Which Way Poetry?

By Paul Grainger

It seems to me that the word ‘poetry’ no longer has a precise meaning and has, in some cases, been hijacked by abusers. It has become an ‘umbrella’ word. Various labels and qualifications have been affixed to it as imprimaturs: ‘classical’, ‘performance’, ‘rap’, ‘contemporary’, ‘cyber’, to name but a few. Regrettably, not all of them can justify being uttered in the same breath as ‘poetry’, with the consequence that it is difficult either to define poetry in general or recognise a real poem in particular.

As if that wasn’t enough, there is also the work being produced by students on creative writing courses and in poetry workshops. In a pressure-cooker atmosphere, would-be poets are churning out forgettable material that is swamping the market and blurring critical perception. On account of the technical ingenuity that is driving this process, with its deconstruct/reconstruct mantra, it is not easy to distinguish the true poetry from the false.

Perhaps the biggest mistake being made is to confuse poetry with verse. Poetry is not verse. It may have a metrical pattern, it may contain rhyme, but unlike verse it has not been consciously engineered. Its foundation is that of the natural rhythm of speech. That is not to say that metre and rhyme are unwelcome; their presence is acceptable as long as the principal rule of ‘the best words in the best order’ is not broken.

There is no denying that the same ideas, experiences, etc. can be expressed in poetry, verse and prose, but where poetry has the upper hand is in its refinement, its economical use of words. Moreover, poetry is primarily about feeling; and this feeling, together with the emotion it generates, is the key to the functional change it bestows to language. It elevates experience, giving it a different perspective. The superficial, the mundane, acquires a new lease of life.

There are, however, many kinds of feeling, and therein lies the danger. Excess of a particular feeling can prove self-defeating to the poet. Where feeling is the be-all and end-all of a poem, where it becomes self-indulgent, it can have the effect of throwing the poem off balance. There is no longer the perfection of expression that is the sine qua non of good poetry.

This is where natural rhythm returns to conclude my argument. It is, without doubt, the essential ingredient, as William Oxley has described it, “the audible representation of inaudible feeling and emotion”: the catalyst that enhances the words on the page; words inspired by the heart and through the personality of the poet; words that form a seamless creation derived from his or her experience. The way that I think poetry ought to be going.

Paul Grainger, Oct 2000

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