What Makes Poetry

I think about poetry a lot. Particularly what makes a poem. In this time of free verse when it seems few of the tools of poetry are being put to good use, I still know a poem when I see one. Lately I’ve been reading poems (and essays) that gather their materials up front, do a little roaming around in them, and then completely fall apart. Right when it’s time to make a point or give me something I can be happy going away with, they collapse. I’m not saying I’m immune to this, which is why I want to pay attention when a poem is a poem and hits its mark.

Recently I picked up Nancy White’s book Ask Again Later. We were in graduate school together and I’ve always admired her poems. I was surprised to find the book is a collection of poems based on biblical stories. The approach is feminist and makes postmodern moves like writing beyond the ending (“Aging Eve”), changing the story by taking a female character’s point of view (“Jael”), bringing female characters at the margins to the center of the stories (“Moses”), and putting characters into discussions with contemporary feminists (“Betty Friedan Reads to Eve Who’s Sick in Bed”). It’s a hard thing to do well. What I like most about the poems in this book is that they don’t try to retell the story– if you don’t know it, look it up– and they are spare, pressing you to bring what you know to bear (about the Ten Commandments for example) to add richness to the poem, not just handing you some message or theological twist.

And I gotta tell you, the first poem stopped me in my tracks. It is “Noa,” the name of one of the five daughters of Zelophahad who argued successfully for inheritance rights given that their father had no male heirs. She’s an obscure figure of the Old Testament, to be sure. I actually do know a young woman who was named Noa by her Jewish attorney parents (who also had no male heirs!), but it’s more often a boy’s name, after that much more famous Noah. The poem goes like this:



     by Nancy White

She stumped us, the flinty
glitter of her tale,
her koans blunt and rubbly.

What to call her, how
to explain? And no one asks
for her anyway.

One more bird by the side of the road,
a high note dropped when
we just can’t hit it.


I had to read it twice. But the brilliance of the last stanza’s analogy made me say “yes.” This is the kind of connection, of opening up, I want my poems to do. We all recognize that experience of not being able to hit a high note so dropping a third to an easier one. Or we’ve heard it. And what happens when we drop that note? It is lost. And the song changes. The song becomes less difficult, and though it may keep its resolution, though it may satisfy just as much as the other one, though we don’t actually miss the other note after a while, we probably should.

I spend a lot of time thinking about metaphors and similes and other forms of figurative language. Asking myself: What is that like? What can this be compared to? But I never thought about that dropped high note before.


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One Response to What Makes Poetry

  1. Jane OBrien says:

    I love your blog! Someday I want to meet you–you are on my bucket list! I was in Collegeville for retreat last week, but you were on your own vacation at the Jersey shore. Maybe next time, which is likely to be a few years. The monk who directed my retreat pointed to a prairie section by the lake your husband had helped them with, and said that he, himself, had witnessed your wedding. I read George Herbert and looked at the prairie patch all week, so besides the wonderful work of retreat, I did feel a bit connected to you who live there all the year long. And used your wonderful book to get inside the illuminations a bit in the SJB. And now, today, this lovely reflection on high notes dropped and what makes something poetry. Thank you!

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