prose. In prose, the sentence is the basic unit of language. In a poem, the line is the basic unit defining the momentum of a narrative. (The prose poem is an exception to this rule.) Where and how a poet breaks a line and groups lines into stanzas influences the speed and rhythm with which the reader takes in the poem. (For more on stanzas, see chapter thirty-four.)

In poetry, language does double duty as both music and content. The rhythms and sounds that words make can have as great an influence on the reader’s experience of a poem as the literal meaning (if any) that is conveyed. Some poems employ the strict meter and rhyme patterns that certain forms demand. More common today is the free verse poem in which the poet has an unlimited range of possibilities in expressing music through words. Some poems use language entirely as a musical instrument, without offering any clear narrative at all. (For more on music, see chapter twenty-nine.)

Whereas prose uses words to literally say what it means, poetry often speaks its truths less directly. Poems use imagery to convey our world and our lives in surprising new ways. Rather than tell us what is happening, a poem may simply show us. Through simile and metaphor (described in chapter nineteen), poems line up seemingly unlike things and help us see them anew. This gives the reader an opportunity to come to her own conclusions.

Poetry is an expansive medium with far more possibilities than rules, so there will always be poems that contradict the general ingredients explored above. As you go through this book, write poems, and read the poetry of others, keep your own list of qualities defining what makes a poem. In the short term, this will help you become more conscious of what you’re doing and why. Over time, these fundamentals will be imprinted into your being so that the shaping of a poem becomes a natural process.

About the Author

Sage Cohen is an award-winning poet with a BA from Brown University and an MA in creative writing from New York University. The author of the poetry collection Like the Heart, the World, Sage has published widely including three monthly columns about the craft and business of writing. She has taught poetry at universities, hospitals and writing conferences as well as online. Sage's blog,, continues the conversation started in Writing the Life Poetic.

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