Poets and readers of poetry will spend endless amounts of time arguing about what is poetry. For some, a poem is not a poem unless it rhymes and sticks to a strict rhythmic pattern. I happen to disagree with this stance. A poem can be hung together around the sounds of words, a metaphor or a shape on the page, for instance. Personally, I think there is much more cross-over between prose and poetry than some traditionalists might want to admit, for me it is a continuum.
There are some great definitions of what poetry is in The Bloodaxe Book of Poetry Quotations (edited Dennis O’Driscoll, 2006). However, I would struggle to say why they don’t apply to prose. I like Stephen Dobyns’ introduction in Best Words, Best Order:
‘I believe that a poem is an emotional-intellectual-physical construct that is meant to touch the heart of the reader, that is meant to be re-experienced by the reader. I believe that a poem is a window that hangs between two or more human beings who otherwise live in darkened rooms. I also believe that a poem is a noise and that noise is shaped. A poem is not natural speech, it is artificial speech.’ (Page xii, 2003).
On the other hand, could we not also say prose is a construct, meant to reach a reader? A window between people? A noise shaped into a narrative and to a page? We all know when we sit down with a book what we have in our hands is a series of squiggles on a page we have agreed to understand as a language with meaning. It is the business of all writers – whether prose or poetry – to use those words in such a way that the reader forgets the artifice and accepts to enter (with head and heart) into another world, a world we co-construct together.
I would argue, therefore, that prompts I’ve advocated previously – especially use of a writing journal, free writing, using all the senses and taking note of our own experiences/feelings within our own bodies – are equally prompts for those intending on writing poetry.
All writers should be avid readers. We learn so much about our art and craft by studying others. Just as an art student visits galleries or a music student attends concerts. To write poetry read poetry and plenty of contemporary poetry – there are many anthologies in our beleaguered libraries, use them before they disappear or borrow unashamed-ably from friends.
Now here’s something to try. Find one line from a poem you like. Write it down in the middle of a page. For three minutes, write quite freely your own words and phrases around it. Then re-write the line on another piece of paper. Study it, read it out loud, notice the rhythms and patterns made by the words. Ruth Padel’s 52 Ways of Looking at a Poem (2002) is a good guide in this regard. Now start with a clean page. Using your own words which you noted in the first three minutes, see if you can echo in some way the sound or the timbre of the original line you picked. Put it in a drawer. Take it out five weeks later and read it out loud. If you are still pleased with it, share it with others.