How can you tell it’s a poem?


You can tell it’s a poem because it’s swimming in a little gel pack of white space that shows that it’s a poem. All the typography on all sides has drawn back. The words are making room, they’re saying, Rumble, rumble, stand back now, this is going to be good. Here the magician will do his thing. Here’s the guy who’s going to eat razor blades. Or pour gasoline in his mouth and spout it out. Or lie on a bed of broken glass. So, stand back, you crowded onlookers of prose. This is not prose. This is the blank white playing field of Eton.

Nicholson Baker, The Anthologist,  Simon & Schuster 2009,  p. 21



13 thoughts on “How can you tell it’s a poem?

  1. Ha! Exactly. In some ways this puts visual poetry in a nutshell, this formatting issue. Like crosswords — cryptic or otherwise — the presentation suggests this is a puzzle to work at, something only higher intellects can fathom out.

    I know this isn’t just me: for many such as me poetry is like Holy Writ, to be revered and venerated by the believers, not by non-adherents. But the weird thing is — I like crosswords (cryptic or otherwise) and I like prose poems (no fancy lay-out to declare its sanctity).

    The whole concept is like that awkward comversation estranged couples are supposed to start off with: “It’s not you, it’s me.” And it definitely is me. I suspect it stems from a word implying non-commital: laziness.

    There, I’ve said it.

    1. I love cryptic crosswords. The prose poem is a strange beast. It used to be all about rhythm and image- these days it’s becoming more like a condensed short story or an extended aphorism. Nicolson Baker is very funny, but as you know if you write poetry (do you?) you get very alert to the reverb from the white space around your lines.

  2. Come to think about it that is a good way to tell whether it’s prose or poetry.
    It’s the physical appearance that is the reveal.

    1. There are visual poems, as calmgrove mentions above, that are written in the shape of objects – a vase, or a waterfall, for example. There was a big vogue for them once and in this digital age people with the skills can make even even fancier ones.

        1. This is from Wikipedia:

          “l(a” is a poem by E. E. Cummings. It is the first poem in his 1958 collection 95 Poems.[1]

          “l(a” is arranged vertically in groups of one to five letters.


          When the text is laid out horizontally, it either reads as l(a leaf falls)oneliness —in other words, a leaf falls inserted between the first two letters of loneliness- or l(a le af fa ll s) one l iness, with a le af fa ll s between a l and one.[2]

          Cummings biographer Richard S. Kennedy calls the poem “the most delicately beautiful literary construct that Cummings ever created”.[3

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