How do we know that this is a poem?

John Mole - 5 March 2006

There's a splendidly forthright character in Jan Mark's novel 'Zeno Was Here'. His name is Dermot Crane, a schoolboy and his class's 'lateral thinker'. 'How do we know this is a letter, Dermot?' asks his English teacher who is encouraging the pupils to differentiate between types of writing. 'Sir, it's got an address and a date and it says Dear John. . .' When it comes to poetry, as we shall see, Dermot is equally confident and direct.

After presenting the class with various poems, the teacher attempts a summing-up: 'They aren't all in iambic pentameters, they are not all in stanzas: some rhyme, some do not, some have no discernable structure at all on first sight, and yet we have accepted them as poems. We may not have liked them all - some of you haven't liked ANY - but we have never doubted their claim to be poetry. Now we have to ask ourselves, how do we know that this is a poem?. . . Dermot?' 'Sir? It says Ted Hughes at the bottom.'

I found myself remembering this scene the other day when reading a piece by a GCSE student whose homework had been to write a sonnet, following the rhyme pattern of Shakespeare's sonnets, and then to give a short account of what she had learned from this. She said that she had enjoyed the challenge and found it very different from writing 'a normal poem'. I was rather intrigued by this, and wondered how she might have defined poetic 'normality'. Let me ask a few questions of my own in the hope that they may receive a few answers. Is a 'discernable structure' important to you when reading ( or writing ) a poem? Are rhyme and metre less 'normal' than they once were? What do you make of Robert Frost's remark that writing poetry without any 'rules' is like playing tennis with the net down? Or W.B.Yeats who when asked where he got his ideas from replied 'Searching for the next rhyme.'? Is this an answer which surprises you? ( Incidentally you can hear Yeats reading on the Archive ). For Dermot, a poem's guarantee was the name Ted Hughes. In his case, of course, this had nothing to do with his enjoying the poem, but it does prompt one more question. Are there any poets who, when you see their name at the bottom of a poem, really make you want to read the poem because you have enjoyed others by the same poet?


We think that discenarble structure is relatively unimportant when it comes to poems as we would not say that most poems we enjoy necessarily fit into this category. In fact if we took a handful of them, their structures vary immensely- even ones by the same poet.
Playing tennis with the net down not only would be pretty pointless, but also very easy. We don't think anybody's work should be put down like that, and surely something as creative as poetry should not have 'rules'.
If the writer really believes their work is poetry, we think that that should be reasonable grounds to call it so. Our teacher asked us, when we looked at Larkin's list technique, whether a shopping list could be called a poem. We think that if the shopper has written it to be so, then it is. We might not think much of it, just as we might not think much of a poem by a celebrated poet. But if artists can celebrate a soiled bed, then why not celebrate possible purchases? In addition, the poet may become financially successful by way of product placement.

I think this is a very interesting and provocative response to the implications of my questions,and I'll pick up on a couple of your points in a day or two. In the meantime I hope others may join the discussion. To give them a direct statement of yours to engage with - how about this? 'If the writer really believes their work is poetry, we think that that should be reasonable grounds to call it so.' Discuss!

This statement certainly works with art - anything goes, nowadays, it seems. Not sure about poetry though. I always thought it could be defined by what it was not. If it's somewhere in between prose and music, then it must be poetry. But then I read books like those by Virginia Woolf, written in a prose which also seems to be poetry. Perhaps you are right then - poetry must be whatever we want it to be, because we have no other way of defining it.

We live in a world obsessed with definitions, thinking we can pin every last thing down and reduce it to a simple formula. Poetry doesn't work like this -and why should it? We could spend eternity discussing the boundaries, what's in and what is out. To some people poems are like asylum seekers, and we judge them, and either let them in, or say they don't meet the criteria and they have to be deported.

I couldn't agree more that we can become unhealthily addicted to definitions. It's the intellectual equivalent of ticking boxes: 'Been there, done that'. I would also agree that too much analysis of poetry can result in overkill, a breaking of the butterfly upon a wheel. At the same time, though, I'm made uneasy about the suggestion/assertion that
a poem can be absolutely whatever we want it to be, and that whatever we write and choose to call 'poetry' amounts to a poem. I'm no believer in poetic 'rules' that cannot be broken, but if a 'poet' has no familiarity with traditional patterns, then, yes, I do feel that he/she should feel that there is some learning to do - just as I'd be uneasy discussing jazz with someone who had no knowledge of the structure of the blues and who told me that this didn't matter because he/she just felt good when making music.

There is a major problem with saying 'anything goes' and that is, how do we say whether a poem is good or not? If there are no standards to judge its success by, we cannot judge it at all, and the result of that is that every poem is as successful and as unsuccessful as every other poem, every one who reads poetry knows that this is not true. But if we are not defining what makes poetry, poetry, we don't have anythign to measure the poem against. So I think John Mole is right, there has to be some standards. It's a big question! What do all you other poetryphiles think??

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