from my book, Simple Poetry
A piece of poem is a piece of poem if and only if you consider it as such.
This principle emphasizes the fact that the intention of the composer and the acceptance of the reader plays the crucial role in identifying a piece of poem. Now, we must see how a poet conveys his intention when he considers a piece of poem as such; and how the reader may receive the message ‘this is a piece of poem’.
This is usually done through a set of formal features that distinguish the written format of poetry from that of prose. Consider the following short paragraph:
Some people say, “A word is dead when it is said.” However, I say, “It just begins to live that day.”
The written format of this paragraph is the usual format of a piece of prose. In this way, the writer does not seem to intend composing a poem, although the content (thought and feeling), and the other poetic aspects (i.e., rhythm, rhyme, melody, figurative language, and artistic beauty) do exist in a level which is more than enough for a short piece of poem. Consequently, the reader, who encounters the usual format of prose, is not supposed to read it as a piece of poem. Normally, the reader’s speed and his amount of carefulness to the form and content of the paragraph would adjust according to the assumption of reading prose rather than reading poetry.
Now, consider the following poem:
A word is dead
When it is said,
I say it just
Begins to live
Emily Dickinson (Ibrahim & Thiyaga Rajah, p. 3)
When the reader looks at the above written format, he gets ready to read a poem. What are the formal features that tells the reader, ‘this is a poem’?
First of all, the poem is composed of short lines put vertically under one another, instead of following each other in a horizontal sequence as far as the margins allow space. The lines may be either centered or left aligned. When we write a paragraph in prose, the sentences follow each other horizontally and a new line may start anywhere in the sentence whenever we reach the right margin. However, in poetry, a new line starts when the reader is supposed to pause after a tone unit and whenever a shorter pause is required, the new line is indented (More discussion about tone unit and its role in the phonological form of poetry is presented in Unit Four: Melody of the book, Simple Poetry).
The lines of a poem usually start with a capital letter, no matter it is the beginning of a sentence or not.
A paragraph in poetry is called a stanza. Stanzas are separated by a double line space. The above short poem is divided into two stanzas. Each stanza covers a subdivision of the subject matter of the poem.
Finally, a poem, no matter how short it is, usually has a title.
It should be mentioned that what we say about the written format of poetry concerns the normal way a poem is written. However, there are poems with the written format of prose. To have an example, you may have a look at the following poem by Indian poet, Rabindranath Tagore, one the world’s greatest poets of the twentieth century. This poem is quoted from the famous book, Gitanjali, which won the Noble Prize for literature. All the poems in this book are presented in the written format of prose and instead of having titles, they are given numbers:
I have had my invitation to this world’s festival, and thus my life has been blessed. My eyes have seen and my ears have heard.
It was my part at this feast to play upon my instrument, and I have done all I could.
Now, I ask, has the time come at last when I may go in and see thy face and offer thee my silent salutation?
Rabindranath Tagore (Shahbaaz, pp. 135-7)
It is possible to write the above poem in poetic format. That is, to divide it into its tone units and put them down vertically. We can also consider each paragraph as a stanza and leave a double line space between them. We start each line with a capital letter and, to give it a more usual form of a poem, we also provide it with a title. Now, read the poem in its new format, as a poem, and compare it with its original format in prose.
I have had my invitation
To this world’s festival,
My life has been blessed.
My eyes have seen and
My ears have heard.
It was my part at this feast
To play upon my instrument,
And I have done all I could.
Now, I ask,
Has the time come at last
When I may go in
And see thy face
And offer thee
My silent salutation?
Now, read the following poems and pay a closer attention to their written format.
The first time you read a poem, never forget to read it just for the sake of enjoyment and contemplation.
I have eaten all the plums
That where in the icebox
Those you may keep
But they were delicious
And so cold.
William Carlos Williams (Williams, p.76)
There is joy in
Feeling the warmth
Come to the great world
And seeing the sun
Follow its old footprints
In the summer night.
Knud Rasmussen, translator (Durr et al, a, p. 109)
In the Mirror
In the mirror
On the wall,
There’s a face
I always see;
Round and pink,
And rather small,
Looking back again
It is very
Rude to stare,
But she never
Thinks of that,
For her eyes are
What can she be
Elizabeth Fleming (Ibrahim & Thiyaga Rajah, p. 33)
When I am an old woman I shall wear purple
With a red had which doesn’t go, and doesn’t suit me.
And I shall spend my pension on brandy and summer gloves
And satin sandals, and say we’ve no money for butter.
I shall sit down on the pavement when I’m tired
And gobble up samples in shops and press alarm bells
And run my stick along the public railings
And make up for the sobriety of my youth.
I shall go out in my slippers in the rain
And pick the flowers in other people’s gardens
And learn to spit.
You can wear terrible shirts and grow more fat
And eat three pounds of sausages at a go
Or only bread and pickle for a week
And hoard pens and pencils and beermats and things in boxes.
But now we must have clothes that keep up dry
And pay our rent and not swear in the street
And set a good example for the children.
We must have friends to dinner and read the papers.
But maybe I ought to practise a little now?
So people who know me are not too shocked and surprised
When suddenly I am old, and start to wear purple.
Jenny Joseph (Martin & Hill, p. 22)