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Poetry is….

By Sina Queyras

Poetry is witness. Vanessa Place

Poetry is a small car full of border collies. Jay Ruzesky

Poetry is linguistic music. Jon Paul Fiorentino

Poetry is a camera, a lunch box, a fire, a magic wand, a time machine, a tongue, a semaphore, a sun, an oak, an archive, a band, a bridge, a ghost, a kiss, a needle, an ocean, and a cat. Evie Shockley

Poetry is one of those plastic storage bags you can fill with forty sweaters, one sleeping bag, seven winter coats, and three pairs of ski pants, suck all the air out, and the bag ends up the size of a saltine cracker—but it is the densest cracker known to man. Jennifer L. Knox

Poetry is any use of language that somehow exceeds sense with strangeness and style. Todd Swift

Poetry won’t obey orders, it trusts in a higher justice. Niels Hav

Poetry is a measurement against the respectable world and its violence, a measurement which can make you lonely, but it’s okay, be lonely and free to challenge everything with your poems striking flint. CAConrad

Poetry is published in dedicated magazines (the longest established being… Rob Fitterman

Poetry is Work with doubt. Shane Rhodes

“Poetry” is an honorific granted to various verbal arts at different times—it changes. Michael Robbins

Poetry is the waste you cannot remove that makes the world as it becomes. Rachel Levitsky

Poetry is freedom. Carol Mirakove

Poetry is various approaches, arcs shot towards the asymptote of knowing, which can never be reached, else once breached, cannot be returned from, since poetry is simultaneously musical relic, tool for contemplation, embalmed missive, inspired litany, proof to define the nature of reality, confabulation of/ in/ for the divine, vestigial as a spiracle and just as sculptural, a political retort, pounce and jouissance, utterance drawn from inner depth like well-water, else an exploratory collage that tilts the gears and wheels of language to the light. Ravi Shankar

Poetry is a necessary object constructed by using saturated language along with other visual-aural discourses, an object that is offered in, by, and through meaningful segments. Segmentivity (of line and page space) and word/discourse saturation characterize poetry. Rachel Blau Duplessis

Poetry is carnal emotion(s) vivified via verbal precision. George Elliott Clarke

Poetry etaoin shrdlu cmfwyp vbgkqj xz, e it san hurdm wgvlfbk opjxcz yq
though these tend to vary by writer and subject. a.rawlings

Poetry is the uneditable in pursuit of the unspeakable. Julie Sheehan

Poetry is an awareness of the unusual and unexpected potentialities of the particles of language. derek beaulieu

Poetry is both the meal and the utensils. Chris Banks

Poetry is yes. Rob Winger

Poetry is an attempt. Jason Dewinitz

Poetry is an insurrection of the language. Chus Pato, tr. Erín Moure

Poetry is language that delights in itself, dances and sings itself; this joyful kinesis is at the heart of poetry, whatever the vision of a particular poem may be. Mary Dalton

Poetry is the words you can’t use in real life. Jake Kennedy

Poetry is philosophy and music’s bastard child, who is a phenomenal looker. Mina Pam Dick

Poetry is what says what I don’t know how to say. Sonnet L’Abbe

Poetry is a derivative of and bridling against poetry’s affects and associations. Trish Salah

Poetry is about $17.95 in a bookstore, free on the Internet. David McGimpsey

Poetry is a world flowing and unfolding from both outside and inside. Rita Wong

Poetry is a giant angry baby with a terminal skin condition that looks when it says it sounds and sounds when it says it looks. Darren Wershler

Poetry is everything language makes you do that you hadn’t dared to imagine. Caroline Bergvall

Poetry is my sandbox, my crystal ball, my samba, my migraine, my ledger, my prescription, my orgasm, my holiday feast, my megaphone, my real family, my hurricane, my truth serum, my trampoline and my coffin. Priscilla Uppal

Poetry will make your coffee maker, a teething ring, and a Tomahawk Missile talk to each other until you wish they’d just shut up already. Elizabeth Bachinksy

Poetry is what translates the wordless scream of epiphany into the ability to forget. George Murray

Poetry is to fool, cheat, and cozen, or to overcome. Of a wave, the sea, poetry is to break over, break down, stop working or give out. Poetry is to defecate or discharge. Poetry is to tire or exhaust, to injure or to produce a short blast. Kevin McPherson Eckhoff

Poetry dares us to locate the white heat in ourselves, but that isn’t enough: it dares us to translate that searing heat into language that can burn the page. Anne Simpson

Poetry is for “the mingling of centuries and jungles.” Bhanu Kapil

What is poetry? Who cares? The important question is, is it good? Daisy Fried

Each semester the question insists itself, usually in the very first class. Some are content to spend a lifetime trying to answer the question, others can’t quite appreciate the poem before them until they can carve out a sufficient description. Why is this poetry? What makes that poetry? What has this to do with poetry? How can I write poetry when I don’t know exactly what it is? As a gesture of good faith to my students I promised them I would ask everyone I knew and try to come up with an adequate response. By now of course, they have forgotten, and are busy discovering what poetry is for themselves. But the responses are still coming in… I should add that many wrote back to say they couldn’t possibly describe poetry in one sentence. Others to say there wasn’t enough time to attempt such a feat. Others were simply too busy. Some didn’t reply. A few don’t use Internet, and possibly even computers. They were sent letters. If they roll in I will add them.

