Mark Yakich wants to know what a poem really is:
I’ve heard other poets define poems in organic terms: wild animals—natural, untamable, unpredictable, raw. But the metaphor quickly falls apart. Such animals live on their own, utterly unconcerned with the names humans put upon them. In inorganic terms, the poet William Carlos Williams called poems “little machines,” as he treated them as mechanical, human-engineered, and precise. But here too, the metaphor breaks down. A worn-out part on an automobile can be switched out with a nearly identical part and run as it did before. In a poem, a word exchanged for another word (even a close synonym) can alter the entire functioning of the poem. The most productive thing about trying to define a poem through comparison—to an animal, a machine, or whatever else—is not in the comparison itself but in the arguing over it. Whether or not you view a poem as a machine or a wild animal, it can change the machine or wild animal of your mind. A poem helps the mind play with its well-trod patterns of thought, and can even help reroute those patterns by making us see the familiar anew.