What Makes a Poem a Poem?

As a serious contribution to the long-running “What is a poem?” discussion between me and my good friend Jinglebob, let me tell y’all my thinking in writing the haikuish thing I posted earlier this week – keeping in mind I tossed it off in less than an hour and I never claimed to be a poet, only that I dabble in poetry, so what I intended may not have come through.

I’m driving home the other night – long commute – and come off the freeway to see this big full moon as bright white as can be in our clear, black, sub-zero atmosphere. And I’m thinking about friends I have scattered around the country, and then remembering when I was back East and trying not to miss my future wife in South Dakota – and how I used to find strange comfort in the notion that we could both look at the same moon – even talk about it from essentially the same perspective – and it made us seem closer.

Then I thought about the last week or so – I’ve been writing a ton and have spent a lot of time in the same house with Jodi, but not at all with her – like, I’m barely seeing her even though we spend most of our time in close proximity.

It’s strange how distance and togetherness are two different things, don’t you think?

So the great fun (to me) of haiku is to attempt to convey that in 5-7-5 syllables, with solid descriptive details, usually of a natural scene.

I played around with all of the words I used, plus words to convey the coldness of the night, the vast expanse of distance, etc. – but syllables come at a premium. This is like espresso poetry – concentrated!

“Distance” is kind of a math and science word – not very poetic to me. So I went with “together” – which is actually a good set-up for the romantic aspect of the haiku. I thought of the inspiration – the shared view of the moon – and thought “the moon between us” – then I thought, “nothing but the moon between us” – but that conjured a funny image in my head, of two people with a big orb keeping them apart.

But the phrase “nothing between us” after “together” conjures thoughts of lovers. That’s nice!

So “together: nothing/between us except the moon” – that’s pretty good: moonlight and lovers, and you haven’t given away the deeper thing you’re trying to convey yet.

But the imagery is a little hazy – what was the overwhelming detail of the moon I saw? It was more or less full, and it was so dark outside. Full is a good descriptor, but picture a full moon. Got it? Now picture a white moon – got it? When I pictured a full moon, the overwhelming detail was roundness. When I pictured a white moon, the overwhelming detail was brightness (which by nature calls attention to darkness) – a white moon, to me, calls to mind a darker night.

But I’m spending syllables too fast, and “except” is an ugly word. I can save a syllable with “save,” which is also a more romantic word. So “together: nothing/between us save the white moon” – better.

Now for the kicker – the truth that these lovers are not together at all, except in their thoughts.

“together: nothing/between us save the white moon” and what? “the frozen miles” came to mind, because its so damn cold here – but that has no bearing and doesn’t convey a sense of enormity. It could just be two frozen miles, in which case, jump in your car and go …

How about “and the long dark miles”? Nah – we already established “dark” with the white moon, and “long miles” is unnecessarily redundant – it doesn’t add much. “Lonely,” though – now that adds a sense of enormity – you’re all alone, miles from the one you love – and is a nice contrast to “together.”


together: nothing
between us save the white moon
and the lonely miles

Hmm. “The” is another ugly (and abrupt) word, but necessary sometimes. Something else bugs me, though – “the white moon” makes it sound like it’s just some moon – any ol’ moon, any ol’ night – that happens to be white, and it isn’t. This is about a shared experience – a moon that both lovers see – a specific moon. It’s about “this moon.” The lonely miles – well, they’re countless – but tonight, there is only this one white moon.


together: nothing
between us save this white moon
and the lonely miles

And then I thought, “together: nothing” looks odd, like I was trying to say something about those two words. It looks like a ratio (X:Y) – when this is supposed to be a definition of sorts. So I capped the initial “t” and called it good.

Together: nothing
between us save this white moon
and the lonely miles

A fair amount of thought went into it. If, when you read it, you saw a white moon in a big dark sky, and got the idea that someone was thinking fond thoughts of someone else far away, you “got” the idea. If you thought about it a moment longer, and it felt a little bittersweet (nothing between your skin and mine but more miles than we can count), you got the poem.

If you didn’t, you’re probably perfectly sane, and I think too much and write too poorly! Thoughts?

4 thoughts on “What Makes a Poem a Poem?

  1. Nice, very nice thought and thought pattern. I'm just too dense to get it most of the time.

    I do the same thing and have the same struggles trying to come out with equal measures and beats, over and over, always with a rhyme.

    Yes, yours is poetry. But so much I see , read or hear, isn't to me. My fault more so than the author.

    At least yours has a predictable pattern. When it doesn't there are no rules and if there are no rules is it really that hard to do and if it isn't, then why bother?

    I imagine I could line that last sentence up and call it a poem?

    All this just cuz' we teased you? 😉

    Now go hug that lovely wife of yours for putting up with you.:)


  2. Actually, no – the comment I left on the haiku posting was because you teased me! (Either you like haiku or you don't — it makes no sense to like it when other people try it, but not when “your” people try it!)

    : )

    This was actually an exercise in trying to convey what I love about haiku — and it really isn't about whether someone “gets it” or not.

    There's nothing to get, in reality — anything I write, poetry or otherwise, will either resonate with a reader, or it won't.

    If it doesn't resonate, then I've failed — at least in terms of that particular reader.

    If it does resonate, then it will in one of two ways — either A) they'll understand it in a literal sense (they'll nod and move on), or B) they'll be moved by it (it'll strike a chord and call up some emotion they'll remember later on).

    If you manage A more times than you fail, you're a communicator. I think I can claim that.

    If you manage B consistently and with a majority of readers, you're an artist. I am not there yet.


  3. I have been waiting for you to “make the first move” so to speak. When I read it, I understood it as you have described it here. I almost left a comment asking, “Who were you missing tonight?” Then I thought, “No. This is a love poem, and he is with her as far as I know. Why would he be missing her tonight?” Anyway, I decided to wait and see if anyone else would venture a guess first.

    I think, Bob, that you are thinking too hard. Let the poem stir your emotions and then analyze the emotion that arises. You will find more meaning there. The question might be more appropriately asked, did you feel it? Consider your own poetry for a moment:

    I don't recall what you titles the poem that begins, “The jingle of the swinging tugs . . .” but it is a great example. The imagery you use, sets a scene, but it is a scene that for many will raise deep emotions. More importantly, however, it speaks a truth.

    While in an earlier comment I talked about emotion and the feeling of the author being conveyed, I think that it might more appropriate to say that truth has been conveyed. And, when we resonate with a piece of art, it is not because of feelings per se. Rather, it is because we have recognized truth in another, and while we may not be able to articulate that truth ourselves, our body, indeed our soul, longs to be connected with it (What is truth after all, if not He who fills all human longing?). This is what art is about – pointing toward truth, goodness, beauty. And this is why poetry (and music) is so effective – it is a medium by which truth and goodness and beauty are generated and passed along in a necessarily incomplete but nevertheless effective form.


  4. I like the challenge of a haiku. It's like a word puzzle (my favorite kind of puzzle…solvable!). You should have seen me struggle to do a haiku about Buddha when I saw your haiku post. It was a joke the way I was counting on my fingers. In the end, I just decided to make fun of the fact that I read too much Dr. Suess and not enough serious, thinking, grown-up poetry to appreciate poems that don't actually rhyme!
    It was kind of neat to see someone else's thought process in figuring out how to work a haiku for their feelings!


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