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What is poetry?
What is poetry?

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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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The purpose of poetry
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