World Poetry Day - Katherine Roberts

Today is World Poetry Day, which was started by the United Nations in 1999 to celebrate poetry as a way for society to regain and assert its identity.

The thing I've come to realize about poets, as opposed to novelists or other types of writers, is that they don't expect to make a living from their poetry alone, even if it gets published widely. It seems to me that this detachment of art from commerce might be to poetry's benefit, as there is presumably less temptation for a poet to "sell out" in pursuit of a lucrative contract, dumbing down or otherwise editing their work to appeal to the widest possible audience (as it's been suggested I do by various agents and editors in the course of my career as a children's author - my resistance to this idea is possibly the reason why I am not more widely published as a children's author, and why I can identify with poets!).

I remember attending a poetry festival some years ago where, after the poet Selima Hill had read from her latest collection, a member of the audience asked what she did for money. With a wry smile, Selima said she did what most other people did - got a day job. Indeed, if you follow the link to Selima Hill's page, you'll find this quote by Rob Long that sums up the whole writerly dilemma: "Being a writer is a bit like being a shepherd: it's quaint, people envy the solitude, but everyone knows the real money is in synthetic fibers." - Rob Long, Conversations with My Agent.

I know if I write a poem, it's usually in response to some emotional event, either in the world or in my own private life. I have written 150,000 word novels and sprawling fantasy trilogies, but when emotions run deep and dark, sometimes only a poem will do. The container may be small, but this very smallness appears to give the words contained within a magical power.

modern Morin Khur
(Mizu basyo at Japanese Wikipedia, CC BY-SA 3.0)

One of my favourite poems is Paul Muldoon's Medley for Morin Khur, which I came across as poem of the week in The Guardian just as I was wondering how to tackle the spiritual aspect of my novel 'Bone Music', and which seems to encompass the UNESCO World Poetry Day ethos. On the surface, it's a poem about the traditional Mongolian horse-head violin, but underneath of course it is so much more:
Medley for Morin Khur by Paul Muldoon.

If you want to read more of Paul's work, this poem also appears in his 2006 collection Horse Latitudes

As a child I was given a copy of The Golden Treasury of Poetry selected by Louis Untermeyer which still sits on my shelf, long after I donated all my childhood fiction to charity shops. Children's poems are often playful or educational or both. Here's one that obviously must have appealed to the fledgling fantasy author in me, though a little bit of punctuation applied in the middle of each line makes the impossible possible.

I saw a peacock with a fiery tail
I saw a blazing comet drop down hail
I saw a cloud wrapped with ivy round
I saw an oak creep along the ground
I saw a pismere swallow up a whale
I saw the sea brim full of ale
I saw a Venice glass five fathoms deep
I saw a well full of men's tears that weep
I saw red eyes all of a flaming fire
I saw a house bigger than the moon and higher
I saw the sun at twelve o'clock at night
I saw the man who saw this wondrous sight.

Bonus point if you have a 10-year-old who knows what a pismere is!

There are so many brilliant poems out there to explore, and more being written every day. No doubt there will be an event near you to celebrate Word Poetry Day, but if you can't find one or are curious to know how poets (and other writers) work, you might enjoy this podcast published weekly by the Royal Literary Fund and available free on iTunes.

Writers Aloud podcast


Katherine Roberts writes fantasy and historical fiction for young readers. Her young adult novel Bone Music about the young Genghis Khan, featuring a legendary version of the morin khur, is published on 5th April by Greystones Press and available for preorder now.

Bone Music


Lynne Garner said…
Interesting post - have just started to explore poetry. I think I've got a long way to go before I fell comfortable publishing any of it.
I know what you mean, Lynne - I rarely publish any of mine, but that means I can relax and enjoy writing it without fear of criticism, or not hitting sales targets, or any of the other painful stuff that so often accompanies publication.
Ann Turnbull said…
Me too. I'm getting back into poetry after writing hardly any for many decades. Its so liberating and peaceful to write for love and not to have to think about publication and marketing.

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