This is one of the trickiest questions on the Eng Lit syllabus - What is Poetry? As a published poet I should know, but ......
|Thomas Gray had an answer to the question, but it's all a bit abstract.|
Poetry is a bit more concerned with the rhythm and music of language than fiction usually is; the musicality of words and their percussion. This means that sometimes the syntax can get overlooked in the sheer exuberance of the lines. Poets are allowed to have a bit more fun with words than prose writers.
So long as the meaning comes through, it’s the texture of the words that matters. And meaning can be sparked by weaving them together in many different ways. I love putting words beside each other that don’t necessarily belong together and seeing what they get up to. The Australian poet Les Murray talks about the way language (particularly in poetry) can become feral and run off into the literary undergrowth to develop a new life of its own. It’s a great image.
And poetry uses a lot of images to convey ideas and complex layers of meaning. As they say in film ‘a picture tells a thousand words’. It’s showing not telling.
Poetry uses narrative too, to construct stories. Like its close relative, flash fiction, a poem doesn’t tell the whole story, only a tiny glimmer of it to ignite your imagination and invite you to complete the narrative. The title poem of my last collection was simply about the moment I (didn’t) say goodbye to my life partner at the airport, watching him leave through the boarding gate. But I hoped that it said enough about our relationship to tell a story and that it might find an echo in readers about the sadness of parting from someone you love. This is a quote from the middle of the poem.
makes the clown’s face
that means ‘Cheer up,
this time I won’t be gone
for long’. He turns,
then turns back, lifts one hand
to the terrorist-proof glass. We place
palm to palm
on either side of the cold surface. . .
Roz asked another tricky question - ‘Why do we write poetry?’. I found that one very difficult. Emily Dickinson had an answer; ‘This is my letter to the world/ That never wrote to me’. So I suppose poetry, like any other kind of writing is just the writer’s desire to have a conversation with the world of readers. Which sounds a bit egotistical. So perhaps we are.
Why a poem? Roz asked. Why not just prose? That one I couldn’t answer. Ideas drift past and some of them are poems and some of them are prose. So is poetry just prose on short lines? Roz asked. And of course it’s not. If it is then it isn’t poetry. The words are arranged in rhythmic phrases and little arcs like music on a stave. Knowing where to put the line breaks is one of the more difficult aspects of the craft. A word on the end of the line carries more weight than any of the others because the reader’s eye (or poet’s voice) rests on it for a fraction of a second longer. That gives it importance and sometimes ambiguity. If you write ‘The whale drifts’ and end the line there, the reader expects something about the whale that can be quashed the moment the next line begins - ‘down, to the ocean floor’. All sorts of things can happen in the gap between the two words created by the line break.
But then Roz comes in with the killer question because we’ve reached the territorial border between poetic prose and prose poetry. What’s the difference? I suddenly discover that I’ve left my passport behind at home. No matter. It’s poetry if I say it is! And I have a poetic licence to prove it.
The Poetry Society
Guardian Poem of the Week
Templar Poetry, or through Amazon.
Kathleen Jones writes poetry and prose and publishes on both the wild and the civilized sides of the fence. You can find her at www.kathleenjones.co.uk or on Facebook and incognito as @kathyferber on Twitter.