Writing Poems: a Guide

Poetry: What is it?  How write it? 

In ABC of Reading, here is how poet Ezra Pound defines poetry:  

‘Great literature is simply language charged with meaning to the utmost possible degree’ (28).

Dichten = condensare.

I begin with poetry because it is the most concentrated form of verbal expression. Basil Bunting, fumbling about with a German-Italian dictionary, found that this idea of poetry as concentration is as old almost as the German language. ‘Dichten’ is the German verb corresponding to the noun ‘Dichtung’ meaning poetry, and the lexicographer has rendered it by the Italian verb meaning ‘to condense’ (36).

NEVERTHELESS you still charge words with meaning mainly in three ways, called phanopoeia, melopoeia, logopoeia. You use a word to throw a visual image on to the reader’s imagination, or you charge it by sound, or you use groups of words to do this.

Thirdly, you take the greater risk of using the word in some special relation to ‘usage’, that is, to the kind of context in which the reader expects, or is accustomed, to find it (37).

Here is the poetry scholar Paul Fussell, Jr.’s definition for poetry in Poetic Meter and Poetic Form:  

Poetry is an art whose focus is in two directions at once:  toward the inert technical arcana of syllabus and sounds and syntax and metaphor as well as toward the animated actualities of human nature and expectation.

Here is Archibald Macleish’s definition in a poem called “Ars Poetica”

A poem should be palpable and mute   

As a globed fruit,


As old medallions to the thumb,

Silent as the sleeve-worn stone

Of casement ledges where the moss has grown—

A poem should be wordless   

As the flight of birds.


A poem should be motionless in time   

As the moon climbs,

Leaving, as the moon releases

Twig by twig the night-entangled trees,

Leaving, as the moon behind the winter leaves,   

Memory by memory the mind—

A poem should be motionless in time   

As the moon climbs.


A poem should be equal to:

Not true.

For all the history of grief

An empty doorway and a maple leaf.

For love

The leaning grasses and two lights above the sea—

A poem should not mean   

But be.

QUESTION: Which of these definitions do you like or agree with?  Why?  Or do you have your own definition?  What is it?