What makes a poem? Words would be the simple answer, just as bronze makes the statue of David, but it doesn't really tell us much. Is a poem defined by its rhythm and rhyme? But what of the free verse? They are poems too, though my dad insists they are prose. If a poem is not the sum of its words, rhythm, and rhyme, what is it? Well, like all art, it isn't a math problem. "The Scream" is not the sum of the canvas and pigments. It is not, even, the sum of its beauty. It's actually a rather ugly painting.
Not so pretty, huh? Yet this is a well-known painting, and one I can relate to. What does this have to do with poems? Well, this is art, and poems are art. Think of it like this, a sonnet is like the beautiful, accurate paintings such as this one:
On the other hand, we have The Scream, which is essentially a free verse. Now, what must any good work of art have or do? It must express. What it expresses is really irrelevant. It doesn't have to be received the same way by different people, either. For example, to me, The Scream represents how the world is awful and distorted to one person when something is terribly wrong, yet the rest of the world does not notice. You may see it differently. Maybe you can't express what it makes you feel, and that is common, art often is that way.
So, what does this mean? Why is this important? Well, as poems are art, they should express something too. Anger, sadness, hate, disgust, or maybe something else, more complicated, or indescribable. This is particularly important with free verse poems, because they don't have beautiful rhyme or pleasant rhythm to help them, they must be pure meaning. With a haiku, a sonnet, or any of the standard poem types, you can look at a list of rules and know if you've done it right or wrong, but with free verse you can't.
I think it is good practice to write in free verse, because we can't pretend our poems are good so easily when we don't have any rhyme to hide behind. We have to make it mean something, or it will just be a jumble of words. A pile of dirty clothes. A sonnet, if it has no meaning, is like a box of folded dirty clothes, it can pretend to be done, but it still won't be, and it will still stink.
Elisabeth TenBrink Kelley is an aspiring author and poet. To learn more about her, see our About Us page. You can follow her on Twitter here: @ElisabethGTK. You know you've got the right one if the picture is of a dragon holding a crystal ball.
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