What makes poetry poetry ? Ask that question of a dozen poets, scholars, or readers and you’ll get as many different answers, maybe more. Some won’t be much help: “Poetry is the sort of thing poets write,” Robert Frost is said to have said. I’m sorry I asked. If we struggle with poetry, this struggle to define it is partly to blame. It would be easier if poetry obeyed certain rules—if we could trust it to rhyme, or appear in lines, or make sense. Easier, maybe, but certainly less exciting: set a limit for what “counts” as poetry, and poetry will defy that limit, out of necessity or spite. Critics who fume “that’s not poetry” today will tomorrow be laughed out of the room. Maybe Frost was on to something: maybe we should be less concerned with defining what poetry is and more interested in understanding what it does . Poetry awakens us to the aesthetic qualities of our language. Words are thoroughly weird: how is it that we have come to agree that these seemingly random sounds and marks mean what they do, that they mean anything at all? Yet words are everywhere, so we may take them for granted as familiar, practical tools. Poetry reminds us how artful—how strange and sly—those words can be. And that language is a stage for the play between sound and sense, speech and writing, the literal and (as we’ll see in another column) the metaphorical. For instance: poetry works in tension “between the written word and the spoken word,” as former United States Poet Laureate Charles Wright notes, either maximizing or minimizing the difference between them. [i] Take Lewis Carroll’s “Jabberwocky”: ’Twas brillig, and the slithy toves Did gyre and gimble in the wabe. All mimsy were the borogroves, And the mome raths outgrabe. [ii] These lines blur the line between speech and song, sense and nonsense, until we forget the details of the story for the pleasure of its sounds. We don’t need a thesaurus to imagine the slime and burble of those “slithy toves;” we understand them sonically if not semantically. Or consider William Carlos Williams’s “The Red Wheelbarrow,” a poem that hews so closely to plain speech that an indignant student—a younger me, maybe—might object But I could have done that! (I couldn’t have.) so much depends upon a red wheel barrow glazed with rain water beside the white chickens [iii] Here the distance between the written and spoken word almost collapses. But, like the charged field that repels two like magnets, that tension remains. All the poem’s ordinary specifics—the white chickens, the glaze of rain, the wheelbarrow itself—add up to an extraordinary, unknowable “so much.” How much depends? So much. Each poem tiptoes its own tightrope: “Jabberwocky” between sense and nonsense, “The Red Wheelbarrow” between the humdrum and profound. The former finds the familiarity in language’s strangeness, the latter the strangeness of its familiarity. Of course, when the language of poems so much resembles speech, it can become difficult to know, in the words of literary theorist Stanley Fish, “how to recognize a poem when you see one.