I don't understand poetry

At all.

This thread was occasioned by someone linking to Neil Gaiman’s poem Instructions.
The artistic or linguistic merit of this “poem” is not under debate. Sure, it’s interesting, and readable, as far as poetry goes.

I don’t understand how it is poetry, though. Or how anything is poetry.
I looked up poetry and this is one definition:

Great. So if there are no real rules, why even call it poetry? Why separate it from prose? That Gaiman “poem” looks to me like nothing more than prose, separated with paragraph breaks. Really it looks kind of like written rap. If you just took the first few lines and put it like this:

It would make JUST AS MUCH sense, if not more.

So - why poetry? Why even bother? If the answer is “why anything”, sure I can accept that. Nothing really has a reason. But I kind of hope for something more profound.

I’m no poetry aficionado, but looking at that Gaiman poem, the way it’s divvied up does make me sort of savor each line individually. It almost reads as if I’m walking up this path myself, recalling the directions I was given.

Take this stanza:

The first line vividly describes what I’m going to see. But what is it? Ah, it’s a knocker. Now I’m moving my hand towards it, because it’s a door knocker and you’re supposed to grasp it, right? No, no, no, don’t touch it! It will bite your fingers if you do.

Your edit is very rote, a strict recitation of instructions. That’s boring. Gaiman’s version is more adventurous.

It would make just as much sense, but would it make the SAME sense? Or does placing the line breaks in particular places influence how the piece unfolds in your mind?

One of the “rules” of prose is that you’re supposed to ignore formatting. The line breaks, the page breaks, they all land in accidental locations so when we’re reading prose we know we’re supposed to not attach any significance to them. But when we attach the label “poetry” to something, we’re saying “Pay attention to line breaks, pay attention to the music of the words, they’re saying something too!”

Because there are other ways to communicate with words besides treating them as a set of coded representations.

“O-bla-di o-bla-da” … what does it mean? It’s not just nonsense, but its meaning arises from sound and inflection, not dictionary definition. Poetry!

Don’t feel bad. I have an advanced degree in English and I’m not sure I understand poetry.

The best beginning I can come up with in explaining it is that poetry is a sort of mis-mash of prose and drama. We typically think of a play as something meant to be performed (or at least read aloud) and prose, while it lends itself well to oral utterance, does not inherently require itself to be read aloud.

Poetry generally isn’t meant to be a dead medium–the experience of it is supposed to add up to more than just the words on the page. While you can ‘get’ a piece of information delivered in written prose, it may not be possible to ‘get’ a poem unless it is uttered.

Of course, that’s still not a requirement, as many poems–particularly the ones we can organize by rhyme, but also free verse–are just as good on the page.

In a lot of ways, poetry can be as enigmatic as language itself. Just like a lot of the grammar questions on the dope sort of devolve into bickering about ‘style,’ trying to define poetry is sort of like trying to rope the wind.

For me, I take poetry to mean a work that depends on not simply information, but an aesthetic experience. So, for example, in this post I am giving you spaces between words, and line breaks between paragraphs, and punctuation; however, all of that is more or less incidental. What I’m trying to do is convey information–my spacing and punctuation just make it easier to organize.

Poetry, though, means that things as simple as word choice matter–and matter a lot. Even the spaces of poems matter. They’re not there to specifically follow a convention. They add to the aesthetic experience.

Take enjambment, for example, where a phrase or thought is broken by a line break (so that the thought ‘straddles’ the line break.) Shakespeare gave us:

I am not prone to weeping, as our sex
Commonly are; the want of which vain dew
Perchance shall dry your pities; but I have
That honourable grief lodged here which burns
Worse than tears drown. 

Those lines are enjambed. This gives emphasis to the word at the end of each line (rather than the word at the end of each phrase/thought.) Shakespeare apparently wanted us to notice the word “sex” moreso than the word “are”. Why he wanted that…well, that’s up for discussion.

Lots of times, iambic pentameter requires enjambment, or at least weird spacing, to keep the rhythm going. That’s why you’ll see some characters’ lines spaced to the right of the previous character’s ending line.

Anyway–we can generally speak in terms of aesthetics, word choice, spacing, structure, punctuation…etc. because all of those are more conscious choices on the part of the poet than all of those things in prose. And, while there is undoubtedly metaphor, metonym, symbol, and so on in prose, they take on a greater weight in poetry.

