Learning from a stupid question: What makes a poem a poem?

How would you like to answer a question from someone, who happened to read one of your poems, asking about what makes your work it is? It happened to me back in my college days when a Philosophy major dean’s list classmate of mine in one subject challenged me with a question. The question never came to give me difficulty in answering though nor has it caught me off-guard but I was more particularly curious on how should the arguments unfold to come up with a conclusion as a result later on.

“The poem that I wrote became a poem because it has to be,” I started to explain to him my answer. “If it’s not going to be a poem I would be dealing so much time and effort writing, then I wouldn't have written it in the first place. But what makes a poem a poem is that a poem is a form of expression capable of achieving a variety of purposes in such a way that a poet connects or communicates to his readers.”

The guy, perhaps unsatisfied with my answer, raised a brow and asked: “So, tell me, what it is then?” This is going to be playing mind games with this guy if I wanted to, I told myself, and the thoughts of it filled me up with excitement. But it’s good to tell him the truth of things springing straight from the heart of the poet that he has challenged.

“It is the superfluity that a poet has to produce and the feeding up of such a longing it has compelled him to create,” I told him, paused for a while, and continued, “not anything but his masterpiece--a poem is why it has to be.” I had sensed the sarcasm in his voice as he exclaimed, “Bravo!” before asking me again another question, “And what can we expect of poetry?”

“What would you like to expect?” I instead answer his question with a question. “Well, well, let me think,” he said as he looked a bit confused. A minute of silence was broken when he finally spoke: “I’m expecting that it can be a source of something that people can relate with and can touch their lives or heal.” “So that was it,” I said. “But that’s my answer not yours,” he tried to argue. “I just found out that you could learn more from a foolish question than from a wise answer,” I told him.

“You’re not only a poet, but also a sophist,” he said as his face portrayed a rather awkward smile shot at me. Just before I could manage to say anything, the professor came in for the class. “Good morning class,” the stone-faced professor said. “I want you to prepare a one fourth sheet of paper because I’m going to give you a short quiz.”


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