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POETS and OTHERS on Poetry

WHY do people write POETRY?

see also: How to Write...POETRY

How Poetry Works

Some interesting reflections on the way that print has taken over from sound - with negative effects on poetry:

"A five or six year old will recite vast quantities of rhymes and jingles ...  At some point, though, for most of us, this creative joy fades. The intensity of our perception of the sounds of language begins to grow dim. 16 and 17 year old students learn how to react to a poem as a piece of print, not as a game of sounds. Most English speakers end up feeling at least indifferent to, and sometimes even alienated by, the site of a poem on a page. The perennial question, what is the poet really saying? – with his underlying implication that poetry is fully paraphrasable – finally deafens the ear and deadens the heart of the common reader. Long forgotten is the fact that all true poetry is based on the delight of using speech sounds creatively, and that this delight was once common to us all." (from 'How Poetry Works' by Phil Roberts (Penguin 1986 second edition 2000).

Another quote from Phil Roberts:

Unlike other language, language and poetry is not simply and solely a vehicle for meaning. Ordinary language may always be paraphrased – that is, its meaning may be expressed in different words without anything essential being lost – but the language of a poem may not. A poem is exactly what it sounds like and says. It has no larger paraphrasable meaning than this. (In the same way it is pointless trying to create a précis or summary of a poem.)  A poem is chiefly a performance. So if you are not attracted by the sound of words of the particular poem – in the way you might feel unmoved by the sound of a particular piece of music – then move on and look for another. The search itself is a large part of the pleasure that art brings.

For more insights from 'How Poetry Works', click here

So many poems, so little time!

There are so many poems and so many poets!  What to do?  Well, firstly, we don't have to read all of them. You find a poet who speaks to you and spend (as with a friend) more time with him or her. And from time to time, carry out some reconnaissance to see who else might speak to us that way.  The analogy works well, because sometimes we are introduced by others and we get on with them and sometimes we find their company irksome. So we find new poet-friends - or sometimes just acquaintances - and sometimes those who are wonderful but (like great relatives) too grand to be our mates: Uncle Shakespeare, Cousin Keats etc. 

Thoughts masquerading as Poems!!

A woman in a wheelchair
holding a birdcage
How convenient
Mum, break a leg
We need to get the budgie up to Brum

Is this a poem?  Or is it just a little thought that I wanted to record?  We call it a poem because that’s the only term we have available. Like Lawrence’s Pansies which are just musings (pensées) – but have to be put into the ‘poetry’ section because there’s nowhere else to put them.

I passed the university again
On the train from Bristol
Just passing by
Expected a rush of something like nostalgia
But all I could remember was that I had felt nostalgia in the past
So this time I waited for some melancholy impact
As the Pendolino trundled by to Five Ways.
But nothing happened.

Sometimes the 'poem' is actually just a little joke, or a pun.  Like the Ode to a Petrol Station Attendant - 'I wanted your soft verges / but you gave me the hard shoulder' courtesy of the Liverpool Poets. 

So poetry becomes the depository of choice for anything which isn't prose...   which makes it hard for students who are not sure what on earth it is. 


Some quotes from Nicholson Baker's 'The Anthologist'. His character, Paul Chowder is a poet and has decided views.  

You can tell it's a poem because it's swimming in a little gel pack of white space. That shows it's a poem. All the typography on all sides has drawn back. The words are making room, they're saying, Rumblr, rumble, stand back now, this is going to be good.

. . .

There's no either-or division with poems. What's made up and what's not made up? ... We don't care. With prose you want to know: Is it fiction, is it non-fiction? ... There's no nonfictional poetry and fictional poetry. The categories don't exist.

. . .

The rhyming of rhymes is a powerful form of self-medication. All these poets, when they begin to feel that they are descending into one of their personal canyons of despair, use rhyme to help themselves tightrope over it. Rhyming is the avoidance of mental pain by addicting yourself to what will happen next. It's like chain-smoking—you light one line
with the glowing ember of the last. You set up a call, and you want a response. You posit a pling, and you want a fring. You propose a plong, and you want a frong. You're in suspense. You are solving a puzzle.

It's not a crossword puzzle—it's better than a crossword puzzle, because you're actually trying to do something beautiful. But it's not unrelated. The addicts of crossword puzzles are also distracting themselves. They also don't want to face the world's grief head-on. They want that transient pleasure, endlessly repeated, of solving the Rubik's Cube of verbal intersection. But has anyone ever wept at the beauty of a crossword puzzle? Maybe, maybe. I have not.

Rhyming is the genius's version of the crossword puzzle—when it's good. When it's bad it's intolerable dogwaste and you wish it had never been invented. But when it's good, it's great. It's no coincidence that Auden was a compulsive doer of crossword puzzles, and a rhymer, and a depressive, and a smoker, and a drinker, and a man who shuffled into Louise Bogan's memorial service in his bedroom slippers.