I have not put names with these statements. You can click on the links to find out who said what. I may add them later if seems necessary. It may not. And of course, please, add your own.

I would love to see more of Melissa’s posts too. An endless stream of people describing poetry would be excellent.

And for you? What is poetry?

Comments (39)

  • On February 16, 2010 at 10:10 am Fred Moten wrote:

    I hope it’s ok if I join in!

    Poetry is a scar.

    Poetry is a car.

    Poetry is rhythm breaking something to say that broke rhythm.

    Poetry is on the bus, laughing at me, right now.

  • On February 16, 2010 at 10:36 am Peter Greene wrote:

    poems are: reflections are:


  • On February 16, 2010 at 10:43 am John Oliver Simon wrote:

    “Poetry is a light that came to save me.” – Carmen Jiménez, 4th grade

    “Poetry is the memory of everything.” – Julia Smith, 5th grade

  • On February 16, 2010 at 11:33 am Sarah Sarai wrote:

    Poetry as an “embalmed missive” brings me wings of Egypt, Temple of Dendur, corporeality, Cleopatra receiving chocolates and Syria, the love of a good mortician.

  • On February 16, 2010 at 1:33 pm Daisy Hickman wrote:

    Wonderful topic. Poetry, for me, represents life. It’s saying what we can’t fully comprehend. And poetry is finding healing words that help my spirit soar beyond the mundane. It opens a unique life dimension. Poetry is also a bridge to understanding.

  • On February 16, 2010 at 2:18 pm Shea wrote:

    Poetry is the manifestation of the mental zombies which haunt all poets–the zombies of coatless children, sobbing mothers, and unfairly beautiful dawns after harrowing midnights.

    Poetry is the listening poets do, the hurts and elations of others that poets hold.

    And poetry is hope. Oh yes. Poetry is hope. Poetry is a poet’s way of saying that we shouldn’t give up on people yet.

  • On February 16, 2010 at 2:53 pm Margo Berdeshevsky wrote:

    Poetry: language of the soul. my nemesis. my grace. racing horse. cave of blankets. cave of scorpions. cave of milk. more than I deserve. less than wind between breasts. pebbles. stones. a little more than grief. ecstasy’s infant. good for me. secret. egotistical. dawn’s ghost, under nakedness. slow stations of an unspoken cross. a religion, if I let it. a kiss on my forehead, as I slept. a thing with fingers asking the next question. asking if it is love. susceptible to cross genre. susceptible to morning.

  • On February 16, 2010 at 4:15 pm Sina Queyras wrote:

    These are beautiful, I hope you keep them coming.

  • On February 16, 2010 at 5:58 pm Colin Ward wrote:


    Of the fun definitions my favourite would have to be Robert Evans’ sigfile:

    “Poetry is the needle that pricks your finger;
    everything else is the haystack.”

    “…they couldn’t possibly describe poetry in one sentence”

    Well, if we’re defining it strictly for the supply side one word should suffice, but this argument has been made here before.

    “What is poetry? Who cares? The important question is, is it good?”

    Ultimately, yes, but with one reservation, again pertaining only to aspiring poets: If we agree that a “Don’t” can be as instructive as a “Do”, one can learn as much from bad poetry as good.


  • On February 16, 2010 at 6:29 pm Billdozer wrote:

    The certainty of a refrigerator magnet
    inches of paper in an almond cookie
    the ellipsis trope in a daily comic strip
    a substitute for body language
    durable packaging
    the mathematics of breathing
    kundalini interrupted

  • On February 16, 2010 at 10:11 pm Eric Landon wrote:

    What is it? Poetry?

    Testing testing one three two
    Doggerel masquarading as truth

    to the two-ness of me and you
    …erm, yeah, it was fabulous

  • On February 17, 2010 at 9:16 am Chuck Godwin wrote:

    “The purpose off poetry is to remind us
    how difficult it is to remain just one person,
    for our house is open, there are no keys in the doors,
    and invisible guests come in and out at will.

    What I’m saying here is not, I agree, poetry,
    as poems should be written rarely and reluctantly,
    under unbearable duress and only with the hope
    that good spirits, not evil ones, choose us as their instruments.”

