The gracious, multi-talented Belle Yang has posed a question that, to me, is the equivalent of "What is the meaning of Life?" : ) That is to say, "What is poetry?" has as many potential answers as the former question -- and, for someone who has been building a life in poetry, it has nearly the same significance.
The answer I always begin with is: A poem is anything an artist intends to be a poem. Plain and simple.
I know that may sound a little perverse! But roll with me for a minute. Here are two clarifications and a question:
a) To say that something is a poem does not mean it is a "good" poem.
b) To say that something is a poem does not mean a person who "likes poetry" is necessarily going to like this one.
c) Why does an artist decide to create "a poem," rather than any other kind of art? What makes her want her piece to be understood as a poem? What kind of artistic intent needs to be channeled through this genre? (Three ways of putting the same question.)
My two clarifications are meant to separate the issues of taste and quality from the issue of category. If we all walked into a furniture store and saw a piece of furniture with a back, a seat for one, arms (maybe), and four legs, we'd probably all agree that it is a "chair." That's the category of furniture in which it belongs. Now, if the upholstry of this chair were hot pink, some of us (including me) might not like the chair. But it's still a chair. And if one of the legs of this piece of furniture were an inch shorter than the other three, most of us would argue that it's not a well-made chair. But it's still a chair.
My question is meant to open the door to rooms of poetry that can be overlooked by those who make themselves at home in the front parlor and dining room, and never take the chance to wander around in the kitchen, the den, or the upstairs bedrooms. To stay with the example of the previous paragraph, we walk further into the furniture store and see a big mushy brown (or yellow or orange) fabric-covered lump. Beside the lump is a sign that says "beanbag chair." This piece of furniture has none of the characteristics that we had in mind when agreeing to agree upon what a chair is: no back, no arms, no legs, and no seat, per se, but the one you make in it. Yet, it's a chair -- because the person (or company) that made it intended it to serve as a chair (and because there are folks out who buy and use it for that purpose). The creator and the buyer of the beanbag chair both call it a chair because they want someplace extra soft to sit, and/or because they don't want to use trees that way, and/or because they want there to be some chairs that are inexpensive and hard to break for people whose lifestyles or incomes call for those qualities... Those are just some of the possible reasons why someone would create something so unlike a chair and nonetheless call it a chair. Likewise, sometimes poets want poems to look or sound very different from most poems, for a variety of reasons, but still want to call the pieces poems, as a signal of how a reader should approach them. (Wouldn't you have a different mindset approaching something called "a novel" than something called "an article"? And a different one still approaching something called " a poem"?)
With the above in mind, here are a few links to poems of various sorts. You get to decide if they suit your taste. We can discuss whether or not they're "good." (That will require us to identify the criteria of a "good" poem, which is the hard part.) But they're all poems, because that's what they were meant to be:
Gwendolyn Brooks's "The Mother"
Harryette Mullen's "All She Wrote"
Honoree Fanonne Jeffers' "Muse, A Lady Cautioning"
Duriel Harris's "self portrait with sorrow song"
Thylias Moss's "The Monday Aardvark of Laundry"
Marilyn Nelson's "It Don't Mean a Thing"
Phillis Wheatley's "An Hymn to the Morning"
I hope you enjoy some of these! (Note that Harris's and Moss's poems can be listened to, as well -- just click on the "mp3" link below each of their poems.) I will blog again soon on the more specific aspect of Belle's question, concerning the distinctions between free verse and metric poetry.