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What is poetry?

Poetry Basics

Michael Rosen (Poet and Children's Laureate) gives expert video advice on: What is poetry?; Why do people write poetry?; What are the main things that poetry does which prose doesn't? and more...

What is poetry?

It's always very hard to ask the question "What is poetry?", because it's become so diverse. All the way from the traditional forms, like ballads, nursery rhymes, and lyrics, through to very free forms, that can be almost any shape on the page. But one common aspect of most poetry is that you don't have to explain where you are, who you are, or where the poem is going, and you don't have to resolve things in poems. So it can just be the middle of an experience, if you like. Of course, not all poems are, but basically you have that option in poetry.

Why do people write poetry?

I think people write poetry because they want to express something about themselves. At least it nearly always starts out like that. I mean, some people want to write about big grand things, important things, political things, aspects of nature, the eternal aspects of the sky, the universe or whatever. But there is always a sense around poetry that you're expressing something that is yours. I think it's a bit of an elusion because we're very social beings. So in the end you never really express something that's purely yours; you're always expressing something social. But that's what it feels like from the inside

What are the main things that poetry does which prose doesn't?

Most prose operates in a way that is concerned with outcome. If it's non-fiction, then it will be logical and chronological. It will be some kind of observation, investigation, and something along those lines. If it's fictional prose, then most fictional prose is concerned with presenting characters or beings and showing what will happen to them if they go through a set of experiences, set of scenes, or a set of events. Poetry doesn't usually do that. Of course, long narrative poems do, even short little clips of narratives do, but mostly poetry is more, how can i put it, it isn't so bothered with outcome. It's more tentative. It's a more suggestive medium and often leaves you in a state of ambiguity, ambivalence, contradiction, and irony, so that you're not fully resolved. That's mostly what happens with poetry.

What makes something a poem rather than a collection of lines or words?

It's very hard to say what definitely makes a poem as there are so many different <a href="http://www.videojug.com/interview/types-of-poetry-2">types of poetry</a>. People want to make rules, and the moment you make the rules, you find that a there are some great things that have been written that break those rules. In the end, poems are observations or collections of words and phrases that get you thinking. They invite you to ask questions, to be puzzled, to be curious.

Are there rules for writing poetry?

One phrase that I quite like about poetry is where people say that poems make the familiar unfamiliar and make the unfamiliar familiar, and they do that almost at the same time. That is as far as I would take it. Anything else starts being too controlling: saying that it has got to be this shape or that shape or it has got to have rhythm or it has got to have rhyme or whatever it is. I'll sit with that. That is good enough for me.

What makes a good poem?

If you are, in some way or another, surprised by a poem. You could be surprised by the language, or the pictures, or the juxtaposition, or the pithiness, or the way it's compressed things. If you are surprised by the poem, you might say that that poem is doing its job for you. Whether that makes it a good poem, I wouldn't dare say. It's doing its job, if you are surprised.

What makes a bad poem?

If you read the poem and think you've read it all before, you've seen it all before, then the chances are it's a bad poem for you. It might be a bad poem for everybody, but it is probably not doing its job. You've been there before. No, it's not for you.

How long should a poem be?

I think if we look historically at poems, you can say poems can be any length you want them to be. They can be like a tiny little fragment, or if you think of Haiku, very, very short. But then, if you take Chaucer's 'Canterbury Tales', it's hundreds of words long. Take 'Beowulf', it's thousands of lines long. You take the great Indian epics, the Ramayana, things like that, thousands of lines long. So I think historically, poems can be absolutely any length you want them to be. The world's shortest poem, I think, was written by somebody called Gyles Brandweth and it goes, "Ode to a goldfish. Oh, wet pet'.

What's the difference between poetry and song lyrics?

The question of whether poems and song lyrics are the same, or whether they're different, I think turns on the fact that song lyrics can get away with supporting themselves with the melody. So that you can say something like: “I love you” or “Love, love, love” over and over again, if there's a sufficiently good melody to - if you like - assist the word. Poems can't usually get away with that kind of repetition or ordinariness. There has to be something about a poem that is more intriguing, more surprising to draw you in. But that said, there's plenty of song lyrics that in fact if you just put them on the page, they read really well. Take McCartney's Black Bird, or one of the most well known poems in the English language The Owl and The Pussycat, which was probably written as a song anyway.