The Poetry Place

How Poetry Works

More from Phil Roberts' book:

On the sad neglect of sound

Since the advent of movable type, books have become more generally available, and we now live in a society which is close to perfectly literate. Our culture now places considerably less importance on the notion of meaning as conveyed by sound, and considerably more on meaning as conveyed by the printed word. In fact one of the hallmarks of being ‘well educated’ nowadays is being able to ‘speed read’ …  But the speed reader is at a dead loss when it comes to poetry, which cannot be either speeded up or slow down, and which must be heard at its own pace in order to work. It is too bad that those who profess to be most expert on the subject of poetry are, ironically, the most proficient speed readers of all: the university and secondary school teachers whose treatment of the subject often turns the young student away from poetry for ever.

Spoken English is a stress-based language; and English poetry is a stress-based product of speech and sound, not of the printed word. Indeed, the prominent regularity of speech rhythms is usually the first clue that we may be listening to poetry.  …  The single most important key to understanding the magic of English poetry is to be found in the rhythms and phonic patterns of our language. Yet the approach of a majority of teachers of English poetry is to concentrate on the more evident aspects of literary study – semantic content (the supposed meaning of the poem), historical background, biographical material, artistic philosophy, or bibliographical data. The result is that most educated readers today approach the poem in the same way as they do a piece of prose: alert to the print, to nuances of characterisation, vividness of imagery, aptness of expression, use of striking metaphor and memorable word combinations – in short, reacting to everything that is evident to the eye. They remain all but oblivious to the sound of the poem’s rhythms, to the regular procession of its metre, and to its other patterns of sound. This is indeed a sad irony, considering that for most poets, rhythm and sound are the heart of the poem.

On making your own mind up - 

Don’t agonise over poems that don’t appeal to you no matter how much you try. Contrary to popular belief, there is no law that you have to appreciate a particular poem because it is by a ‘great poet’, or generally acknowledged to be a masterpiece.… You do need to be patient however; prepared to wait and listen. Your ears must be able to hear before the poem can speak. Sooner or later you will find at least one poem, perhaps many, which will ring true for you.


Archived blogs

   [OPEN/CLOSE]  How to...

   [OPEN/CLOSE]  Sonnets

   [OPEN/CLOSE]  Topics and themes

   [OPEN/CLOSE]  Parodies and homages

   [OPEN/CLOSE]  Different types of poem


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