Thoughts on Writing

What is poetry?

Look to Oxford and the dictionary answer is unusually muddled:

Poetry: metrical composition; elevated composition in verse or prose; something with poetic qualities.

Verse: poetry; stanza of poem or song; each of short numbered divisions of the Bible.

Stanza: group of lines forming division of poem, etc.

So, does that mean that verse may be poetry, but poetry is not necessarily verse? I’m not sure that works. It’s interesting that prose is included in poetry, so long as it is "elevated" in its composition.

I recently read a definition that poetry is saying as much as possible with the fewest number of words. This works for modern poetry, but doesn't work for epic ballads and ancient sagas which were poetic or at least verse-ified in form to assist the oral performance of historical and mythic tales.

For me, verse is the lesser creature of the two; metrical, tumpty tumpty tump, although that can also be flexible. Verse is linked to song, to Biblical texts and psalms intended to be sung or chanted. Verse has something lyrical in it. I tend to think of it as being light, easy to speak, easy to memorise because of the cues and cognitive aids of metre, rhythm and rhyme. If you’re familiar with "The Lord of the Rings", Tom Bombadil’s prose dialogue is always verse, though it doesn't rhyme and it’s not always perfectly metrical. Rhythm, metre, rhyme, personification, alliteration, assonance, are all parts of verse; so are form and structure. Merely putting words together into a logical sequence and punctuating them correctly will not make a poem. A sonnet can be excellently formed verse without being poetry. Lewis Carroll played with the idea of nonsense verse in "Jabberwocky". A piece of verse writing may be perfectly correct in its grammar, spelling, orthography, metre and rhyme, and yet nowhere approaches the illumination that a poem would provide: it may not even be saying anything.

Poetry may make use of lyricism, half rhyme, imagery, metaphor and simile. (I admit: verse might use them also.) However, for me, to be poetry a piece of writing must have an extra dimension. That dimension is hard to quantify. It’s the mysterious “something” that raises the hairs of appreciation – or apprehension – on the back of my neck. The ancients attributed this brilliance to the inspiration of the Muse. Do I mean insight? Perhaps. Sometimes, the “something” is a completely original concept. Sometimes it is an old concept newly expressed. Sometimes it is superb language, an unexpected resonance, a perfect juxtaposition of meanings to illuminate my thoughts and emotions. It can be rigidly truthful, or tell lies in such a way that truth shines through. It can be a comic, a tragic, even an intellectual brilliance.

It isn’t always the newness of a poem that catches my neck hair unawares; there are some that still work for me despite years of familiarity with that exact shaping of language, those precise line breaks, those particular and perfectly chosen phrases, that imagery.

Poetry can be so many things that it is easier to say what it is not than what it is.

Recipe for a non poem

include or leave out as many ingredients as you like, in whatever proportions you like; the result will be the same

Spelling, grammar, marks.
Rhyme, rhythm, metre.
Stanzas, structure, form.
Paragraphs, short lines, breaks.
Truth, lies, confusion.
Abstraction and obscurity.

Recipe for a poem

any combination of the above plus Ingredient X

I find, reading back, that I've expressed the mysterious Ingredient X as LIGHT – brilliance, shining, illumination. The Word was the Light of men. A poem that is truly a poem should shed light, memorably, within its reader’s mind. Mere tumpty tump verse is unlikely to do so; but if it does, it has probably scaled the heights of Poetry.