What Makes A Poem Anyway?

The Question of Poetry’s Nature Echoes in Ashmi Sheth’s Collection

Readers who despise the poetic execution of that iconoclast Rupi Kaur may feel their skin tingle with rancor as they read Ashmi Sheth’s 2019 poetry collection Silenced Echoed. Many of her pieces subsist on one or two lines and all of them are nameless. Although as the collection progresses, she does insert more playful forms and poems which are more expansive for the readers to chew on. Sheth is an artist as well as a poet; her willingness to play with words as if they were paint is evident. Her minuscule pieces may befuddle, even aggravate, but she defends her title as a poet when she sprinkles such glittering verses as these upon her canvas:

“I could see oodles of dreams /
shelled down against the rumbling floor – now buzzing /
like the bees trying to push out of the cork trap.”

Due to its effervescent nature, Ashmi Sheth’s work will force readers to consider what a poem is exactly. Must poets confine themselves to specific shapes and forms or line counts? Noted poet Kaveh Akbar clicked a twitter hurricane into being when he tweeted, “If someone hands me a bag of dirt and tells me it’s a poem, it gets to be a poem.” He argues that this is the case even if “…it might not be a poem that satisfies me intellectually or brings me any delight…” But just because a thing is a poem does it have value as a piece of poetry? One cannot help but think of New York modernist Paul Branca‘s art pieces which were thrown out by janitorial staff as they were mistaken for, as Gawker‘s Gabrielle Bluestone describes, “…garden-variety trash.

As luck will have it, Sheth makes her own stand in Silence Echoed. As if anticipating these critiques, the speaker, with a heart brimming over, responds, “If your eyes have enough compassion to see, / Every other eye sings poetry . . .”

Despite this impassioned reply, it does take some restraint to hold back a loud guffaw when the three words “spread a smile” sit rather unassumingly on an otherwise desolate page. Readers could very well be convinced that a fortune cookie was accidentally scanned into the book.

Sheth’s style can be frustrating, her work is perhaps over protracted, but there is still an irritatingly endearing quality fizzing through this collection. The attitude of the work is one of unencumbered self confidence. Sadness and heartache do accompany many of the pieces but that is the keyword – “accompany”. The speaker is never completely overtaken or drowning in sorrow. Sorrow happens to the speaker. The speaker doesn’t become Sorrow.

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Silence Echoed, like “…the wave that rushes towards the shore…” plays along the edge of modern poetry’s horizon. “What is the value of a mere diamond to majestic sculpture anyway?” the speaker asks the readers. With named movements rather than named poems, Sheth uses her sculpture of poetry to disrupt the established order of things and while her style may not be appealing to all, it makes an impact. Which, it could be said, proves that it is indeed valuable as a collection of poetry and will not be thrown into the garbage unlike the work of poor Branca.


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10 thoughts on “What Makes A Poem Anyway?

  1. This was really interesting. I’ve often wondered if anything defines what poetry actually is, especially back in school when we were studying it. There are so many different kinds.“If your eyes have enough compassion to see, / Every other eye sings poetry . . .” I liked this quote. But I do tend to prefer the longer stuff x

    Liked by 3 people

    1. Poetry is really a fluid kind of craft, but I am leaning into the thought that perhaps while a person could objectively name, let’s say, a sonnet as a poem because of it’s structure, but not be enticed by the piece in anyway than it is not poetry to THAT person. It’s all a very odd mix of the subjective and objective.

      Liked by 1 person

    1. How interesting! Once I see manipulations of line and purposeful enjambments, I usually label such a “poem.” I hardly ever suspect authors will start messing around with punctuation or sentence structure which is why I suppose authors like Cormac McCarthy make such a bold mark on the literary world.

      Liked by 2 people

  2. Interesting post and question is still open 🙂
    I have been looking for the answer for a while, reading wise and educated persons’ theories…
    Being a “strange soul” 🙂 to me it seems to be a quite different than to “contemporary” poets and to representatives of the literary canon.
    I have to live by that and try to survive 😀

    Liked by 1 person

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