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In my Creative Writing class, we discussed poems by Galway Kinnell and Li Young-Lee. We read Kinnell's works, "Under the Maud Moon", "Little Sleep's-Head Sprouting Hair in the Moonlight" and "The Olive Wood Fire", and Lee's "The Life" and "My Sleeping Loved Ones". Professor Beltz-Hosek asked our class whether or not these poems meet the requirements of a poem. They are all multiple pages long and broken up into numbered sections. Many people say these works should not be called poems because of their length and their subjects. These poems do not seem to have an inner meaning or deep metaphors to sift through like the poem we read in class, "The Word Plum". They are about the authors' families and personal experiences. I think these are perfect examples for Sontag's idea of form over meaning! So, if you want to check them out and see for yourselves you can go to:

 Little Sleep's-Head Sprouting Hair in the Moonlight

Under the Maud Moon

"My Sleeping Loved Ones" (p.63) and "The Life" (p.53)


I couldn't find "The Olive Wood Fire", but you are more than welcome to add it if someone finds it! My questions are: Are literary texts still poems if we find they don't have a hidden meaning? What is the exact criteria for a poem?


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  1. Unknown User (co9)

    I think that, interestingly enough, one of the key things that sets poetry apart from other kinds of writing is its form.  Certainly, stanzas could be taken as the equivalent of paragraphs, but poetry can go so much further when it comes to the shape in which it is constructed–take, for instance concrete (or "shape") poems, where form and meaning are intertwined by the physical appearance of the words, crafted into a shape pertinent to the topic of the poem.  Poetry, in essence, is not as tethered-down by structural rules as other types of writing–there is no approximate sentence limit to comprise a "proper" stanza, and there is no character count that deems a poem to be of acceptable length.  A poem could be a three-line haiku, or it could be The Odyssey, but its unique, malleable form sets it apart.

    However, to say that form is the only thing that makes a poem a poem would be far too simplistic.  There is also a certain atmosphere to poetry, lending itself to the word "poetic"–poetry can express just as wide a range of meanings and emotions as any other form of writing, but it does so in a much more minimalistic, esoteric way.  This isn't to say that poems can only be somber, mysterious, and sparse in description, but they must take a different approach to things like atmosphere and usage of literary devices.  Regardless of length, poems "compress" an idea into the essentials, though that may be done in a straightforward way, an abstract way, or a manner somewhere in between the two.  Thus, it follows that, despite what the insistent English teacher may have to say about those blue curtains ("they symbolize the speaker's depression, they symbolize the River Styx, they symbolize the smothering nature of the cult of domesticity"), a poem does not necessarily require a "deeper meaning" any more than some other type of writing does.  Due to the malleable form and unique atmosphere of poetry, it seems intuitive that there must always be something more hidden in the gaps between a poem's line, but this is never necessarily the case.  Just like how a writer probably seldom sits down and thinks to themselves, "Ah, yes, I'm going to put a blue curtain as a metaphor for the smothering nature of the cult of domesticity right in this line," a poem is not always required to contain this supposed level of depth that we have come to think naturally follows the unique form and atmosphere of poetry.  So as they say, sometimes a cigar is just a cigar, and sometimes, the blue curtain is only there because the room has a nautical theme. 

    If anyone else has anything to add onto this, please feel free to–there's no way to really wholly define a poem in two short paragraphs, so I just tried to sketch out the characteristics I found most important/evident.