What is poetry?


I was plagued by this question for two years of English Literature A-Level. What is poetry? We studied John Donne, Phillip Larkin, Dannie Absie, who were all well respected and good poets, but I still didn’t have a grasp on the definition.

We studied sonnets, a Shakespearean sonnet, an epic, an ode, probably more than I can remember. Each type of poem had a different form, a template almost, that the writer had to stick to. It sounded like hard work. But most of all, I never understood what the poets were trying to say. The idea of dressing something up with words to allude to an image or symbol completely confused me. Why couldn’t they just say what they mean and get on with it?

I know that many people who read poetry, or are forced to read it through school, have the same view. There is a notion that once you’re forced to do something, the willingness to actually do it decreases. For example, I love books, but if I’m told I HAVE to read a book for a certain reason, I end up feeling as though I’d rather be doing something else.

In theory, poetry should be a popular medium. It’s (sometimes) a short snap shot of a moment, a feeling, or even an image, so it’s great for someone like me with a short attention span. So why do so many people turn against it?

When I was accepted onto a bachelors degree in Creative Writing, I hadn’t given poetry a second thought. I always wanted to write books, even though my writing interest was originally sparked by theater. My goal always was (and still is) to write a book. I want to write a book that I am happy with in its final form, so aspirations for poetry never entered my head. Then, I had a compulsory module named Poetry and Poetic Expression. My heart sank a little, but I spoke to other students on the course and they agreed that they felt the same about poetry. They couldn’t understand it.

It was all the same until I spoke to two dear friends of mine from the course, Laura and Sam. The both of them had been writing poetry before the degree and considered it their niche. They understood the mindset, but found poetry spoke to them. I envied them both because I wanted poetry to speak to me too.

‘You just need to open yourself up to it,’ Laura said. And when I disclosed my fears, Sam said something I will remember for the rest of my life:

‘But Clare darling, poetry can be anything.’

I went into that poetry module with a different perspective. I felt elated and free. Something I have always had trouble deal with was the feeling of being wrong, and I use that term in the most broadest of meanings. But how could I be wrong in poetry if poetry could be anything?

I threw myself into my work. I explored many different forms like haikus, beat poetry and free verse, as well as revisiting the old classics. I wrote from other poet’s examples, and even constructed my own poem inspired by John Cooper Clark’s Evidently Chickentown. Swearing over and over again only made me feel even more liberated, and I was able to construct a poetic rant about a guy who had done me wrong. I could tie all of my feelings up in a few well crafted verses. It was like therapy. Once the words were down on the page I felt as though the weight of the problem was lifted.

My poetry lecturer was already a well respected poet in his own right, and his knowledge and blunt, honest nature gave me the ability to tackle poetry in the right way. He didn’t sugar coat it. He believed in it and therefore so did I.

I found poetry at the right time in my life. Shortly after I completed the module and a portfolio of experimental work, I ended a relationship. They say people come in and out of your life, but all of them are there for a reason. I had nothing to turn to except for my ever increasing love and dependency on words, and I delved back into poetry to ease my pain. Losing people unwillingly is hard enough to cope with, but sometimes I feel people actively walking out on you, and abandoning your connection and foundations, is harder.

I wrote solidly for the whole summer, and came out with not only some of the best poems I’ve ever created but a novel idea as well. It seemed poetry was supporting me in all of my goals. From that collection, Miss Stress, The Sea and Cemetry Gates were ones I felt I could share with people. Not only was I writing poetry but I was starting to become proud of my own creations. If you had told me at the beginning of 2012 that not only was I writing poetry seriously but it was giving me confidence like never before, I would have laughed in your face.

Now, I consider myself a performance poet, as I’ve combined my love of poetry with my passion for theater. I’ve been published, which is more than any poet could ask for, and on the 7th April 2014 I’ve been given a half an hour slot at the Theater Royal Winchester to present my work. I couldn’t imagine a better way to end my three year degree.

So when people ask me “what is poetry?” I ask them the same question back, “what is poetry to you?” They usually smile and shrug and ask me again. So I tell them. Poetry is life-changing.

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