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Poetry 101

November 2, 2009 | 8 Comments

When I was in grade school, I was taught that a poem has to rhyme.

What I hear you read on Writer's Almanac, to me is NOT poetry. I say its an essay.

Why do you call them "poems" when they don't rhyme?

Thank you,


Poems may rhyme but it's not required all the time.
If they don't, it's called free verse, or vers libre.
It's like a zebra:
Whether he is in the zoo or running free,
He's a zebra. Same with poetry.
You can call them essays,
But essays don't put their heads down and graze. 


Dear Garrison,

How serendipitous!
Each day just before I check the APHC website
for updates, I read (or even better listen to) the
daily Writer's Almanac.

I love reading a poem a day, and also enjoy reading
"birthday" updates.

I can't say I completely understood today's poem, but
it sure got me to thinking, and started a great
conversation with my English Professor husband.

Thanks for the daily inspiration.

San Clemente, CA

I have a similar comment about poetry. I almost never hear rhyming poems in English these days. The poets win Pulitzer and other prizes, but they only write prose, not poetry.
I'm from Russia and I grew up reading Pushkin, Lermontov, Esenin and many other great Russian poets, as well as countless translations of the great English-speaking (and French-, German-, etc.) poets. Some of them occasionally would write a short poem or two in vers libre style (we call it "white verse"), but not whole books without a single rhyme.
I don't understand, why nowadays rhyming poems are so scarce. Seems like the poets are too lazy to find a rhyme... Why not call those "poems" something else--short poetic essay, for example?

Thank you,

P.S. I've been an admirer of the Prairie Home Companion for about dozen years now. Thank you very much!

For English teachers everywhere, I thank you. I begin my poetry unit with two rules: 1. Poetry is meant to be read aloud. 2. Poetry does NOT have to rhyme. Perhaps that's why I use your show in my class so often...

OH, and on a rhyming poetry note -- my little brother won a forensics contest performing YOUR "Casey at the Bat" years ago... and then years later my husband and I became friends with Ernest Thayer's relatives! At the time they weren't NPR-ers, but they adored your version (especially the pigeons). They listen now! (I teach both when I cover narrative poems, my 8th graders love them.)

I've been looking for a re-read and a copy of that marvelous poem Garrett read this AM on NPR out of Pasadena, CA. Unfortunately, I didn't write it down and aging is my best defense for why I can't remember anything but words like "cascade" and "stones" and something about people standing around commenting on life/death of someone passing through like we all I close?. HELP!...and thanks ahead of time.

Garrison Killor, a name so unique
given to one who says what he thinks
of life and love and ornery men
of cowboys and rustlers but just about then
he whispers so breathy about Guy Noir
a man who drinks soybean juice at a bar
then meets up with women who wear clothes
so tight, their undee labels can
be read sans a light
His voice for singin' may not be the purdiest around
but who says love and soul has a sound
for we cry when we listen to lyrics so
deep, so clear and so heavely yes we
all seem to weep, for he give us a right
to let go and relieve all the pent up
sorrow, and joy and angst, like a pied piper who
know how to touch that one part that
connects our mind, our guts and our heart
So cover me up on a hill far away when my
time comes some cold, snowy day
with powdermilk flour, some onions, oh Lord
may I be approved by the ketsup advisory board.

Recently, I wrote to Mr. Keillor questioning those “poems” he recites at the end of his Writer’s Almanac, not knowing that Judy had already asked him the question in 2009.

I am not a poet, but I enjoy reading Chinese poems immensely. I am even learning to read and sing Chinese poems, not in Mandarin Chinese, but in Taiwanese. This is the best way to enjoy Chinese poems, including poems from the Book of Poetry compiled by Confucius.

You can reach me at, if you also agree with Judy and would like to know more about singing Chinese poems.


Dear Iskander,

I feel the same way about those so called "poems" Mr. Keillor reads in his Writer's Almanac. Please read my recent comments.



Here are some thoughts about the variety of attributes that make a poem a poem.

1. It may feature rhyme or uniform line length.

2. Word combinations may recur like a refrain

3. The language may be rich in metaphor.

4. The rhythm of the syllables may be very carefully structured with or without meter.

5. The sound of the poem may contain its own music that is a central dimension of its meaning.

6. The language of poetry is typically very compact and suggests much more than it states.

In my opinion the term, "essay" used as a criticism of unrhymed poetry is way, way off the mark. It would be much more fair to say the that the language of unrhymed poetry resembles scenic descriptions such as those that occur in fiction.

Limiting the field of poetry to fixed line length and rhyme is hopelessly out of date and fails to acknowledge the artistic dimension of poetry. In fact limericks and sappy greeting card messages may perfectly meet the meter and rhyme qualifications without having any poetic content whatsoever.

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