You can view 2 more articles. Unlock unlimited articles with the TANK Digital Subscription. Subscribe here.

What’s a poem?


and what’s it for? TANK puts the question to our most esteemed living poets.

The last line of Amina Cain’s novel Indelicacy (2020) is “Still in the process of becoming, the soul makes room.” This is what I want when I read a poem: for it not to be so sure of itself, so neat and defined that I cannot add anything to it. I want it to become more curiously itself each time it is read. That’s how a poem becomes something my soul makes room for.
– Amy Key


A poem is language cricking its bones.
– Stephanie Sy-Quia

To try to speak the language of worlds to come. To break apart atrophy in the language which we speak everyday but don’t choose, which “speaks us”. Poetry is for trying to speak and finding why we may not be able to. More is being written now than ever before, but much of it in code and symbol which is machinic and not social – poetry enters into this contradiction, bearing its codes made of common resources.
– Edmund Hardy


If a poem is a dream of living no wonder it just goes adjective adjective.123 

1. A woman uses syntax like a broom sweeps across an old fortress. (Anna Mendelssohn) 

2. Breaks take place when you want proof you exist; style arises from that. (Mei-mei Berssenbrugge) 

3. There is no prosody, there is only a scraped wound - we live inside it like fossilised, vivisected mice. (Sean Bonney)
– Daisy Lafarge

The word “text” comes from the Latin textus, to weave. “A sentence is partly softly after they write it. What is the difference between a sentence and a picture […] A sentence is drawers and drawers full of drawings […] Think in stitches. Think in settlements. Think in willows” – Gertrude Stein, Sentences.

     The language of poetry is a porous, sonorous medium. When you craft a poem, you give in to this softness: to the cargo of past and possible meanings of each word, to all the notes and chimes in its speaking. Language is essentially performative: instinctively we use rhythm and rhyme, pitch and tone; we speed up or miss a beat. We presume a shared frame of reference, we allude, collude, we flip the subject. We deliberately deploy near-synonyms and hide these in drawers, or hang them out in white space. Where language itself is the medium of your art, all these tricks, along with the rules of grammar and all the dictionaries, are yours to use. A poem (for me) is an intensely clever alchemy of sound and sense that uses the musics, shapes and possibilities of language to describe something far beyond itself. Think in settlements. Think in willows.– Lesley Harrison

Poems are a taxonomical pain in the ass. In that respect they're sort of like fish. You can’t even identify them by the line breaks, or you’ll get into arguments about whether the New York City phonebook is the longest sonnet in the English language (yes). A poem becomes a poem mostly by virtue of the writer calling it a poem. If you want to get more mystical than that, you run the risk of sounding like a Steiner school casualty. Privately, I think of a poem as a question (stated, cunningly unstated, or concealed from the asker) unravelling on the page. The meaning takes place both in the actual words and the friction between words. Either that, or it's a block of text, with lots of line breaks, and one or two horses. Does that make the “How to Groom a Horse wikiHow” a poem? Sure, who cares. If it has gills and lives underwater, it's good enough for me.– Hera Lindsay Bird


Poetry is a blue Andalusian rooster pecking pebbles from the raked dirt in the old cemetery, just this side of three homemade concrete gravestones inset with coloured marbles and reading Child, Child, Child– Forrest Gander



I’ve always felt that a poem can be an act of reclamation, an act of redemption of a moment that we aren't proud of, or we only half-remember or that we didn't have the language to articulate at the time. Perhaps it is true that a poem makes nothing happen, in and of itself, but maybe in its attempt to capture or rearticulate a moment, it allows new possibilities of new things to happen in the future. – Andrew McMillan



More than most things, poems evade description – whatever you propose they are (or are for), there will be an example that disproves it: poems without words, without demonstrable emotion, without images, without voice, sans teeth, sans eyes... The only consistent and unsolvable question, it seems to me, is whether the feelings and thoughts you encounter in a poem originate from the poem, or from you, the reader.– Sam Riviere

As early as February, usually in March where I live, the waxwings swarm in gorgeous, orchestrated clouds. Not exactly harbingers of spring – in March Saskatchewan is still deep in winter – these “murmurations,” as these swarms are called, are a perfect confluence of movement and sound, of the visual merging with music. For the birds these clouds are in part a means of conserving energy. From my perspective, a murmuration embodies a wild energy, an energy that both fixes my attention and propels my thoughts into flap-bounding flight. I was once caught in the heart of a low-flying cloud of waxwings and the sensation was exhilarating, both startling and thrilling.A poem.– Sylvia Legris



A poem is an engine of song that dwells in uncertainty. It is a complex network of associations that generates meaning through unorthodox modalities. When operating luxuriously, a poem is a cornucopia of contradiction in a populist landscape of certainty and absolute truths. Our task as poets now is to navigate making art within the English language when it has been so damaged and brutalised by political regimes, the business-professional lingua franca, and legacies of colonialism. When meaning-making is so commodified, we might consider Archibald MacLeish’s utterance, “A poem should not mean / But be.” If nothing else, a poem should undermine the perceived naturalness and neutrality of language and reveal the topographies of human influence throughout language.– Tom Branfoot

I write poetry when I can’t say something straight. Emily Dickinson was right about the slant thing. What’s the difference between a poem and poetry? The former is just the latter in the butterfly net of some form. People often say they “turn” to poetry (in times of X, Y, Z – crisis, lust, heartbreak, et cetera). As my friend the poetry doctor says: solicited or not, sonnets were the original sexts. People still say things like “slam poem” and “page poem”, “poem of vengeance” and “YouTube poem”, “cow poem” and “moon poem”: meaning poems (“list poems” or not) are promiscuously modified by the everlasting ambience of “things”, “desires” and “vibes”. Yet somewhere between the purring and the murmuring of the word poem there’s an essence. Dust. A poem is for getting it into or out of your system. Be it the ancient tremor of love’s surplus or the zeitgeist. A poem is for crafting something out of the unexpected. It’s a little delirious dosage of the infinite. A technology of thought. ChatGPT is yet to develop poetic intelligence because it hasn’t got wind of the swerve. Poetry recalibrates attention and feeling (often making a total delicious mess of both) and for that reason it might save us from the forces that want to destroy the way sunlight still feels on our face and how I want to endlessly write paeans to your freckles. Plus, a poem is really cheap. Here’s one for free.– Maria Sledmere

A poem is a habitat for shared associations; it necessitates the imaginative participation of other people, and in doing so offers an account of our communal reality that reclaims some its complexity, bringing it within reach. We are all utterly alone, and utterly together and all us various knowers contribute to the known. Poetry is the best. – Jack Underwood



A poem is an appointment with the voice in your head that you both meet and miss at once, interrupted by the footsteps of history, Autumn, tools, a crowd. A poem is running out of bathwater, no broth. Turn it up. The effort and the pleasure of rhyming feathers with words, then everything I’m made aware of by that. – Holly Pester


For the project Black Sun, Søren Solkær returns to the landscape of his childhood in southern Denmark to photograph the large starling murmurations that take place by the Wadden Sea. The images are inspired by calligraphy and Japanese woodcuts, and show the starlings moving as one unified organism designed to rebuke any outside threat. The graphic and organic shapes of the starling murmurations range from meditative to highly dramatic as they perform their ballet of life and death.
Black Sun has resulted in two books available at