Lit / Society & Culture

Stop Asking “Is That A Real Poem?”

I’m an NYC poet in my late 20s – I go to a lot of poetry readings. Two per week on average, which means I’m hearing about 24 poets per month, that’s at least 288 poets per year (not including AWP).

So I often find myself sitting in some dark bar or other asking myself what poetry is. What are the “rules”?

Two currently popular techniques are 1. co-written manuscripts which can either be about unicorns or sex etc. (kidding/not kidding) or often conceptual pieces of writing that discuss (for instance) what it is to be human, and 2. utilizing the texts of others through things like erasures or mash-ups. Both are forms of collaboration – one social, one solitary.

I love the idea of co-written books, but it took me many years to feel like erasures or mash-ups etc. had any validity outside of exercises.

Many I still don’t find interesting, creative, or worthwhile, but others seem to me more than the sum of their parts. Moving creativity, insightful thinking, not a “poetry puzzle game”.


Me reading at Nuclear Poetry in 2009.

To me, the great ones are about language, the way we think and process images and ideas, passion, and homage – not just something that’s clever. When you talk to a super interesting friend and then go home and write about the conversation and all the things that conversation made you think of – that’s what these types of poems are to me. Assuming the poem isn’t made out of full, verbatim lines, how is that not something you yourself made?

Yes, I think that language play for its own sake is fun and cool, but a poem I’m actually gonna pay attention to still remains something that has to punch me in the guts. Something in some way vulnerable and striking, that I’m different at the end of, that makes me want to write.

But there are many people who don’t agree with my views. I met one recently, and decided to have a conversation with them and I’m glad I did. I like conversation, and it often makes things clearer or brings up great new thoughts.

This person felt that the only true poetry is 100% original in word choice and order. I find this to be an antiquated way of viewing poetry, experiencing language both written and spoken, and of experiencing and connecting with art.

I understand and agree with the idea of the importance of credit and acknowledgement for hard work and our own creativity, which was this person’s main concern. I work my ass off as a poet, and my work means the world to me – I get it. But wouldn’t we rather be in conversation intimately with each other, not held at a distance merely reading each other’s work in public as a way to show appreciation or, more importantly, of engaging with each other?

This begs the question what does it mean to be “derivative” or to “steal”? Is binging on a single poet and then writing a manuscript where people can tell who you’ve binged on stealing, or is it just when you use their actual texts? Where do we draw the line between sounding like someone and uncreative work. What does “unoriginal” mean? What is “original”? Why do we define a work by these shades of grey rather than by the work itself? Maybe the problem is that we’re looking at a book as the complete object of a complete human, when everything’s really always a work in progress. Would that make us more open? How useful really is the question, “is that a real poem?”

Here’s the thing, people will always take bits and pieces from each other, and make things their own. It’s the nature of humans – the nature of how we learn, process, and experience life. By chewing it, tasting it, deciding things, and making something with that mush. It’s really a wonderful thing.

Is another person’s art to be respected to the point where we hold back our own art? I say no. No, nothing should hold us from our art or our journey to it, and if part of your journey needs to be erasures then write a million erasures. It’s a journey to our own understanding of ourselves, and our own fulfillment in our lives and our art.

I say – always credit; never restrain. What do you think?

*cover photo: How to Create a Simple Re-Mixing Tool (chopBook) by Joseph A. W. Quintela on rIgor mort.US

Alyssa Morhardt-Goldstein is the founding editor of SOUND: a literary magazine on contemporary musico-poetics, and an associate editor for Rattapallax. She received her MFA in poetry from The New School, and her BS in classical vocal performance and literature from Mannes. Her chapbook, Quiet, was selected by Matthea Harvey as The New School’s 2012 Chapbook Contest winner for poetry. She is currently writing the libretto for Jonathan Dawe’s modern operatic re-telling of Tamburlaine. @Elkawildling


8 thoughts on “Stop Asking “Is That A Real Poem?”

  1. All art is built off other art. How bare would our libraries be, if The Aeneid was dismissed as a cheap knock-off of Homer, and so on down the line?

    Anyway, I had planned to write a longer, more eloquent comment along that vein, but instead you get this poem by way of reply, which is only really semi-relevant:

    Eventually, every poet will come to wonder
    after they’ve broken one rule too many,
    *just what exactly is poetry?*
    To some, perhaps, this answer must surely come;
    That poetry is the art of expressing an idea,
    or thought
    in the most perfect form language will allow.
    But in possession of this idea,
    our poet must surely now
    want to test it to its limit.
    And so find themselves,
    in a dark and crowded theatre,
    all eyes upon the stage,
    a single word upon their lips…

    To watch that word travel, like a wave,
    a ripple of pure feeling through the crowd
    and suddenly they are all on their feet,
    *a single word*
    to turn the most cultured *audience*
    into a maddened mob.
    A single word,
    exploding like a bomb.

    What slam-champion can ever lay claim to the same?
    What drowsy lover’s half-murmured stanza?
    What rock god, or grecian ode?

    But then…
    what better way *might* we describe poetry,
    than the work of clever minds,
    Lighting fires in the dark?

  2. Fascinating article. Very thought-provoking. Sometimes I write poetry in response to another poet, echoing their theme, but making it my own. Or at times, twisting it around altogether. Whenever I write a “reply” poem, I acknowledge this to be the case. Since I publish my poetry on my blog, I usually link back the author with whose theme I am engaging. I find it a fruitful and rewarding experience. I am not quite sure whether this is an instance of borrowing – in the way in which you describe it – I have not considered the subject until now. Would be interesting to know your view regarding this.
    Many thanks and warm regards,

    • I never thought to write a “reply” poem, that itself is very interesting. I think borrowing is an art form as well. You can borrow words or phrases (in which case I’d say always credit the source, as Alyssa stated in the article), or you can borrow a technique. Borrowing a technique is harder to determine as “stealing”. We write similarly to what we read. My friend reads a lot of Bukowski-she writes in a style similar to Bukowski. I’ve written found word poems as a form of exercise, but I can’t bring myself to say it’s a “real” poem, though I’m not sure why. I think each poet has to determine for herself/himself what makes the poem “real”. Thanks for your insight to a “reply” poem, I might use that as an exercise in the future!

      • Dear Kaytlin, I seem to have coined a poetic term quite by accident.
        I do hope that you will attempt it, and if you do I would love to read the outcome.
        In case you would like to see my approach to it, here is a link to one of my “reply” poems, titled “Last Kiss” and written in reply to a fellow blogger’s poem “Death of a Writer”.
        There is a link at the bottom of the post for his poem, so you will be able to read both.
        Warm regards,

    • Hey Vic! I love the term “reply poem”. I wouldn’t call that a “found poem” as the ones I mentioned are often referred to as, but it’s certainly an instance of engagement and communication with another author. Very cool. :)

      • Thank you, Alyssa. This is very helpful. It certainly clarifies the distinction. I love writing them. Since joining WordPress I’ve rediscovered my love for both writing and reading poetry. Sometimes I come across a poem that inspires, and writing my “reply” is my way of acknowledging the author of the original, as well as tapping into my own creative vein.
        Warm regards,

  3. “…but a poem I’m actually gonna pay attention to still remains something that has to punch me in the guts. Something in some way vulnerable and striking, that I’m different at the end of, that makes me want to write.”
    Exactly! You summed it up perfectly. This is why I write and if I don’t achieve what you stated above, I feel that I have failed. Great article!
    –Peter Marra

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