A poem is the sublimation of words—the transfiguration of phrases through all the devices of language available to the poet—into a work of art. Through theme and style, it transforms an abstract idea into something perceivable and comprehensible when read, recited or heard.
A traditional poem is not mere rhyme, a modern poem not mere prose. To be a poem, a composition must transcend the common function of language. How it does so is up to the poet.
At the extreme of modern poetry, Aram Saroyan tampers with the very construction of letters and words to transform them into “one-letter” and “one-word poems”. In an infamous example, he adds a fourth leg to the letter “m”, creating a symbol that may be interpreted in any number of fanciful ways; in another, he modifies the spelling of “light” to read “lighght” (and in yet another, “eye” to read “eyeye”)1 to produce a kind of orthoepic novelty.
If these “compositions” are Poetry, they are barely so. They do the absolute minimum to be worthy of the title—low incarnations that mock the very discipline they profess to represent.
Such works receive the participation trophy but not the prize. Titillating to consume and quickly discarded for the next extreme, they are surely as unfulfilling to the poet as to the society that looks to him for Beauty, Clarity and Redemption which cleverness alone cannot supply.
- In both instances, the misspelt word by itself constitutes the entirety of the poem (hence “one-word poem”).