By Steven Withrow, poet and co-author of It’s Not My Fault
In my travels to schools and libraries as a visiting poet, I often ask students and teachers if they can tell me what a poem is. I’ve received hundreds of wonderful answers—some serious, some silly. My favorite of all came from a young girl in Massachusetts named Audrey: A poem is when words happen to each other, and you can say it like a song.
Give me a month to come up with a definition, and I don’t think I could outdo that one.
Keeping in mind Audrey’s wise notion, I’d like to give you some small insight into the workings of one of my poems in It’s Not My Fault, my collection with Roger Stevens. Here’s the poem (I suggest reading it silently, once, for the sense, then speaking it aloud, twice, for the sound):
If I can’t get a dog then I guess I’ll get a pelican.
A pelican I’ll get if I can’t get a dog.
Instead of a stick, I’ll toss bright fish right into his pouch.
Instead of a walk, he’ll wing like a kite on the string of his leash.
And late at night he’ll settle his pelican head at the foot of my bed
Dreaming halibut dreams swimming up from the dark sea.
First, let’s think of this poem in terms of the first part of Audrey’s definition: A poem is when words happen to each other. Look closely at this poem, even without reading it, and you’ll likely notice that most of the words are little one-syllabled lumps of language. The relatively few multisyllabic words—pelican, instead, into, settle, dreaming, halibut, swimming—provide contrast, both in sound and sense, from the steady march of monosyllables. The longer words stand out and hold a little more weight in the lines because of this syllabic difference. Poems thrive on repetition, but careful variation is also essential.
Another “happening” among the words in this poem is the way many words almost rhyme…but not perfectly, or at least not in the places you might expect. Think of just a few pairs with linked vowels and consonants: get/guess, walk/stick, dreaming/swimming. And the internal rhymes within and across lines in bright/right/kite/night, wing/string, bed/head. Unity of sound is one of my ideals as a writer, yet here too, careful variation is important.
Next, let’s consider “Pelican” in light of the second part of Audrey’s definition: You can say it like a song. I’d like to think that the interweaving of syllable sounds I mentioned above contributes to the music of the poem, and I hope they help make the poem enjoyable to say. I’d also like to think that the poem is different from, say, a set of song lyrics in that it doesn’t require a specific tempo (time signature or pace) or tune (melody or chord progression) to feel complete. While the tight rhythms of the first two lines might make for a sprightly jingle, the more elongated rhythms of the last four lines feel to me more like speech rhythms than song rhythms. In other words, they are more conducive to being said than sung. But it’s a feeling I have more than a definite division I’ve made.
When I share a poem with students—and I strongly believe that sharing a poem as a gift in itself is a better method than teaching a poem or wringing it of hidden messages—I like to point out two or three happenings in the poem as examples and then ask the students to point out a happening they found on their own. A list of possible happenings in even a short poem is longer than one might expect. Children should be encouraged to contribute their ideas, it seems to me, so long as these ideas do not overtake the experience of the poem.
A poem is when words happen to each other, and you can say it like a song.
Yes, it still holds up. Thank you, Audrey.
I could write much more about my poem and other poems that I love, but I’m curious to hear your thoughts on how poems happen…and how you’re sharing poetry with your students. Also, I’m happy to respond to questions you might have in the comments below. Thanks for reading!