Why Is a Poem a Poem?

325 Lecture, October 8, 2003


Here are the texts I'll refer to, and a few notes on them. The poems by Williams, Scully, and Niedecker appear on this page. The other links here lead to their own pages. Please read each poem aloud, and spend a little time thinking about the questions I've asked. If these poems are not in your textbook, please print them out and bring them along on the 8th.

The poems on this page are short, 20th c. free verse poems. The sonnet, by contrast, is one of the tightest and most complex poetic forms ever devised. I've included two from Shakespeare and three from 20th c. poets. The Auden poem (also 20th c.) is probably best described as free verse, though it shares some characteristics with more formally traditional poems. I suggest you read it last.

W.C. Williams: Poem  /  James Scully: Golden Mean  /  Lorine Niedecker: Untitled

4 sonnets  /  W.H. Auden's "Musée des Beaux Arts"    

Here are two 20th c. free verse poems in which the action of the line breaks is just about the whole definition of what makes a certain collection of words a "poem." One is entirely concrete, the other entirely abstract. Both are by poets for who believe/d that a poem should enact its message, rather than simply deliver it.  


William Carlos Williams

< style="font-weight: bold;">Italicized remarks at the right represent the sort of questions that might hover in a reader's mind at the end of each line. They are not part of Williams' poem. Why do you think Williams called this poem "Poem?"

As the cat                          did what?
climbed over                     climbed over what?
the top of                          the top of what?

the jamcloset                    how?
first the right                     right what?
forefoot                            then? we might ask, but Williams wants us to ask how?
carefully                           then what?
then the hind                    did what?
stepped down                 how? where?

into the pit of                  doesn’t sound good! pit of what?
the empty                       empty what?

James Scully

For this poem, read first what its author, James Scully, calls the "deversed" version, then the poem itself. In his book Line Break: Poetry as Social Practice (Seattle: Bay Press, 1988) he said of this little exercise: "Whereas the prose withheld a final disposition, the verse does not. It sides. Accuses."(p.132)  And more: "The prose sentence had implied the inadequacy of the golden mean... In the verse the golden mean acts in complicity with what it 'opposes.' " (134) 

How do the line breaks make that reading emerge from what are, after all, the same words we see in the prose?


They call the rage of the oppressed extremist. Evenhanded censure, from the hypothetical center of the slaughter, they call impartial, objective.

The Poem:

They call the rage of the oppressed

from the hypothetical center of

the slaughter, they call impartial, objective.

Lorine Niedecker

In this poem by Lorine Niedecker, lineation again plays the most important role in creating a way of reading the words. In this case, however, most readers find it impossible to limit the interpretive possibilities, partly because of language we can't paraphrase and partly because the lines and line breaks cluster and isolate words, allowing multiple, perhaps contradictory readings to rise out of them. As you read this poem, identify rhymes and other sound relationships, as well places where multiple meanings seem possible. What might all this have to do with the poem's subject?

I married

in the world’s black night
for warmth
           if not repose
           At the close—

I hid with him
from the long range guns.
           We lay leg
            in the cupboard, head
in closet.

A slit of light
at no bird dawn—
           I thought
he drank

too much.
I say
           I married
           and lived unburied.
I thought—