Poetry Isn’t: A Critical Examination of L.A. Cunningham’s “This is Not a Poem”

Poetry Isn't: a critical examination

L.A. Cunningham’s breathtaking deconstruction of poetic form in “This is Not a Poem” is bold in its brevity and unflinching in its excoriation of contemporary poetry.

Disclaimer: This book review of This is Not a Poem is satirical (as is the book under consideration). The content of this review may not accurately represent the full scope of the reviewers feelings (or literary ability). This review is provided in good fun with no disrespect meant to any of the amazing authors and creators mentioned herein. Yes, some of these links are affiliate links and I might earn money if you use them.


This is Not a Poem
by L.A. Cunningham (2023)
published by L.A. Cunningham
via Kindle, 3 pp, $0.99 (ebook)

What is a poem? An unanswerable question to be sure, yet such is the central query of L.A. Cunningham’s bold new work, a query that infuses every terse line of the Canadian author’s six-part interrogation into the nature of poetry.

With its March 2023 publication, “This is Not a Poem” joins the international countercurrent of works that deny the nature of poetry even while borrowing its forms. Works like that of Nigerian Richard Inya . Yet, Inya calls himself a poet, and rightly so. Only a poet would dare address such topics as Terror, Living, Leaving and Disquiet in a mere 74 pages.

Other theorists on the topic have also begun with the assertion that their work is not poetry, while, in the very next line, confuting their assertion. The American author and poet Joyce Carol Oates published her version of “This is Not a Poem” in a 2021 edition of The New Yorker. However, it most emphatically is a poem and cannot claim to be anything else. The titular line belies the multi-layered imagery and deep emotional resonance to come. 

Uniquely, This is Not A Poem

Only Cunningham’s work has the self-possession, or perhaps the pot-valiance, to eschew the frowsty dogma of classical poetic theses and burst forth in a provocative new direction. For, Cunningham begins with the schismatic assertion that “Poetry isn’t.” While other authors decry poetry, yet embrace its emotive capabilities, Cunningham makes no such concessions. 

In her economy of language, direct treatment of subject matter, and rejection of rigid meter, one might find parallels to the work of modernist poet and Imagist Ezra Pound who wrote “Rhythm must have meaning” and defined poetry as a sort of “inspired mathematics.”

Yet, one must come to the conclusion that Cunningham, if relating to Pound at all, does so only as the trailblazer relies on a the last marked settlement on the map, not as a place to settle, but as a starting point from which to strike out toward new and as yet uncharted lands. 

Perhaps the nearest outpost to Cunningham’s anti-poem is the film-poem collaboration of the same name from Cameroonian poet Eric Ngalle Charles and Welsh filmmaker Greg Lewis. The multi-media work is undoubtedly a triumph that inches ever closer to the form-defying question that Cunningham asks, but ultimately does not answer. 

A Bold New Direction

One must wonder what led the author of “Babies with Rabies” and “Sister Grim” to turn so far afield for her latest, and certainly most controversial work. Any explanation must rely on conjecture, as the author has made only the briefest of statements regarding the genesis of this sure to be seminal work, a work, lest we forget, that one reviewer compared to the restoration of Ecce Homo

Somewhat enigmatically, the author wrote, “I’m going to publish this [is not a poem] and watch the world burn.” Cunningham’s “This is Not a Poem” is almost certain to set the poetic and literary world ablaze; the ultimate question is this: What will rise from the ashes?

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