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What is poetry?

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Have you always wanted to try to write poetry but never quite managed to start? This free course, What is poetry?, is designed to illustrate the techniques behind both the traditional forms of poetry and free verse. You will learn how you can use your own experiences to develop ideas and how to harness your imagination.

After studying this course, you should be able to:

  • understand the common techniques underlying free verse and traditional forms of poetry
  • identify personal experiences that can be used when writing poems
  • understand the basic terminology and practical elements of poetry.

By: The Open University

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1 What is poetry?: an introduction

Poems, unlike crosswords, don't have a straightforward solution. In fact, a careful examination of the clues laid by the poet may lead to more questions than answers. Let's start this course, then, with a question: is poetry simply about expressing feelings? People do turn to poetry in extremis. Prison inmates, often famously, have expressed loneliness and communicated with absent loved ones through poetry. Maybe this accounts for the egalitarian view often held of poetry – a view which doesn't seem to apply in the same way to opera-singing or carpentry, for example. If I sing, does that make me an opera singer? Certainly if I nail together a few pieces of wood that doesn't mean anyone would want to hire me to build their house. With poetry, as with any other craft, there are skills to be mastered. There is a need for ideas and a need for the poet to meditate on what might be termed his or her muse. But there is also a need for persistence and hard work.

A common description of the writing process is ‘10% inspiration, 90% perspiration’. The muse, expert at inspiring, may be lousy on the technical side. The art of poetry resides in the technical detail more than one might like to believe. The writer artfully uses technique with the express purpose of getting you to feel what he or she wants you to feel. The poet manipulates emotions just as a composer may write a piece of music to evoke a particular mood. The composer orchestrates not only the instruments but also the listener. This is the case in poetry too.

Activity 1

Listen to Track 1, ‘The purpose of poetry’. Note down some of the things that Jackie Kay and W.N. Herbert say about what poetry is for them. How do their ideas compare with your own notions of what poetry might be? Try to articulate not just what you believe, but why you believe that, and what supports your opinion.

Click below to listen to track 1.

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Transcript: The purpose of poetry

You will now hear Jackie Kay and W.N. Herbert giving their views on poetry and what it can do.
Jackie Kay
Poetry in my view is little moments of belief in quite intense language. And poetry always loves language, loves the words, is in love with language in some sort of way, and finds a way to get that across, to get the music of language and the love of words across in quite a short and precise way. Poetry loves using images, metaphors, alliteration so there’s all sorts of techniques and tricks that people can do: repetitions in poetry that you can’t do in prose or if you did do it in prose, it would seem very mannered prose. But poetry, yes, it’s almost a moment of belief for me. It’s a moment ... When you write a poem, you have to have a certain amount of conviction. You have to believe in that poem and you have to get your reader to believe in it too. You’re almost writing the poem and you’re saying to the reader or the listener, ‘Come into my world and see what I see.’
W.N. Herbert
It’s a poem about where we always go on holiday, which my daughter assumes is just going to continue for ever and ever, which is the same little town in Crete and the bay. The poem’s actually named after the bay, so it’s got a Greek name – ‘Ormos Almirou’ – and it was about just one moment when we were playing in the sea. And it’s that sort of thing which I think poems are very apt for, apt machines for, capturing in the same way as cameras are, you know, just this little moment which seems to have a resonance. And it seems to keep on resonating, so that I was actually sort of just jumping up and down in the waves with her, and I glanced sideways as a particularly big wave came over and she jumped up but she didn’t jump up high enough. So there’s this kind of moment where she was just sort of stuck in the wave, completely immersed in it. And it sort of affected me in a way that I couldn’t say anything about, which is another one of those ‘signs’. Contrary to the people who say, ‘Oh, you could write a poem about that’, it is precisely the moments when you don’t know, at all, what you think about something that you could possibly write a poem about.
Ormos Almirou
Bobbing with my daughter in the Cretan waves, their salt-snort window like slugging jade that neither opens nor closes on the view beneath: a desert of wrinkles that the sea composes then wipes out, to show her sway over days, I glance sideways as she rises in her ruffled swimsuit, tries to be a crest that the lip doesn’t need, but it’s higher than her hair: she arcs with its roll and is contained for a moment, like Longley’s otter and the Mayo swell, is borne facing out through its pain till she breaches in light.
Jackie Kay
Yes, my dad was a lifelong socialist and the last few times I’ve gone to visit him I’ve noticed he’s been wearing shoes that are not his own shoes, and I’ve just looked at the shoes and said, ‘Who’s died now?’ And he’s told me, and um, you know, all the old socialists. Of course he’s getting to that age where all his friends are dying and it made me really think of all the marches these people had marched on and all the things that they’ve believed in: marches against war, against apartheid.
The shoes of dead comrades On my father’s feet are the shoes of dead comrades. Gifts from the comrades’ sad red widows. My father would never see good shoes go to waste. Good brown leather, black leather, leather soles. Doesn’t matter if they’re a size too big, small. On my father’s feet are the shoes of dead comrades. The marches they marched against Polaris. UCS. Everything they ever believed tied up with laces. A cobbler has replaced the sole, the heel. Brand new, my father says, look, feel. On my father’s feet are the shoes of dead comrades. These are in good nick. These were pricey. Italian leather. See that. Lovely. He always was a classy dresser was Arthur. Ever see Wullie dance? Wullie was a wonderful waltzer. On my father’s feet are the shoes of dead comrades. It scares me half to death to consider that one day it won’t be Wullie or Jimmy or Arthur, that one day someone will wear the shoes of my father, the brown and black leather of all the dead comrades.
I couldn’t have written that as a story because it, it had to be something lyrical about the tone of that and it’s a kind of, I suppose it’s an elegy to my dad and to the past, and to socialism and it’s got a certain kind of a voice. If I tried to do that in a story, it would have had to bustle more and be up and about and I’d have had to really create the man and the character and perhaps all the other men who have died in it, and I wouldn’t want to do that. So the great thing about poems is that you can say a lot in a very short space of time and you can fill in if you like as many details as you want and leave out a lot. There’s an awful lot of space in them, space for the reader or the listener to imagine these people, Wullie or Jimmy or Arthur, but not to have to have their lives and their wives and their houses and their pets and their cars, basically, which you, are the kind of thing that you need in a story.
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