Invented Poetry Forms – The Expanding Definition Poem


No doubt about it, the expanding definition poem is probably one of the most obscure and offbeat poetry forms I have ever come across. The first and only time I ever read about it was in a forgotten issue of The American Poetry Review probably sometime in the late 1990s. There doesn’t seem to be a trace of its origin or even existence now anywhere on the internet. It is extremely simple and fun to write, seeming more like a weird writing exercise than an actual poetry form. What makes it so unique is that this form practically writes itself. To begin, all you have to do is choose a single word, any word at all. Then you look up that word in the dictionary and write down its definition. Selecting certain words from that definition, you replace those words with their own definitions. You just keep doing that, substituting words with definitions (editing as much as you like) until you are satisfied with the results. And that’s it, you have written an expanding definition poem!

As an example, here is a poem I wrote expanded from the single word “laundry” when I was asked to give a poetry reading at a local art gallery as part of the opening of a photography exhibit on the colorful clotheslines of Venice, Italy:

(An Expanding Definition Poem)

A particular spot in space,
A place, a building where
Garments, wearing apparel,
Or bedclothes, i.e. sheets,
Blankets, pillowcases, etc.
Are freed from any filthy
Substance such as mud,
Dust, excrement by compounds
Of fat or oil with an alkali
And a transparent, tasteless liquid;
The essence of rain, rivers, lakes
And so on, then liberated from
All moisture or wetness,
Dampness dispersed
By the process of evaporation
Before being made smooth
With pressure applied by
A heated instrument or utensil
Usually composed of the most
Abundant and useful
Of the metallic substances
That cannot be chemically
Interconverted or broken down
Into a simpler particular kind
Of real physical matter
With uniform properties
And possessing a tangible,
Solid presence.

5 thoughts on “Invented Poetry Forms – The Expanding Definition Poem

    1. Thank you so much, Carolyn! That is a fantastic question. I am not really sure if I know what it means (except to be an explanation of laundry so convoluted that it stops making sense), but I think it may be one of those poems, as Archibald MacLeish says in Ars Poetica, does “not mean but be”.

      Liked by 1 person

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