Today I am delighted to welcome poet and performer, Felix Hodcroft to my blog. Felix Hodcroft gained a BA in English Literature more years ago than he seems (to himself at least) to have been alive. His publications include a volume of his own poetry, Life after Life after Death and an anthology of poetry by North and East Yorkshire writers, A Pocketful of Windows, both published by Valley Press: https://goo.gl/7swD1x. He teaches poetry on the Creative Writing course at Hull University. He writes and performs with Sue Wilsea as ‘The Hull to Scarborough Line’. With Sarah Dew, Jane Sudworth and Helen Birmingham, he writes and performs as ‘Poetry on Fire’. With Helen, he co-compères the regular Open Mic Cabaret sessions at Woodend, Scarborough (http://www.woodendcreative.co.uk/events.html). He has also performed as a solo poetry performer and with Beach Hut Theatre and Springboard Scriptwriters in Scarborough.
The 7 things you need to know about… Poetry
(1) The essence of poetry is NOT, as many people still think, that it should rhyme.
(2) The formal (ie. how it looks or sounds) essence of poetry may usefully be broken down into four elements:
(a) the vividness, precision and power of the words you use;
(b) the way in which you use grammar (eg. full-stops, commas, hyphens – or, sometimes, the lack of these) to bunch and order those words;
(c) the way you use your words, your grammar and, most of all, your decisions about where to break lines to create the sense of what you say and the rhythm (whether regular or shifting) in which you say it;
(d) the ways in which you embellish your sense and your rhythms with images (often metaphors) to refresh and revivify; and with such musical effects as assonance, alliteration, onomatopoeia and (even!) rhyme.
(3) A poem can unfold like a story, a series of descriptions, an emotional outpouring, a conversation, an advertisement, a news bulletin or any combination of the above or of anything else. To be of interest, though, it should push the boundaries – perhaps by finding or trying to engage with something fresh or enigmatic, controversial, complex or painful; or by addressing something familiar in a revealingly original way. This is one reason why it may get harder, not easier, the longer you go on, to write poetry of value. Poetry-writers often turn out to be good at doing something fresh – and then at doing that same (once) fresh thing again and again.
(4) Because pushing the boundaries is a challenging and sometimes painful or alarming thing to do, the formal techniques outlined above under (2) have a crucial role in hooking into and hanging onto the reader’s attention. Whether it be to delight, disgust or intrigue, the quest to keep the reader’s attention is paramount in poetry.
(5) From which it follows that the purpose of writing poetry is not to show off the writer’s cleverness, their political or aesthetic soundness or their fascinating emotional scars. Any of the above may, optionally, be present, so long as they are subjugated to the task in hand. That task is to communicate: one human being trying to touch, and to speak to and for, other human beings, bringing something fresh from the Front.
(6) If you can’t immediately understand a poem presented to you – or you can, but you can’t see the point of it – this does not mean that the poem should necessarily be rejected. Sticking with it can be about trying to broaden your mind, which is something poetry can be very good at, and for. If, however, after sustained attention and effort, you still don’t understand it – or maybe, again, just the point of it – this does not necessarily mean either that the poem is remarkably clever or you remarkably stupid. As years pass, many poems – and poets – that were once thought sophisticated and excellent are seen to be rather ordinary. Cringing to fashion is something that the poetic world can be very, very bad at.
(7) Taking time to work out – and to put into words – why you think a poem works, or does not work, and continuing to do this (as – yes! – you read more and more poems) is one of the very best ways of discovering your own personal poetic standards and of developing your own powerful, poetic voices. Another way is being willing to change your mind. Yet another is to resist the romantic myth that the best poetry comes in a lyrical rush of inspiration. On the contrary, the best poems have been probed, interrogated and revised again and again until – if ever! – we achieve the intensity, depth and honesty we fumble for.