Lucy Mangan on the dreadful effects of poetry:

In her amusing Guardian Weekend column, Lucy touched on the effects of poetry (2.20.10):

"It gets under your defences, all those beautiful, perfect lines, refined, honed over weeks and months and years, smelted down by their writers from the bulky emotional ore with which we ordinary people customarily make do, so that only the purest form remains.  

Agony. I prefer to run from feelings. They do you no good in the long run..."  

Speak like Rain!

"The natives, who have a strong sense of rhythm, know nothing of verse, or at least did not know anything before the times of schools, where they were taught hymns. One evening out in the maize field...." from 'Out of Africa' by Karen Blixen.  (continued...)

Contemporary Speech Patterns = Good?

I'm reading Ruth Padel's 'The Poem and the Journey' and just want to raise the issue of whether poetry should use contemporary speech patterns if it is to be considered worthy.   Continued...

Why is Poetry like Wine?

Victoria Moore writes a column about wine and I caught this at the end of one of her pieces, trying to convince readers to spend money on a pricey bottle.  "It's like the difference betwen words and poetry. As a New York Times critic once wrote, 'Poetry is ordinary language raised to the nth power.  Poetry is boned with ideas, nerved and blooded with emotions, all held together by the delicate, tough skin of words.'  And when you put it like that, £20 doesn't seem too much to ask for pinot noir poetry."  Other comparisons between the two are welcome! 

Why is a Poem like CRIME NOVEL? - see below 

Emily Bronte

"I've dreamt in my life dreams that have stayed with me ever after, and changed my ideas. They've gone through and through me, like wine through water, and altered the colour of my mind." (Catherine in Wuthering Heights, by Emily Bronte.) 



Some thoughts from the 'Great Poets of the 20th Century' series in the Guardian over the last week. Firstly, Craig Raine introducing T S Eliot. '...the reader shouldn't expect anything in the way of conventional 'meaning' since the poetry was anyway fetched up from the dark womb of the poet's unconscious.'  Odd metaphor, but we get the gist. Then: 'All contemporary poetry when it is contemporary is initially baffling to its readers.' 


Here's a nice quote from George Barker about his attitude to poetry (taken from the Guardian Review a few weeks ago): 'I believe the responsibility of the poet is to assert and affirm the human principle of perversity ... I believe the nature of the poet to be at heart anarchic so that, in the inconceivable eventuality of ... a society possessing no faults to which one could rationally object, it would still be the job of a poet to object.'  See also the review of Barker's life The Chameleon Poet:,,660088,00.html


Ian Sansom, himself a poet, has this to say: 'Most of us would go a long way to avoid the company of poets. They're at best disagreeable, and at worst repulsive. Selfish, testy, irresponsible, humourless, swollen-headed, and infinite liars, they're like crazy aunts or men with stains on their trousers who think it's funny to swear.'   OK, students, your comments please...


In conversation with poet and crime writer Sophie Hannah I commented that the two genres seemed quite different. She replied that the main similarity lay in the way you had to think through each of them. Plotting a crime novel is like plotting a poem: you have to get everything in the right place.  Think about it: especially those who reckon poems are just a spontaneous outpouring...

WILLIAM WORDSWORTH (from Preface to Lyrical Ballads):

"Poetry is the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings: it takes its origin from emotion recollected in tranquillity: the emotion is contemplated till, by a species of reaction, the tranquillity gradually disappears, and an emotion, kindred to that which was the subject of contemplation, is gradually produced, and does itself actually exist in the mind."


"A poem begins with a lump in the throat, a home-sickness or a love-sickness. It is a reaching-out toward expression; an effort to find fulfilment. A complete poem is one where the emotion has found its thought and the thought has found the words."


"Poetry is language in orbit"


" an ancient art ...I presume that the technology of poetry, using the human body as its medium, evolved for specific uses; to hold things in memory, both within and beyond the individual life span; to achieve intensity and sensuous appeal; to express feelings and ideas rapidly and memorably. To share those feelings and ideas with companions, and also with the dead and with those to come after us."



It’s worth putting this observation in front of your students:

The interesting thing about poetry is – people write it because they want to, not because they have to.

OK – that’s not entirely true.

  • Students may be asked (requested/required/instructed/told) to write poems. More of that later.

  • Some poets might feel they have to write some more poems because they are a poet and their publisher wants another collection. But why did they start writing poems in the first place? Not because it was going to bring them riches (unless their work got into the GCSE syllabus of course – but that’s another story.)

  • The Poet Laureate probably feels she has to write poems. It’s a responsibility that goes with the job.

But there are a LOT of POEMS written every year, every week, every day. They are written by LOTS of DIFFERENT kinds of PEOPLE. They don’t have to. They just want to.

You can’t say that about many other types of writing. 

Finally, from a previous snowy time:

Stuart Jeffries, writing about snow in the Guardian (‘London’s Day of Innocence’) mentions experiences such as “The sound snow makes as it packs under your boots! The velvety swish of car tyres on unteated side streets! … The way you fingers swell after throwing snowballs while wearing functionally useless woollen gloves! (We need poets to invent names for all these things and write sonnet cycles to their joys).”  Indeed!


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