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Poetry: what is it?

Occasionally I write poetry, but Im not well schooled in the form. I like to read poetry slowly, perhaps a poem before sleeping or when I wake in the morning so I can think about it during the day.

I like performance poetry, but it must be more than word vomit, or a series of lines well-crafted. We must go somewhere together.

I decided today to go in search of the how some well-known poets define poetry and what it means to them.

I think William Wordworth makes a good point when he says, “Poetry is the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings: it takes its origin from emotion recollected in tranquillity”.

I think a poem must start with strong emotion, but then, as he advises, that emotion can be better analysed and put down from some distance when all is calmer and better understood.

I think WH Auden explains my criticism of lots of performance poetry I’ve heard in the country when he says, “A poet must never make a statement simply because it  sounds poetically exciting; he must also believe it to be true”. A beautiful image is not enough, it must have purpose too.

Shelley says, “Poetry lifts the veil from the hidden beauty of the world, and makes familiar objects be as if they were not familiar”. Indeed a good poem does just that.  Here is an example from his own poem,



We are as clouds that veil the midnight moon;

How restlessly they speed, and gleam, and quiver, Streaking the darkness radiantly!--yet soon Night closes round, and they are lost forever…

I enjoy poems that stay with me, bouncing back and forth in my mind for a while. Perhaps it is that echoing that defines a good poem. “The writing of a poem is like a child throwing stones into a mineshaft. You compose first, then you listen for the reverberation,” James Fenton said.

But too, good poetry like a good short story must hold human truth in its lines. Or is it as Joseph Roux says, “Poetry is truth in its Sunday clothes”.

I like this idea about poetry quite a bit: “Poetry is the universal language, which the heart holds with nature and itself”.

It’s a quote from William Hazlitt, not really a

poet but a literary critic. But I love the idea of poetry as this alternative language made of emotions and truth tightly condensed to form this special communication with the heart.

Dylan Thomas describes poetry as: “Poetry is what in a poem makes you laugh, cry, prickle, be silent, makes your toes wrinkle, makes you want to do this or that or nothing, makes you know that you are alone in the unknown world, that your bliss and suffering are forever shared and forever all your own”.

The poet shows you his world and, if the connection is made, it is your world too, though at the same time it is yours alone in the way you navigate through it. A powerful poem will do that. An example, of course, is Dylan’s poem about his father’s death, Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night:

And you, my father, there on the sad height,

Curse, bless, me now with your fierce tears, I pray.

Do not go gentle into that good night.

Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Or is poetry a fight, a regret at what cannot be? Sometimes.

As Carl Sandburg says: “Poetry is the journal of a sea animal living on land, wanting to fly in the air.” His poem Autumn Movement is one of such regret:

I cried over beautiful things knowing no beautiful thing lasts.

 The field of cornflower yellow is a scarf at the neck of the copper  sunburned woman, the mother of the year, the taker of seeds. The northwest wind comes and the yellow is torn full of holes, new beautiful things come in the first spit of snow on the northwest wind, and the old things go, not one lasts.

I suppose the definition of poetry is as elusive as a good poem. It arrives like a surprise. But it is important, the essence of life, pure and undiluted.

As Edward Estlin ‘E E’ Cummings says: “Well, write poetry, for God’s sake, it’s the only thing that matters.”

Its all I write



DPP Botswana

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