I’m not sure if any of this helps, and there will be dissenters, but it’s all I’ve got.

I asked a related question here once. I don’t really get pure poetry as an art form either. My theory is that it was a really long-lived fad that got assimilated into other things as more options became available. I love music, even genres like rap, but I don’t want to sit down and read rap lyrics or have someone simply recite them in a coffeehouse but I get the point when they are combined with the right music.

“A poem” may be about anything, poetry as a phenomenon is about sound and emotion. It is most definitely meant to be read aloud, in your mind if not with your mouth.

Poetry is also compact…a lot gets squeezed into a little space. The use of structure (formal structure like rhyme and meter, or less formal like Gaiman’s use of enjambment) is a way to control the sound (such as pauses and pacing) and to highlight certain ideas.

There’s a lot more to it, of course.

I was looking for one particular example I have in mind, but I’ll have to come back later if I can find it.

No, that’s the definition of literature. Tolkien certainly wanted to convey an aesthetic experience in Lord of the Rings, but it’s still prose, not poetry (at least, most of it). Every definition of poetry which attempts to encompass “free verse” falls into this trap, in my experience: It ends up just describing all literature, poetry and prose alike.

Personally, I would define poetry as literature which is written under constraints independent of the meaning. The constraint might be a particular rhyme scheme, or a meter, or any number of other things. I’ll even include those silly things people write some times where they completely avoid using the letter “e”, or whatever. But there has to be some sort of constraint.

Ecstatic Occasions, Expedient Forms is a good book about the importance and use of structure (what you call constraint) to poetry. It contains poems in a wide variety of different forms, with the poets talking about the process of deciding how or why the poem would be structured that way. It’s relatively accessible and not filled with stupefying academic jargon.

Gawd, I used to hate poetry when I was younger.

Now, while I don’t usually seek it out, I have respect for it.

It is like very ‘condensed’ writing, IMHO (in my humble observation).

A lentil-wielding stilt-walker in a translucent chicken suit

Seized violently on the conveyor belt

I walked up to scan my onion-flavored brillo pad

“Déjà vu!” I exclaimed.
Thank you.

It’s one of the great fringe benefits of my job (opera singer), that I get to spend so much time working with poetry and music.

Each individual poet has their own particular reasons for using, or not using, rhyme, meter, alliteration, enjambement. Rhyme, meter and alliteration don’t raise the same kind of questioning that enjambement does. (though it’s a fascinating clue to look for in Shakespeare and his contemporaries - why is this character speaking in verse? Why is he now speaking in prose? What is Shakespeare telling us through his choices?) Enjambement also pushes people’s skeptic alarm like little else - “That’s not poetry, that’s just wanking with the return key!” is the most extreme version, but many people question whether there is any value or meaning to the placement of the line breaks.

In my own poetry, and in the work of many of the poets I admire, there is the idea that the shape on the page is a direct transcription of the way that the character, the voice of the poem, is speaking. The hesitations, the way in which a person has to pause to find the next words, the tempo of the text can all be represented graphically.

hesitations, the way
in which a person has to


to find the next words,



can all be represented graphically.

So, one way to read that little poem-like rendering of the previous sentence is to feel that the text is driving toward the end of the line, lifting off on the last word (or the last tonic accent, if you want to get as picky about it as the director I’ve been working with is.) and landing on the start of the next line.

Poetry is often more dense than prose - it uses more imagery to articulate a thought, and deliberately explores odd juxtapositions, ambiguity, oxymorons, among many other techniques. As a result, the poem has to flow at the speed of thought when read out loud. Most of the time, that translates to slowing down. If they didn’t get

‘Here no sonorous thing can be destroyed’

then there’s no point in going on to

‘except by itself; here the engine roars
before there were engines, and deafened ears
blocked by a deafening susurrus find
a sound more powerful inside the mind.’

(first stanza of The Hammerklavier Fugue, from** Letters to a Musical Friend** by William Aide - it was the top book of poetry on my desk.)

There’s more going on in that sentence than often goes on in prose, and out loud, you have one chance to understand it. The use of enjambement helps us to wind our way through that over-dense prose.

