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Deciding whether something should be a poem or an essay

When I wrote a couple of posts ago about the writers who influenced me early on in terms of craft, I tried to focus on those aspects of making a poem that can be talked about separately from any specific content. Form, after all—the elegiac couplet, for example—is still form, regardless of the subject matter it contains. Meter is still meter; the line, the line; syntax, syntax. I wanted this post, focused on the writers from whom I first learned what I wanted my poetry to be about, to follow in the same vein. Once I started to gather my ideas, however, especially because there is a significant overlap in content between my poems and my essays, I found myself drawn instead to the question of how and why I choose one genre over another in any given instance.

My touchstone here is something I learned in the 1980s, during my junior year at Stony Brook University, when I took my first poetry workshop ever with June Jordan. Both in class and in the individual conferences she had with me, Professor Jordan spoke about what poetry was in a way that touched deeply the part of me aching to tell the truth about my life. I do not remember her exact words, but these two quotes, from her introduction to June Jordan’s Poetry for the People: A Revolutionary Blueprint, capture the essence of what she said:

You cannot write lies and write good poetry.

Poetry is a political action undertaken for the sake of information, the faith, the exorcism, and the lyrical invention, that telling the truth makes possible. Poetry means taking control of the language of your life. Good poems can interdict a suicide, rescue a love affair, and build a revolution in which speaking and listening to somebody becomes the first and last purpose to every social encounter.

This does not mean, of course, that writing essays is not political, that essays cannot also be about discovering the potential in telling the truth, but it’s hard to imagine an essay rescuing a love affair or preventing a suicide, at least not in the way Jordan seems to be talking about here.

Jordan’s claim that poetry is, at its core, an artistic form of truth telling—or, more accurately perhaps, that to write a poem is to give truth an artistic form—resonates with another idea I have carried with me from when I was an undergraduate, this time from Suzanne Langer’s Feeling and Form. Basically, and I hope I am not doing too much of an injustice to something I read more than thirty years ago, Langer argues that works of art are non-discursive symbols of human experience. The visual arts, for example, recreate for us the experience of physical space; music, the experience of feeling itself, of the ebb and flow of emotions through time; and poetry, Langer argues, if I remember correctly, recreates the experience of lived history in all its cultural, psychological, emotional, and political complexity.

I don’t remember that Langer explicitly tied the making of art to truth-telling per se, but from the way she talked about the intricately wrought nature of the symbol she believed a work of art to be, it was clear that she also believed one false step on the artist’s part—anything that would push or pull an audience out of the symbol/experience—would render that work of art ultimately unsuccessful. Langer’s position is not as down to earth as Jordan’s speaking and listening to somebody,” obviously, but it is no less concerned with the artist’s commitment to truth and honesty. I feel that commitment when I write both poetry and essays, of course, but the difference in genre corresponds to a difference that is worth teasing out in what I mean by truth and honesty.

When I think about it now, especially in the context of Langer’s analysis of poetry (at least as I remember it), it seems odd that she had almost nothing to say about the formal choices poets make, except that these are among the tools we use in making of our poems. It seems odd because a poet’s formal choices—and I am thinking here specifically about rhyme, meter, and other forms of sound patterning—are fundamentally the same kinds of musical choices that a composer makes, and Langer had a great deal to say about music, not only in Feeling and Form, but also in her previous book, which I have not read, *Philosophy In A New Key. I’m surprised, in other words, that Langer seemed to pass over entirely the role played by musical structuring in a poem’s non-discursive representation of lived history, thereby missing a way to connect, in formal terms, one mode of artistic creation to another.

A contemporary poet who thinks very deeply about the role of musical structure in poetry is Annie Finch. In an essay she wrote for The Writer’s Chronicle called The Body of the Poetry Manuscript: Patterning Your Collection With Structural Repetition,” Finch identifies structural language patterning [as] the single defining characteristic of poetry,” Finch goes on to distinguish between poetry and prose by saying

This doesn’t mean that only poetry uses patterned, repeated language. Prose can also use gorgeous, lyrical, repetitive, incantatory language patterning. But while prose can be decorated by pattern, only poems are structured by pattern. (Emphasis in original)1

Nonfiction prose, of course, is also structured by pattern,” if only because it is organized into paragraphs; and it would be foolish to deny that the sentences that are the building blocks of prose have, both individually and collectively, rhythm and melody.” The difference is that the music of a well-wrought sentence is the music of an elegantly expressed thought, while the music of a well-wrought line is the intentionally wrought music of the language itself; and it is through the crafting of that musicality that a poet turns language into a poem. Broadly speaking, in other words, to be committed to truth and honesty in non-fiction prose is to be committed first and foremost to honing quality of one’s thought, while to be committed to truth and honesty in poetry is to be committed first and foremost to finding the music that will best fit the experience the poem is supposed to embody.2

To put this in terms of the choices I make when I decide whether something should be a poem or an essay, I would say that I write essays when I have something to say about a subject, which of course doesn’t mean that essays are emotionless, while I write poems when I want to explore that subject emotionally, which of course doesn’t mean that poems lack intellectual substance. Sometimes that choice is clear from the start. Other times, though, the language itself dictates the choice for me, usually when I’m trying to write a poem and realize I can’t find a musical structure that fits what I want to talk about. When that realization hits, I usually start writing what I’m thinking and pretty soon I find myself more than knee deep into the essay that piece of writing should have been from the start.

I still want to talk about the poets and writers from whom I learned what I wanted my work to be about, which also means I learned from them about the work I wanted my writing to do in the world, but I realize, having written this post, that I want to do more than simply list the writers’ names and the lessons about subject matter I took from them. I want to think more deeply about what it means to say that a particular writer influenced me in this way and that will take some time. Meanwhile, I’m going to move on to some of the other questions John Wisniewski asked me in that unpublished interview, and there are some other things I want to post about as well.

As always, I’d love to know what you think.


  1. Unfortunately, you can only read the full article online if you’re a member of AWP.↩︎

  2. While I think this distinction between poetry and nonfiction prose holds true in English, it does not do so for all languages/literary traditions. Persian and Arabic, for example, have a tradition of rhymed prose called Saj’. A. J. Arberry tried to replicate this form in Kings and Beggars: The First Two Chapters of Sa’di’s Gulistan. To my ear, though, the result is to make Sa’di sound like Ogden Nash, and we call Ogden Nash’s work poetry, not prose.↩︎

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