What Makes a Poem a Poem

What Makes a Poem a Poem

This week’s blog is about poetry. Now poetry is a subject that is near and dear to me, but is a confusing subject for a lot of people. The following is what I have learned about poetry from my poetry classes and from what doing my senior thesis in poetry has taught me.

Poetry is something a lot of people struggle to comprehend and it’s something that is not taught well in school. So a lot of people have misconceptions about what makes a poem a poem. One common misconception is that poetry rhymes. However, a lot of poetry doesn’t rhyme and a lot of things that rhyme aren’t really poems. So unless you are writing a sonnet or another structured poetry form, you shouldn’t worry too much about rhyming. It often can seem amateurish and doesn’t focus on what makes a poem strong.

Another misconception is that if
you break up
a block
of text, line
by line, well
then it must be a poem,

Wrong. It’s prose that you’ve arbitrarily broken up into different lines. Line breaks does not a poem make.

So what does make a poem a poem? My answer is imagery. At its heart, imagery is the stuff poems are made of. Now it’s really easy to focus on images, or describing visual cues, but imagery does and should include all five senses. Describing sounds, smells, tastes, and feelings will strengthen your poem as it invites the reader to really immerse themselves in the poem.

Another important aspect of imagery is how to describe it. Most people automatically write adjective+noun combinations, instead of using things like metaphors and similes. Example include using white clouds, fluffy clouds, blue sky, pregnant boughs, etc. These adjective+noun combinations equal weaker writing. And most of the time, they tend toward cliché images (fluffy clouds, blue skies) that are overused and fall flat. To get more poignant descriptions, steer clear of these combinations. Think more carefully over how to describe things rather than settling for an easy adjective+noun combination. 

Instead of “blue sky”, use “sky the steely blue of factory smokestacks puffing in winter, dreary with sleet”. See how that gives a very specific image to your reader? Your descriptions don’t always have to be this long, but they should be specific. Also note that adj+noun combos do appear inside my description (steely blue), but it doesn’t comprise my entire image.

Instead of using “pregnant boughs”, use “the trees were weighted stars, laden with ice and gravity. Or use “the limbs were weighted dancers, worn down and heavy long after curtain call”. There are two different descriptions for the same phrase, but they better convey the specific aspect you want to describe.

The last example: instead of using “white clouds”, use “the clouds were feathered across the sky”. Once again a stronger image for your reader to picture.

Another important thing to keep in mind when using imagery in poetry is using tropes. Poetry uses metaphors and similes in imagery, but you should have a unifying trope or overall theme for the poem that ties all your metaphors together. If you use flowers as a metaphor for describing a sensation of happiness, you don’t want to use a balloon metaphor in the next line; it’s jarring and disconnected. You don’t want your poem to become a string of random images, unless that is your specific intent. Using an overall theme strengthens your poem and tightens it up. You can use more than one metaphor as long as you tie them together. For instance, in my latest poem, I use feathers for metaphors ascribed to the “I” in the poem and rocks for the “you” in the poem. They contrasted each other, showing the connection between the two, and that’s why they worked together.

Now some will say that poetry is subjective and, therefore, anything goes, but I vehemently disagree. Good poetry does certain things and doesn’t do certain things and that’s what makes it good. After all we can interpret things how they like, but they usually have to have support in the text. If you were reading Ode to a Grecian Urn, you wouldn’t say the poem is about a pink elephant, even though poetry is subjective and so is its interpretation. It’s the same as we set out to write poetry. Poetry can be a lot of things, but good poetry distills a feeling or concept into a few words that impact the reader. I think that learning these guidelines of focusing on imagery helps us to write stronger poems, and while taste in poetry may be subjective, quality isn’t. But if you keep these tips for writing stronger imagery in mind, your poetry will level up and you can watch your poems bloom like the tulips shivering off dew as they open to the sun.

This is the prompt we did in my writing group to practice getting away from adj+noun combinations: Create five lines of imagery avoiding adj+noun combinations. Bonus: include at least two senses. This proved to be a little tricky for my group, but it’s great practice to change the way you think about descriptions.

What do you think poetry has to include? Comment below and as always, happy writing!


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