“Poetry is…”

I’m up in the middle of the night, in Savannah (For the Children’s Book Festival), after a really interesting conversation about slam poetry, novels-in-verse, and what kids get from language…

And I want to say this: Poetry challenges words to communicate MORE than their meanings.

IMHO, poetry has to do this, or it isn’t poetry.  Breaking  prose into funny line breaks doesn’t turn a book into “verse” and tossing out an occasional rhyme or alliteration doesn’t mean you’ve made a poem.   It only means you’ve made something that “looks like” a poem.

For me, poetry isn’t a format. It is BOTH a format and a standard of quality–you can write an essay and it can be bad, and still be technically an essay. It has the formal elements.  But poetry that’s bad isn’t “bad poetry.” It just isn’t anything at all.

Poetry. You know it when you see/hear it.  Poetry is everywhere. It happens in prose, in conversation, in song lyrics.  It doesn’t have to be PROFOUND or DIFFICULT but it has to be, well, more than what it means.

Poetry is what calls you back to something, for another listen or read. Sound or subtext or song. Poetry is why you linger or return. To get more from the words.  Because you can tell there’s more in there. Often poetry sticks in your brain.

At the same time, having a reader (or listener) enjoy (or remember) your work doesn’t always mean it’s good.  My son is 4, and if you say the word “poop” to him he’ll laugh and laugh and repeat what you say.  This is the road to popularity, but I don’t think “poop” makes a poem.

This is why, I think, the conversation gets tricky. Because it’s subjective, but it’s not THAT subjective.

Peep. Pop. Poop.

HAHAHAHAHAHA!  Say it again, Mommy.

People linger over really bad/dumb language sometimes.  They do.

I’ve read a few novels-in-verse, and I need to read more, clearly, because the ones I’ve read have not impressed me.  I find slam poetry compelling and interesting out loud, but often thin when it’s transferred to the page.  I am usually far more impressed with the “poetry” in a picture book or a song than in a “poem for kids.”  Often, “poetry for kids” is either doggerel:

In Savannah, early morning,
In a friendly Hampton Inn
Kinda nice to blog and write,
Even nicer? Sleeping in!


Or just a very soundy list:



There’s just not enough there. Nothing much to it. Nothing. beneath the surface. Nothing else to get.

And  these things have their place, but when I read  poetry I’m holding out for more. When I use the word “poem” I mean more than linebreaks and rhyme.  I mean “amazing” and “layered” and “complex.” I mean it is doing far more than communicating a story or describing a scene.

I mean that the words are working hard.  I mean that I’ll read it again.

3 Responses to ““Poetry is…””

  1. JSottile Says:

    I write and perform poetry for kids. I aggree 100% with this post!

  2. Kerry Clare Says:

    Hi Laurel, I’ve been thinking a lot about the relationship between children’s verse and poetry. I wrote an entry at my blog (here: http://picklemethis.blogspot.com/2009/11/on-poetry-and-verse.html). As a children’s author AND a poet, I feel as though you may have some wisdom to add. If you care to read and comment, I’d appreciate what you have to say. And if you don’t, must say I did enjoy this post.

  3. marinela Says:

    I write poetry for kids, so i really liked this post :)
    Thanks for sharing xx

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