What is poetry and what does it do?

What is poetry and what does it do? Well, I suppose that we all know what a poem is or at least some types of poems and I bet that most of us have had a stab at writing one from time to time; perhaps a witty limerick or a few lines trying to telling someone how much we love them, and I suppose, in their essence, that’s what poems are: ways of writing to express or evoke a particular emotion about something or someone. I could stop there but I feel that there’s more that needs to be said and some criticisms often levelled at poetry that need to be addressed first.

When many of us think of ‘Poetry’ in the abstract we probably envisage the likes of Shakespeare hunched over a table sketching out sonnets written in language so old it is almost impenetrable to the modern, casual observer. ‘Beautiful, no doubt,’ you might think to yourself, ‘but what on earth is he banging on about?’ Or the moody and melancholic poets of the Romantic period: Shelley, Keats, and Byron ‘Technically gifted, I’m sure,’ you muse, ‘but what on Earth does it mean?’ Well, before even attempting to answer those questions, let’s remember that there are hundreds of different types of poetry spanning literally millennia – saying that one doesn’t have any particular affinity for the Classical chamber music of Mozart, Haydn and Beethoven certainly would not imply that one didn’t like any music of any type from any time and so it is with poetry (as indeed, with any art form).

Our Rose Garden is quite the theatre for poetry!

There are the ‘Epic’ poems which recount tales of journeys, battles, life and death, heaven and hell. Homer gave us the Iliad and subsequent Odyssey which give us most of our information about the Trojan War (with the Trojan horse), about Achilles, Hector, Paris and the beautiful Helen and the Odyssey which charts Odysseus’ perilous 10-year journey home to Ithaca from that battle after his ship is blown off course and he must navigate his way overcoming Sirens, Cyclops, Scylla the six-headed monster, and the Land of the Dead. There is Dante’s ‘Divine Comedy’ about the poet’s journey through Hell, Purgatory and then up to Paradise (a poem which gave us the Italian language as we know it today) and Milton’s ‘Paradise Lost’ that tells us the story about a rebellion of angels in heaven whom God subsequently cast out throwing them so hard that the hole they made gave us (or them) hell and how God’s former favourite angel, Satan, rose up against him from this pit of desolation and eventually, in the guise of a snake, tricked Eve into eating the apple in the garden of Eden. These are Epic in their length as well as their imaginative wonder and provide writers, poets, film makers and singers with a wealth of material and inspiration to this day.

Shakespeare wrote a plethora of sonnets. These 14-line poems usually about love can (and usually are) difficult to fathom; the language is archaic, and the meaning is often lost on us but if we persevere we can see why they are still quoted so often today – how many of us have never heard the lines:

‘Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?

Thou art more lovely and more temperate.’?

This sonnet (18) is written in Iambic Pentameter – so there are 5 iambs ( an iamb is 1 unstressed syllable followed by a stressed one and pentameter means there are 5 of these in each line) giving it a sort of da-DUM da-DUM rhythm which mimics the sound of a beating heart – people used to believe that different emotions were created in different parts of the body rather than all in the brain and as anyone who has ever been madly, passionately, gut-wrenchingly in love will know that when you see the object of your affections, when you even think about them, something very strange starts happening to your heart as it tries to beat its way out of your chest making you weak at the knees and breathless so writing a love poem using a rhythm that mimics the beating of a heart is turning the romance levels up to 11!

Poetry, like art, often tries to capture a feeling, a sensation, a mood rather than trying to accurately describe a thing with clinical-like precision and the Romantic poets (as Romantic artists) were masters here. The technically perfect Keats, the morose and self-conscious Shelley, the ‘mad, bad and dangerous to know’ Lord Byron, and the unpresumptuous (well, a bit anyway) Wordsworth all revere the power, the majesty and the beauty of nature; their poetry is often introspective contemplating the importance of existence and bemoaning the impact that man has made to the natural world.

From the pen of Wilfred Owen, the world was given an accurate account of the First World War; a far cry from the jingoistic propaganda from the governments and poets like Jessie Pope who sent, encouraged, belittled and shamed men and boys in their thousands to slaughter – Pope’s woefully unrealistic:

Who’s for the game, the biggest that’s played…’ replaced by Owen’s true-to-life:

‘Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,

Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through the sludge’

His genius is not only in choosing the most appropriate words but through his understanding of our patterns of speech, his ability to create emotion through the sounds of the words and these poems, we must remember, written not by a shirker; a man looking for any excuse to run but by a British Officer decorated for bravery. He saw no shame in being terrified by the horrors of war and led his men – proud to stand shoulder to shoulder with them; each as frightened as he was as they did their duty and died for our country. The irony in the final line of that poem (also in the title) ‘Dulce et decorum est, pro patria mori’ ‘it is sweet (pleasant) and right to die for your country’ when one reads Owen’s account of the war in this or any of his poems, one can see that there was nothing sweet or pleasant about dying in those most inhumane, pitiless and, (dare I say?) Godless conditions.

In recent times, there has been an explosion of poetry for children with the likes of Julia Donaldson giving us ‘The Gruffalo’ and ‘Room on a Broom’ or Michael Rosen with his wonderfully funny poems like ‘Chocolate Cake’ and ‘No breathing in class.’

Poems don’t have to rhyme; they don’t have to count the syllables in each line making sure that the emphasis of each beat in the word is in just the right place – many of them do in order to achieve certain effects like I mentioned before or perhaps the poet is trying to make the poem sound more like natural speech so they stop and start in the middle of lines but lots of poems don’t have any rules at all (blank verse).

Remember, poems are meant to be read aloud – often the sound of a word in a poem is every bit as important as the meaning of the word and this only becomes noticeable when it’s heard. Mrs White’s 2020 recital of Betjeman’s poem ‘Christmas’ (if I can say without appearing obsequious) is a perfect example of this – listen to it again and you will be transported away for a few minutes and will be left feeling…well, that’s for you to decide.

Why not choose a poem that you are familiar with; that you’ve heard somewhere before of by a poet you are interested/curious about and read it‽ Read it slowly, think about the sound of the poem – the shape of it in your mouth and go back to it – often. It will start to mean something to you, I guarantee. It’s very personal and very wonderful.

Some poems brighten your mood, lift your soul and help you to see the world in a different, more beautiful light. Some expose the melancholic worries and feelings we all suffer from time to time; some poems try to express our undying love for someone, and others are just funny!

What is poetry and what does it do?

I have two poems that are very close to my heart and both given to me by teachers and both at decisive points in my life. The first was ‘The Listeners’ by Walter de la Mere which, as well as ‘The Whack’ was given to me by the Headmaster of my prep school in Dorset to learn and recite in front of the entire school after two school-fellows and I snuck out of our boarding dormitory at 1 in the morning to pillage a particularly magnificent and fecund Horse Chestnut tree about a mile away from the school during conker season but…perhaps the less said about that painful episode, the better. The second poem I was given by a much loved and respected tutor at university (not a punishment this time) and is Cavafy’s ‘Ithaka’ – no instructions or demands, just a ‘Have a look at this, Chris, I think it’ll help’ and it did, Harry, thank you.

Poetry does help us and teach us and to a far greater extent than we might at first imagine and a society without it would be a very poor one indeed. Mathematics and the sciences might be able to explain life but, and make no mistake, it is art in all its forms that makes it worth living.

Chris Thomas, Head of English