In the wake of slam poetry and “spoken word,” confused audiences have asked themselves what poetry actually is. I think people tend to imagine that it looks and sounds like an English sonnet, with rhyming couplets and metered form (we all did once, right?). It might even have some kind of resolution: a neat bow of a message tying the whole poem together at the end. A poem might look this way, obviously, but I think we’ve moved on since Wordsworth. Poets like Walt Whitman (“Song of Myself”) pioneered free verse, or unrhymed, unmetered poetry, free of form or convention.
Poetry was able to say what it wanted, how it wanted. Postmodern writers came back to form from time to time, but usually to satirize their predecessors (think Annie Finch’s “Coy Mistress”, a response to Andrew Marvell’s “To His Coy Mistress”, or Billy Collins “Litany”).
I don’t think form is bad in itself. Sometimes arbitrarily defined rules can actually spur creativity. Seriously, try it sometime. But in general, I think poets have an entrenched idea of what a poem has to be, and what a poem has to do, and form usually plays a part. At its best, spoken word liberates us from those restrictions, and we can express ourselves in language that’s real and meaningful to us, not the stuffy Englishman in our heads. Plus, with its emphasis on the sound of words, “spoken word” actually takes us back to the roots of poetry, which was often meant to be recited and heard. There’s more liveliness, and less bleak classroom textbook-ness, in the spoken word.
Frankly, I don’t know if I could define what a poem really is, or what makes something poetic, but I defer to Samuel Coleridge, who argued that poetry is “the best words in the best order.” Totally clear and not vague at all, right?
So what do you think poetry is? Let us know in the comments below.