Event: What Makes It Poetry? A Panel Discussion

Banner for What Makes It a Poem? panel discussion at This House of Books, a community-owned bookstore and tea shop in downtown Billings, Montana

"It gave me a devil of a lot of trouble to get into verse the poems that I am going to read, and that is why I will not read them as if they were prose.”

— W. B. Yeats


Even before This House of Books opened its doors, among the things we first discussed when planning events at the bookstore was the importance of out-loud reading of an author’s work. The sense we had was that an author of a novel or work of nonfiction could easily forego the reading and simply talk about the work, but we wanted to hear poetry read aloud. The sense was that poetry is much more an oral form, as opposed to prose, which anyone can read silently to themselves without diminishing the experience.

However, what we hear in much of the poetry read at the bookstore sounds more like prose. A question arose: If we read poetry in the way people normally speak, why is it not prose? Certainly, the current preference to recite poetry in the manner of normal speech is nothing like a recitation of poetry in the time of Homer, when it was delivered in a  manner that was something between speaking and singing, and with a clear rhythm. If we approach poetry in this way, is poetry still an oral form?

We have had a lot of experts in poetry appear at This House of Books, so we asked them. From the answers, it became clear that this is a question deserving of deeper discussion.

Therefore, the idea of a panel arose. We would invite some experts and we would listen to both traditional and contemporary poetry. Starting with Homer's Odyssey and Beowulf, in their original languages, we move forward to Middle English and the modern English. We conclude the readings by listening to some of the very best contemporary poets in Montana read from their own work. Following these examples, a panel discussion that starts with the question of what makes a piece of writing a poem now? How is it different from prose?

Panelists are:

  • Victoria Cech—Classical languages specialist presenting a selection from Homer in Ancient Greek
  • Dave Caserio—Poet and performer reciting a selection from Beowulf, in Old English
  • Bill Kamowski—Retired professor reciting from Chaucer’s poetry, in Middle English
  • Tami Haaland—Former Poet Laureate of Montana reciting a selection of her work
  • Lowell Jaeger—Current Poet Laureate of Montana reciting a selection of his work
  • Bernard Quetchenbach—Poet and essayist outlining the changes we see in poetry
  • Gavin Woltjer, Panel moderator and Director of the Billings Public Library

Each short presentation before the panel discussion will take no more than 10 minutes on average.

The definition of "poetry" has never been more wide open, but it remains a significant art form that profoundly reflects what makes us human. We find that there is a deep hunger for poetry in Billings and the region. We expect there will not be answers to the questions that we ask in this program, but it’s all about encouraging people to think and share, to learn diverse perspectives, and to grow in appreciation of poetry.

Co-sponsoring the program is Billings Public Library and Humanities Montana, through grants from the National Endowment for the Humanities, Montana’s Cultural Trust, and private donations.


Event date: 
Saturday, March 24, 2018 - 4:00pm to 6:00pm
Event address: 
This House of Books
224 North Broadway
Billings, MT 59101