Interestingly, I couldn’t remember anything of your prose reworking of the Gaiman. The bit that’s stuck in my head is the moment about the imp on the door that will bite your fingers, and that’s the section that MOIDALIZE rendered in its original shape.

I have to leave it there, fascinated though I am by the topic.

And what to my wandering eye should appear, but Sina Queyras answering the question “What is Poetry?” on the Poetry Foundation’s blog page…

I was particularly fond of “Poetry is philosophy and music’s bastard child, who is a phenomenal looker.”

There are a lot of gray areas in and around poetry. The stuff that inspired the OP is grayer than some, not as gray as other poetry.

Art is often at least as much about the frame as about the canvas: context is everything.

I agree with the folks that feel that it’s the imposed structure that characterizes poetry. In prose the structure is derived from grammar and meaning, while in poetry the author sets to himself other restraints that shape the text. This can be meter and maybe rhyme in more traditional poetry or other rules/parameters in free verse. The other main quality of poetry is that in poetry the words and the other elements of writing are used not only to convey meaning but are treated as objects of interest in their own right. The sound of the verse and maybe even it’s shape on the page are relevant, much more so than in prose.

There’s also the distinction between different sorts of poetry. Epic poetry has it’s own aesthetic goals and and methods and they can be radically different from those of lyric poetry or dramatic monologues, say.

Sure, the difference between poetry and other literature is not always clear cut but that’s because there’s always lots and lots of bad poets who don’t know how to do it right. There’s also many good or great poets (and mediocre and bad poets) who purposefully try to bend, break, distort or go around the rules. Good prose poetry is still poetry because even though it discards all the trappings of the form it achieves the same goals as the traditional kind.

As to the example proposed by the OP, personally I don’t think it’s a very good poem. Still, I’d agree with those posters that argued that while text would make as much sense arranged as prose as it does in verse, that sense wouldn’t be exactly the same. Arranging the lines in the manner chosen by the author shapes the experience of the reader as he reads in a different way. I’d also point out that making sense is very often not the goal of poetry:

These verses exist much more to simply sound gorgeous than for any other reasons. While poets are concerned with meaning and can often compress enormous amounts of sense and ambiguities in very few words, that’s only a dimension of their work.
All very much IMHO, of course.

It’s easy. Poetry is when format is included to convey meaning along with the words. Normal writing conveys meaning by word choice, and strategies involving the combination of words. Poetry might focus a bit less on finding the perfect word meanings, but the way the words are divided, their rhythm, and other qualities (other than just their pure meaning) are considered. Haiku is a perfect example, where the rigid structure is designed to separate and highlight ideas. People naturally contemplate a haiku more than they would the same number of words written in a sentence, even if the haiku itself isn’t conveying something particularly deep, because the structure itself means something.

Poetry seems a lot less murky since a friend, who is a songwriter, gave me a copy of Stephen Fry’s The Ode Less Travelled which is really an encouragement to write poetry. In the process he describes the nuts and bolts of poetry in a very readable and pragmatic way.

I once ran across an interesting take on poetry that I had never heard before. It was posted by Tom Clancy, of all people, in his newsgroup alt.books.tom-clancy where he used to post regularly.


This is a very educational thread. I think I still prefer prose but poetry is definitely less obscure to me.

Poetry is like music, but without notes. If you add notes, it’s a song. We are used to songs, but not so used to poetry (these days).

It’s like rock and roll, in that 98% of it is crap; the difference is that teachers spend a lot of time making you read crap, and telling you it’s good. You know better, and rebel. Then poetry gets tossed on the scrap heap.

But the 2% that’s good (and of course, nobody can really quite agree on what belongs to the 2%) is, well, just amazing. I don’t see how anyone could read “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” and not have something flipped on in their brain. Maybe it doesn’t move you, but maybe something else gets to you.

Sometimes, one line on its own can be magical: “‘I am half sick of shadows,’ said the Lady of Shalott.”

Good poetry is no better than good prose, but most good prose is, in some sense, poetic.

That’s about all I can say that might sound remotely intelligent.

Is it clear that all modern poetry is meant to be read aloud? I love some older poetry, which sounds like beautiful music when read aloud, but much modern poetry lacks this effect. Indeed, sometimes the arrangement of line breaks seems intended more for the visual effect than as an aid for reading aloud.