What is a Poem?

“If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know that is poetry.” - Emily Dickinson

A poem is a way of expressing an idea that expands outside of strictly syntactic language. It’s a very powerful tool for the expression of abstract concepts or feelings which tend to be difficult to explain. How can language express the feeling of anguish? Of ecstasy? The pain of death? Better yet, poetry is a great tool for empathy—how might my anguish read differently than yours? How might you connect with my description? Poetry is unique in that it is not always intended to be persuasive. Instead, it’s a tool that lets us abstract away the denotative to the point where others can empathize. A poem about the loss of a loved one, for instance, might resonate with many people for a variety of reasons. How it affected me, the author, is rather unimportant. Poetry leaves space between the lines for us to be vulnerable and introspect on how we can find ourselves in a piece, and it leans on metaphor to paint pictures that we can relate to and attach our own experience to.

Traditionally, poetry only deals with words and performance. Classical poetry plays with many of the qualities of words that exist outside of their explicit meanings. We see this in how rhythm, layout, and the sonic characteristics of words are exercised to allow the formal structure of a poem to communicate things in and of itself. These tools are used in poetry old and canonical like the Shakespearian sonnet, where structural rules constrain what words are allowed and the iambic pentameter creates a rhythm that causes the eye or voice to dance through the text. Take a read, and pay attention to how your body reacts to its phrasing and gesture:

My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun;
Coral is far more red than her lips’ red;
If snow be white, why then her breasts are dun;
If hairs be wires, black wires grow on her head.
I have seen roses damasked, red and white,
But no such roses see I in her cheeks;
And in some perfumes is there more delight
Than in the breath that from my mistress reeks.
I love to hear her speak, yet well I know
That music hath a far more pleasing sound;
I grant I never saw a goddess go;
My mistress when she walks treads on the ground.
     And yet, by heaven, I think my love as rare
     As any she belied with false compare.

Rhythm, gesture, and physical layout are still very much important qualities of written poetry. More modern works like We Real Cool by Gwendolyn Brooks in which layout and line breaks have the effect of falling through the lines and would make anyone trying to read it out loud nearly slur their speech.

                   THE POOL PLAYERS. 
                   SEVEN AT THE GOLDEN SHOVEL.

We real cool. We
Left school. We

Lurk late. We
Strike straight. We

Sing sin. We
Thin gin. We

Jazz June. We
Die soon.

So what does it mean to call something “poetic”? Can poetry be extended into media other than language? The work of Muriel Cooper (who also provided the image for this post’s icon), is particularly interesting in this manner. While much of her output does involve words, they play into characteristics not commonly explored in traditional poetry. Size, color, and placement are all qualities we more commonly ascribe to graphic design, yet the reader of this text incorporates all of these qualities in their interpretation of the text. Suddenly, the word itself becomes quite decoupled from its linguistic context, and has us reconsider the meaning via an assessment of its physical character.

Cooper’s “Messages and Means” poster. An inscription in the lower left hand corner reads “Explorations of multiple forms of visual and verbal communication in print.”

Cooper’s “Messages and Means” poster. An inscription in the lower left hand corner reads “Explorations of multiple forms of visual and verbal communication in print.”


I have often called paintings or films “poetic.” I see composition in visual media (how the scene is laid out and portrayed) to be a close analog to a poem’s layout. All visual media have their own sets of poetic tools, each in their own language. While film might not use analogy in the same way a sonnet might, analogy is very much a part of film—for example, montage is often used to draw links between disparate images. By not telling someone exactly what they should think or feel, media “leaves space between the lines” and makes room for interpretation and finding meaning. Take for example the color narrative in the movie “Moonlight.” Color, in film, is actually a narrative device. In this case, different colors divide the movie into chapters. They exist not only as a literary aid for us to “see” when a new chapter is present, but function analogously to the narrative as it develops. “Moonlight” goes as far as to explicitly name its final chapter after its chromatic motif—”Black.” We watch Chiron grow up modularly through consistent colors in his shirt choices and the environments around him. Building familiarity and character traits through color adds a subconscious emotional connection for someone watching the film. We learn to feel at home in the different phases of Chiron’s life.

A young Chiron, wearing white—the chromatic motif of the film’s opening.

A young Chiron, wearing white—the chromatic motif of the film’s opening.

A young adult Chiron—wearing yellow—heading home to a yellow house.

A young adult Chiron—wearing yellow—heading home to a yellow house.

Adult Chiron, wearing black (his nickname) in stark chromatic opposition.

Adult Chiron, wearing black (his nickname) in stark chromatic opposition.

The Internet has allowed for tremendous poetic experimentation, even with media as old as the written word. The dynamism of a web browser can take the experience of language and rewrite its mechanics. What if, instead of just being constrained by how you read words aloud, the poem itself could reactively adapt as you read it? The browser-based poem Strange Horizons by Hungarian poet Bogi Takács does exactly that. The poem formally wanders around the screen, a handy analog to its content: a story of wandering through a cave in search of precious metals. When “Proceed” is clicked, the reader is narratively entering a cave, and structurally unable to go back.

Can these language tools be applied to media that aren’t visual? I am interested in how Audio Poetry can explore this question. Using tools of how we understand audio in a room, we can tap into the same style of non-syntactic expression that language-based poetry does. There is a lot you can understand about a room from just the sounds you hear. By placing the listener in an environment, you give them space to wander and find themselves and their associations in that space.

Spatialized audio is virtually placed around a listener’s head such that sound can be perceived from all around instead of just left/right panning. This is technology commonly found in virtual reality, but what if there were no visuals at all? Close your eyes and listen to this audio sample. It’s spatialized, so the effect works best with headphones. Pay attention to where the sounds seem to come from, relative to you.

This is not so different from a written poem describing a swamp landscape. There is a long tradition in poetry of pastoral poems that describe a beautiful place. Could a convincing audio environment encourage us to imagine a beautiful place in the same way?

Audio is a natural choice of medium for a pastoral poetic immersive experience. Spatialized audio specifically enhances that immersion by making the ears perceive a rich 3D space. Stepping from a “static” stereo image to a “dynamic” spatialized sound is a bit like stepping into a painting and discovering a whole new dimension of interactive theater within. While the above swamp example does not let you change where in the space you are, virtual models of spaces allow for the creation of Audio Poetry that a listener could actively move around. This shatters the conception of poetry being a passive medium—instead, think of it as a dynamic tool.

Audio is also well suited to having an intimate experience that puts a listener in a vulnerable position. A listener can close their eyes while listening to audio, allowing them to insert their own imagery and nuance into a piece. It is the suspicions that audio could be such a vulnerable and poetic medium that draw me to studying immersive audio.

In our early experiments at Dogbotic Labs during my residency, we’ve been discussing what the tools and mechanics of poetry are and how to map them onto audio. We have been particularly interested in rhythm, metaphor, and the container (or medium) of the piece. Historically, we’ve seen all three of these qualities poetically applied to media as different as paintings and film. Can these qualities be applied to to other media to make something beautiful and unexpected?

I believe they can.