Poetry: rules and reasons

So, what is poetry and why do some of us feel the urge to write it? The first part of that question can be answered easily and succinctly by a simple definition along the lines of

poetry 

ˈpəʊɪtri/

noun

  1. literary work in which the expression of feelings and ideas is given intensity by the use of distinctive style and rhythm; poems collectively or as a genre of literature.

    “he felt a desire to investigate through poetry the subjects of pain and death”

synonyms:

poems, verse, verses, versification, metrical composition, rhythmical composition,rhymes, rhyming, balladry

If I were asked to create a set of rules for poetry, it’d be something like this

Poetry,

written or spoken,

must contain words

that hit hard.

Like a rock to the cheek

when you weren’t looking –

your eyes on the sky

and the heavens passing.

Metre should be applied

to augment mood,

sextameter, pentameter,

uttered or transcribed

in iambic  -or even,

every once in a while –

prosaic manner.

Metaphor should be powerful –

a Tyrannosaurus Rex of meaning

with widening jaws that threaten to engulf you

but similes, weak as the tea at your local Tesco caff,

work when heart-rending or touching,

like an abandoned baby blanket

forgotten on the kerbside.

Sounds are important;

the soothing siblance of s,

the amplification of rhyme, alliteration,

the assurance of assonance

and repetition,

not to mention setting up a rhythm

to get the whole show going.

Poetry shouldn’t try to be too clever –

its themes

should be universal and accessible to all –

but it should still be clever enough

to layer words to effect

that each and every one of their meanings

cannot fail to be understood.

Poetry should be a thing of beauty,

a work of art,

a song from the heart

to the heart of another.

Everybody has poetry

inside themselves

somewhere.

Okay, so that’s not a set of rules by the conventional list method, but I have to admit that, apart from the one I do for the shopping, lists are not something I’m very good at. I’ve tried throughout my life but I either become distracted by something much more interesting (i.e. anything),  or I fall into a kind of witless stupor where about 15 0r 20 minutes pass and I find  myself no further on with my list. And while I’m fairly gutted about my inability to make lists, I’ve learned over the years to compensate for this shortcoming with diagrams and spidergrams (Instagram could also be a pretty useful tool), mind maps, and post-it notes inside my handbag to remind me of what I’m supposed to be doing, when, and why I’m doing it. Keeping a journal also helps as do any large-scale visual planning aids like wall charts and even a humble calendar.  But I digress, what I’m pointing out is that I’m quite heavily visual and I find poetry very visual in both its construction and its effects.

I write poetry. I used to admit this rarely and – even then – only within the safe confines of writers’ – or the even safer, poetry writers’ groups where I felt I would be less likely to be judged for my predilection.  I say less likely because even poetry writers treat other poetry writers as something to be viewed with suspicion. Why wouldn’t they?  They know exactly the kind of things that go on in the minds of people like them. The endless, obsessive, and overstimulated types of observation and evaluation that go on, topped-up with caffeine and creative urges slooshing around, determined to be released in a frantic splash across the page that results in some kind of snapshot, merging sensory memory with imagination. Which brings us to the second part of the question: why?

I haven’t yet come across anybody who writes poetry because it makes them any money. Most of us do it for the love of its creation, and/or re-creation on page, stage or podcast. For the likes of me who still takes fright at the sight of a microphone, the fact I can create some kind of structured narrative about something that has affected me feels good. I know it’s cliche but it really is a cathartic process –  a sense of release, even some kind of healing in letting the words fall out of your head and onto the page. For me, the initial process is probably akin to a jigsaw puzzle – except you’re moving words instead of pieces around the page. Sensory events are a big stimulus – be it an image or  activity, a song or piece of music, or just something somebody says. It’s the emotion that accompanies the stimuli  – whether it’s the smell of bread on warm air wafting from a street vent, a finger pricked by a thorn or the taste of a forgotten childhood sweet – that provides the trigger.

Publication is a goal for most writers, as is the recognition and respect of others, but these aren’t the driving forces for those I’ve met. It’s back to that idea of the jigsaw puzzle. For most writers, especially the poets, the reward is in the problem solving activity that both defines the problem as it stands and creates the answer within the poem itself. It’s a bit magical or alchemical in a way. That’s my ‘why’. What’s yours?

Next time we’ll take a closer look at some poetry forms and some stimulus-response exercises.

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