How does Poetry Work?

How does Poetry work?

That is a slightly philosophical question.   How does poetry work, in the sense of how do you write it? We could be here all day.

How does poetry work in reaching you?  That depends on you, and what you hear.

Personally, I think poetry is like music, and like our taste in music, we all respond to it differently. You can enjoy it for many different reasons.

Like music, poetry is made up of rhythm and meter, and the sound and flow of the words, is like the melody of music; particularly, when read aloud.

As I mentioned in a previous blog, ‘Poetry Speaks’, some people steer clear of poetry because they have a perception that it is too intellectual, or inaccessible.

There are many, many different forms of poetry available, and much of it does not fit traditional ideas.

The same way that we have preferences for music, we have preferences for poetry.

What makes words poetry, rather than prose?

  • Poetry at its heart doesn’t have to stick to all of the rules of grammar.
  • On the page, prose looks like a block of words, obviously, with the delineation of paragraphs.
  • Poetry on the page, can be broken into verses, sections, or can even be laid out in an artistic way that the poet chooses.  
  • The format of these sections and verses are usually dictated by the rhythm and rhyme to emphasise the idea the poet is focusing on.  
  • Lines can vary in length from short to long and can even contain only one word.
  • You can be more succinct in poetry because you don’t always need to use all of the conjoining words required in prose, such as ‘and’, ‘then’, ‘but’.
  • Poetic devices can be used to create more interest, focusing on the sound of the words, such as use of alliteration e.g. ‘golden, glistening gossamer’
  • Poetry is meant to engage with whatever subject the poem is written about, in more creative ways, forming images and ideas, using more expressive language.

Traditional poetry

“Poetry is a type of literature based on the interplay of words and rhythm. It often employs rhyme and meter (a set of rules governing the number and arrangement of syllables in each line). In poetry, words are strung together to form sounds, images, and ideas that might be too complex or abstract to describe directly” – (definition:

Many traditional poets wrote using the metric form of iambic meter. This means one syllable stressed, and the second unstressed.  Da Daa Da Daa etc.

                  Shall compare thee to summer’s day? – Sonnet 18, Shakespeare.

(the syllables in bold are the long-stressed words)

Poems were also, usually about romantic subjects, or in praise of nature.

In the late 19thand early 20thcentury, poets who were referred to as the Modernists, began to move away from these forms.  They wrote freer verse and deviated from the use of iambic meter and traditional devices.  

Ezra Pound had a famous dictum which was “Make it new!”  The Modernist poets changed from writing about personal ideas and moved towards writing about more intellectual themes and began focusing on society and the place of the individual in the modern world.

These new Modernists, among others, include, William Carlos Williams (American), W.H, Auden, (English – American), Ezra Pound (American), E.E. Cummings (American) and T.S. Eliot (English). These poets saw the world in a more realistic way and sometimes, spoke about mundane things in their poetry.

Look up William Carlos Williams poem, “The Red Wheelbarrow” and W.H. Auden’s “Funeral Blues”, which you may well recognise from the film “Four Weddings and a Funeral”, recited by John Hannah’s character.

These poems don’t fit to the traditional, romantic style of the previous centuries.

Poetry Now

Poetry in the 21stcentury is freer still.  Many poets don’t use any of the traditional rules.  

Poetry can be only a few lines, talk about important issues, or make you laugh. It is all about being inventive, and having fun with words.

“Poem against Capital Punishment”

I live in the Capital

and it’s punishment.

(Roger McGough, ‘defying gravity’). 

Roger McGough is one of my favourite poets, for his ability to write funny, but extremely moving poetry. Read “The Pet” from ‘Sky in the Pie.’ This is an incredibly poignant poem, cleverly written. 

Poetry can talk about mundane subjects, such as school exams, and hit the mark with passion.  Read “The Minister for Exams” Brian Patten from ‘Armada.’

Poetry today, is an expression of how you feel and what your passions are. They are written to make you laugh, cry, feel emotion, and question your beliefs. They are not just to be pretty and romantic. 

I’d say poetry works if it moves you, or resonates with you in any way.

“Poetry is ordinary language raised to the Nth power”

Paul Engle

Over the next few months I’m hoping to build an online poetry group, Lis’ Poetry Place. It’s aimed at people who haven’t written much poetry, or have written some and would like to be published in the future. The first session is 30th July. 

Click here to register and read more.