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What makes a poem … a poem? - Melissa Kovacs


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What exactly makes a poem … a poem? Poets themselves have struggled with this question, often using metaphors to approximate a definition. Is a poem a little machine? A firework? An echo? A dream? Melissa Kovacs shares three recognizable characteristics of most poetry.

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The first poems were read aloud. Their regular patterns aided memorization of genealogy, oral history, and law. The performance aspect of poetry has never disappeared; Robert Frost toured the country and earned a living mainly through poetry readings. In 2012, there were 7,427 poetry readings in April, National Poetry Month. Some would even say poetry is meant to be read aloud.

The poetic tradition can relate to orators, who craft messages to be delivered aloud to an audience. Like the earliest poets, many times the words of political speeches live on in our collective memories. The speeches of JFK, Winston Churchill, and Martin Luther King use common poetic techniques.

Today, performance poetry has become a genre unto itself, most notably, in the rise of slam poetry in the 1980’s. A departure from traditional poetry, slam poetry blends speech, rap, theatrics and poetry. To see slam poetry in action, check out the following TED talks:
Taylor Mali, “What Teachers Make”Sarah Kay, “If I Should Have a Daughter”Harry Baker, “A Love Poem for Lonely Prime Numbers”
In 2016, Bob Dylan was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature for his song-writing, but not without controversy. Read more about Dylan’s work and decide for yourself whether it stands up without the music. Are his songs poetry? Are his lyrics literature? Singer Natalie Merchant’s TED talk also emphasizes the fluidity of song and poetry. Merchant turns the words of 19th Century poetry into beautiful songs.

The lesson begins with a poem delivered by Muhammad Ali. This short poem may defy our idea of what a poem is, but similar examples of brief yet meaningful poems abound. For example, Aram Saroyan published this one-word poem in The American Literary Anthology in 1965: lighght. For more examples, check out this video on short poems.

Free verse poetry defied many of the conventions of traditional poetry when a movement began to “free” poetry from strict form standards and instead mimic the patterns and rhythms of everyday speech. This upset poetry purists, or “formalists,” who believed that an adherence to traditional patterns of poetry was what made poetry poetry in the first place. Poets from Walt Whitman to Billy Collins have embraced this form.

Middle grade readers may enjoy the following free verse novels that have earned recognition:
Out of the Dust (1997) by Karen Hesse (Newbery Medal)Brown Girl Dreaming (2014) by Jacqueline Woodson (National Book Award, Newbery Honor)The Crossover (2014) by Kwame Alexander (Newbery Medal) Inside Out and Back Again (2011) by Thanhha Lai (Newbery Medal)

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Meet The Creators

  • Educator Melissa Kovacs
  • Director Richard O'Connor
  • Producer Richard O'Connor
  • Animator Taisiya Zaretskaya, Phil Powers
  • Illustrator Taisiya Zaretskaya
  • Composer Gareth Averill
  • Associate Producer Jessica Ruby
  • Content Producer Gerta Xhelo
  • Editorial Producer Alex Rosenthal
  • Narrator Addison Anderson

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