  • On February 17, 2010 at 9:45 am Peter Greene wrote:

    @Colin W.: I agree with Robert Evans rather. I disagree sharply with your final statement, however, which ran: “If we agree that a “Don’t” can be as instructive as a “Do”, one can learn as much from bad poetry as good.”

    There’s no such thing as bad poetry. There are things that are poems, and then there are things that settle down comfortably, farting a little with the effort, and call themselves poems. I get both kinds around here, myself, rummaging through all that hey. Thimbles don’t fit either. Aspiration is a dangerous friend, comes up to you all heavy breathing and gets you worked up but where is it when the chips are gone? Asleep on the couch and your work goes on.

    @Sina: I LOVE “the uneditable in pursuit of the unspeakable”. Reminds me of a lovely Zelazny slapstick moment, where the travelling mage witnesses a horrendous, gibbering blue hairless thing with long arms flailing trailing drops of fluid, pursued by an orange mass of teeth and eyes that leaps along…(and perhaps poetry is)

    …”just one damned thing after another.”

    On a lovely morning of darkness and anticipation upon i wish you all the best success or at least less duress,

  • On February 17, 2010 at 10:02 am james stotts wrote:

    the logic of poetics–to touch the hint of morning is to relive the string of pearls that scattered on the black rocks coming out of hell. poetry is the look back and the song–prolong, prolong, prolong. the defeated will to silence. the lyric is a shield against the world. mus-e-ic, a call. poet, a calling

  • On February 17, 2010 at 10:03 am Sina Queyras wrote:

    “The purpose off poetry is to remind us
    how difficult it is to remain just one person…”

    This resonates, Chuck, particularly in relation to Fred’s post about NourbeSe’s book Zong! which speaks for so many. The individual poet though, the lone voice, seems to persist as the model.

  • On February 17, 2010 at 10:15 am Peter Greene wrote:

    @Sina: “The purpose off poetry is to remind us
    how difficult it is to remain just one person…”

    but sina…

    ..we are.


  • On February 17, 2010 at 11:36 am Sina Queyras wrote:

    A shield is an interesting idea. Reminds me a bit of poetry of retreat though. Sometimes I want poetry to be a super hero.

  • On February 17, 2010 at 11:52 am Don Share wrote:

    The “Shield of Achilles,” then? (Book 18, lines 478-608 of Homer’s Iliad; and Auden’s poem… No retreat there; all superhero!

  • On February 17, 2010 at 12:06 pm Sina Queyras wrote:

    That’s what I’m saying! Perhaps not all the time, but you know, a little snap of the cape now and then. Or, back to Lisa Robertson (all lyric roads stop by her door):

    My human face a blazing shield/is all that I could give or she demand/ so I shall hazard shame for future love/and list with soldiers my degenerate name: Debbie. My name is Debbie…

  • On February 17, 2010 at 12:10 pm james stotts wrote:

    i was thinking along a more orphic line of reasoning, when the beautiful music made even the arrows and rocks fall at his feet.

  • On February 17, 2010 at 12:11 pm james stotts wrote:

    also, poetry is…one of the few things we’re lucky enough to share with the birds!

  • On February 17, 2010 at 1:36 pm Peter Greene wrote:

    @J. Stotts: re: birdies. No. Joke. Sometimes you can even pick out a word or two, when the small ones are gathered high and safe on a hot afternoon, work done and fighting forgotten, together. I once listened to an intense, superstaccato chat of finchy things (yellow they were), and clearly heard one, then another, then a third exchange a clear word: the call of a predator bird, sped up stepped down shortened and stylized, and so i learned one word of finch.

    Jays are poets, but they’re into that repetition style mas larga. I never would have thought it of predator birds until one day high in the abandoned quarry on mountain bike (precripple), looking down upon a vast vast bowl i had the great privilege to watch two hawks (osprey maybe? not an audobon baby) hurtle, weave, clutch, drop, tangle, break, hurtle, weave – and heard the whistling song of their breath and wings, my god a love duet made of sound made only of the movement of life in sky, no voice required.

    This is another odd bird moment this week. Once again, all my critical conversations keep developing the same themes. This has been happening since I started trying to…well, whatever it is i’m trying to do (i know part of it has to do with snatching every poem i can this year, but after that i’m lost). Robins to you, and eggs, and – well, it must be spring.


  • On February 17, 2010 at 2:31 pm Sina Queyras wrote:

    “There’s no such thing as bad poetry…”

    I wish that were the case. Alas, there is. Sometimes I have to burn it to rid my mind of it. I am speaking here of my own.

    We are one? Or we are one? Or we are One? Or we are Juan?

  • On February 17, 2010 at 2:34 pm Peter Greene wrote:

    @Sina: Re: bad poetry: OK, semantic backflip attempts aside, here’s some:

    Juan,o/juan,o/what is on my hat?juan, o/juan, o/how could you do that?you’re such a pretty thing/and so oft of you i sing/so this is what you pay me then, juan, o juan.

