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What is poetry?
What is poetry?

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2 Forming the form

By and large, readers tend to agree whether a poem ‘works’ or not, even if it’s not clear how or why it works. The best poems retain a certain mystery, but subsequent analysis invariably reveals various techniques the writer has employed to key into this commonality. The form a poem takes, whether it be free or traditional, reflects those techniques, and is itself vital in the unlocking of ‘the logic of the imagination’.

The form a poet chooses for any one poem is partly dependent on process. A writer needs to have at his or her disposal a whole system of strategies and techniques. These will be supplied in part by historical example, by what writers in the past have tried to do. But techniques are also arrived at through the poet’s own exploration of these elements.

Poets may choose to write in a traditional form – say a ballad or a sonnet. Alternatively they may choose to write in what is often called ‘free verse’, ostensibly liberated from the restrictions of tradition. Yet, traditional forms of poetry can sometimes liberate. In testing the boundaries of a form you might find that you break rules. Similarly, you may find that writing free verse necessitates some new conventions and rules. While taking liberties, free verse still uses formal elements to establish things like rhythm and meaning, for instance. There are a variety of intrinsic techniques that span both traditional and free verse approaches. In this course you will look at those techniques, the basic foundations on which you will build all your poems.

We learn to write by imitating, and, importantly, by reading. We absorb something about the poetic sensibility by listening to poets read their work and talk about their process of writing. Eventually, instead of imitating, the writer assimilates this material into a new, unique voice. This is not to say that writers reach a final resting-place, from which they can safely issue their poetic declamations. Each time the poet sets pen to paper, in a sense he or she has ‘forgotten’ how to write and is forced to learn the process all over again. Even practised writers are humble in the face of each new poem. They don’t forget the precepts of form, but continuously shift and change the application of these elements with each new horizon. Good writers constantly renew language and conventions by renegotiating the relationship between the form and content of every new poem.

In trying to define poetry, we often end up thinking archaically. We think of the work of writers such as Keats or Shakespeare, for instance, as in some way defining what poems should be like. Their way of writing poetry appears dogmatically to be the ‘right’ way to do it. We mistakenly assume that true poetry always involves a special, elevated vocabulary, as if this will earn us our stripes. It is surprising how strongly such misconceptions endure. Language and its conventions are not static. In fact, it is part of the poet’s job to locate and help define the conventions of his or her era.

Activity 2

Now listen to Track 2, in which W.N. Herbert, Paul Muldoon and Jackie Kay talk about getting started.

Click below to listen to Track 2.

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Track 2 Getting started
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Is poetry about the expression of feelings? One common misconception is that its function is simply this. Poetry, it is believed, is able and honour-bound to tell the absolute, journalistic truth. In reality poetry works quite differently. Our personal lives and history may inform our work, but the poem transforms or exchanges the one sort of truth – biographical truth – for another: poetic truth. A poem is more than a simple expression of feelings, more than what ‘really’ happened.