What Is a Poem?

Happy Birthday to Annie Dillard, born April 30, 1945

Annie Dillard is an American author, best known for her book Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, which won the 1975 Pulitzer Prize for General Nonfiction. While she is better known for her prose works – essays, literary criticism, and narratives often based on her journals, she also writes poetry.

Defining poetry was a lot easier up until the late 19th Century. The advent of “Modern Poetry” and “free verse” has considerably opened the field, but has also caused confusion among people more accustomed to rhymed iambic pentameter.

So a “found poem” gets really controversial. It is a prose text written by one author which struck a different author as poetical, so they then edited and sometimes rearranged the original text to turn it into a poem. Annie Dillard published a whole book of them, called Mornings Like This: Found Poems.

William Alphonso Murrill (1869-1957) American mycologist. In 1904, he became the assistant curator at the New York Botanical Garden (NYBG). He, along with the NYBG, founded the journal Mycolgia and was its first editor for 16 years. Murrill was known to travel extensively to describe the mycota of Europe and the Americas. He traveled along the East Coast, Pacific Coast, Mexico and the Caribbean. Although Murrill was a very influential person at the NYBG, who worked his way up to become assistant director in 1908, his rather eccentric personality caused problems with his job. He went on annual collecting trips to Mexico, the Caribbean, Europe, and South America, sometimes without informing any of his colleagues prior to leaving. These trips resulted in a cumulative total of 70,000 specimens of fungi, 1,400 of which are deposited in the NYBG., Murrill described 1453 new species and varieties of Agaricales, Boletales, and Polyporales. Four genera he described are still valid to this day:  Marasmiellus, Polymarasmius, Suillellus, and Volvariopsis. Murrill died in 1957 at the age of 88.

To read Annie Dillard’s found poem from entries in William Murrill’s diaries click:

A Natural History of Getting Through the Year

by Annie Dillard

– from William Murrill’s A Natural History of Staunton, Virginia

NOVEMBER 1, 1895

The mountains are on fire
And everything is dry; insects gone.
My private work this year will be:
Biology, Bible, Art, Geology, Body,
Literature. This term will be devoted
To Art, Zoology, Bibles, Epics, Dramas,
Etc. I find the Entomostraca interesting.

JANUARY 24, 1896

I spent most of the day
Mounting butterflies from India.
This finishes all the flies for this year
Until more are caught.
Poisoned plants at night.
Very warm. The brightest,
Warmest January I remember.


Birds and flowers will keep one busy.
Make collections of both, and observe
The battles and songs of birds. Watch
For the eggs of Phoebe about the middle
Of the month. Study the circulation
Of the blood in a frog’s foot.
Take up mental hygiene;
Because it is much needed now.

So what do you think? Is this a poem, or is it something else?

“A Natural History of Getting Through the Year” from Mornings Like This: Found Poems, © 1995 by Annie Dillard – Harper Perennial

‘Poisonous Mushrooms’ illustration from Edible and Poisonous Mushrooms, © 1916 by William A. Murrill –  republished by Forgotten Books in 2017

About wordcloud9

Nona Blyth Cloud has lived and worked in the Los Angeles area for over 50 years, spending much of that time commuting on the 405 Freeway. After Hollywood failed to appreciate her genius for acting and directing, she began a second career managing non-profits, from which she has retired. Nona has now resumed writing whatever comes into her head, instead of reports and pleas for funding. She lives in a small house overrun by books with her wonderful husband.
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7 Responses to What Is a Poem?

  1. I suspect there are no longer “rules” about what makes a poem. Let the author decide!

    • wordcloud9 says:

      I recently had a reader reject all the poems I had included in a post at another website because none of them rhymed, or were set up in stanzas. So when I was looking at Annie Dillard’s poems for one to post on her birthday and came across her found poems, I couldn’t resist posing the question.

  2. Tex5Time says:

    There is a long, slippery slope between prosaic and poetic (just form, not considering content.) It seems most people put up a sign somewhere on that slope and stake out the poems! Here be poetry!!

  3. Tex5Time says:

    A definition of poetic states that poetic language suggests more than it defines. So poetic is a quality, poetry is a formal description.
    Great prose by this definition would almost always be poetic, even if not in a recognized form of poetry. Think of Boris Pasternak in “Dr. Zhivago,” Hemingway in “The Old Man and the Sea” or Bruce Catton in “This Hallowed Ground.” Pasternak was trying to show how poetry becomes part of a life. Hemingway was using fishing as a metaphor for art. Catton was trying to express what people caught up in a Civil War experienced. “They just got the rhyme wrong.”

    • wordcloud9 says:

      I have long maintained that poetry is subversive – it sneaks into prose as “poetic language” all the time!

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