    (shudders like someone watching a car crash from inside the car)


  • On February 17, 2010 at 3:23 pm Don Share wrote:

    Bad poetry is….?

  • On February 17, 2010 at 4:03 pm alexl wrote:

    and the dogs. my dogs settle down and sleep when i play a poetry recording. or throat singing – same effect. =) amazing to watch. i always wonder if it’s the energy of the rhythm of the speaker,or just the focus on one ongoing quiet thing that does it.

  • On February 17, 2010 at 4:10 pm james stotts wrote:

    bad poetry ist–lhude sing boohoo!

  • On February 17, 2010 at 5:13 pm Sina Queyras wrote:

    Starched collars…
    Faux sentiment…
    Oops…this is probably not a good road to go down Mr. Don.

  • On February 17, 2010 at 5:15 pm Sina Queyras wrote:

    Since I am in Montreal and am lucky to hear a sparrow when things thaw enough, the idea of birds is downright exotic.

  • On February 17, 2010 at 5:32 pm Don Share wrote:

    “my collar mounting firmly to the chin” – T.S. Eliot! [from “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” 1st pub. in Poetry magazine]

  • On February 17, 2010 at 6:32 pm Colin Ward wrote:


    “There’s no such thing as bad poetry.”

    I understand that this is the second tenet of the Convenient Poetic credo but defining away the contributions of Edgar Guest, William McGonagall or Sir Henry Parkes is like saying that the Detroit Lions aren’t an NFL team. It may work as humour but the joke wears thin as we see the horrible truth laid out every day on NFL Network or, in the case of poetry, vanity venues and open mics the world over.

    IMHO, studying only the best poetry will do nothing to develop critical skills. How does a freshman “criticize” Shakespeare? Our tendency to preserve only the best art does more than encourage this sense of denial; it fosters the illusion that the ratio of bad-vs-good poetry is higher than it has ever been. Not so. If Einstein were a poet rather than a scientist he might have used Sturgeon’s Revelation as a constant rather than something as flaky as the speed of light.

    As relative terms, how could we have good without bad? Isn’t the latter where our appreciation of the former begins?


    “Bad poetry is….?”

    …one of the world’s most abundant resources.


  • On February 17, 2010 at 6:52 pm james stotts wrote:

    if you take a couple strides south on your seven-league shoes, to boston–just these last three days i saw/heard: blue heron, falcon, robins (ranked just below the larks as poets, btw), a quiddity of sparrows (a fifth of an infinity, that is)…
    thinking right now of jim harrison’s new book, IN SEARCH of SMALL GODS–in which he plays the same game we’re playing.

  • On February 17, 2010 at 7:08 pm Sina Queyras wrote:

    Stay tuned for a post on Don McKay, our national birding poet.

  • On February 17, 2010 at 7:09 pm Sina Queyras wrote:

    Resource would have to be useful.


  • On February 18, 2010 at 12:56 am Colin Ward wrote:


    “Resource would have to be useful.”

    In impeding navigation, waterfalls were worse than useless before the advent of hydroelectricity.


  • On February 18, 2010 at 1:28 pm Sina Queyras wrote:

    Yes, what if we could harness that energy? Part of what I do in my workshops is have my students regularly read and respond to other poets work in writing. It seems to me that one of the flaws in contemporary poetry is how we focus so much on production and not so much on processing, or discussing…moving poetry out of the singular and into the multiple both in terms of creation and consumption.

  • On February 18, 2010 at 1:29 pm Sina Queyras wrote:

    I think you pronounce Juan differently than I do.

  • On February 18, 2010 at 4:56 pm Mary Meriam wrote:

    I agree with Carmen and Julia.

  • On February 18, 2010 at 5:20 pm Colin Ward wrote:


    “Yes, what if we could harness that energy?”

    That’s easy. We can go to any of bad poetry’s myriad sources, textual or performance, and let it cascade over the students. In little time they’ll understand how boring it is, even if screamed at them in the feigned passion monotone of a slam. With any luck, they’ll make the connection between the clumsy efforts of others and their own. What first lesson could possibly be more important to a neophyte than Scavella’s Maxim?

    Where better to experience the effects of imprecise or fatty language, pointless redundancy, arrhythmia, endless dissonance, OTT melodrama, telling, intrusion, self-absorption, random linebreaking, overalliteration, tortured syntax and countless other flaws? In bad poetry, where these are plentiful, or good poetry, where they aren’t? As a bonus, the student begins to understand the nature and purpose of critique.

    Far be it from me to disparage the workshop model, but for an introduction to poetry, good or bad, distance is a catalyst to candour and objectivity. If only as a matter of fairness, I think bad poems should be analyzed and discussed “third party”, exactly as good ones are.


Posted in Uncategorized on Tuesday, February 16th, 2010 by Sina Queyras.