Poetry is a divisive subject, to say the least. It’s not even a case of love it or hate it, as there are so many types of poetry, and it can be a hard form to figure out. People shy away from poetry because it can be hard to define and has the ability to morph into nearly any shape (literally). It’s not so clear-cut and accessible as say, a novel with a typical structure, or a news article. But now that authors and journalists have so much freedom with publishing and media, even the structures of traditional books and articles are changing. That leads us to one of the many reasons you should care about poetry- being comfortable, or at least willing, to try and understand something new or a bit different is a valuable skill in understanding others and improving our ability to discern what people are really saying (even more crucial in a time of ‘fake news’).
As I mentioned in my last post, it took until I started teaching to gain an appreciation of spoken word poetry, and it took me a long time to appreciate poetry in general, so I totally understand if you avoid it, or come across it now and then and think, ‘I just don’t get it’. However, as an English teacher, I’m getting pretty to used to convincing people of poetry’s value (or trying to) and finding all sorts of poetry to give a taste of what this type of writing can offer. So here is my quick guide to understanding poetry, why it’s important, and a few examples to start your poetry appreciation.
“What even is poetry?”
- Poetry is the creative use of words to discuss ideas, feelings or basically any topic
- It can have a specific form such as haiku or ballad.
- Sometimes it doesn’t follow a particular form at all
- It does not have to rhyme
- It can be used to create a picture or made out of existing text
“Why is it important?”
- It helps people share their feelings and ideas without being limited to certain structures
- It’s a creative outlet
- It helps us understand what people think, or can put into words a feeling we have that is hard to explain
- The building blocks of poetry are the building blocks of language- for example, simile and repetition. You need to understand how to use these to communicate well, so making an effort to understand poetry improves language and communication skills. A lot of people write off poetry (pun intended) but in doing so dismiss the effort it takes to make writing interesting, to make something funny or to persuade people of an important topic. (That said, there is a lot of bad poetry out there, which can be off-putting.)
“Where to start now that you’ve convinced me to start a life of undying love of poetry?”
Spoken Word– A good place to start as it is easy to hear the emphasis and rhythm, which shows the words the poet wants you to focus on.
- Harry Baker- “A Love Poem for Lonely Prime Numbers”- a Grand Slam poetry winner, his introductory poem makes me laugh every time I hear it, which probably says something about my sense of humour, but more to the point, his poems are great examples of playing with words (and numbers in this case)
- Sarah Kay- “Point B”- familiar to many people, and a regular in English classes on poetry; a good place to start understanding spoken word
- Omar Musa- “Slam Poetry of the Streets“- another go-to for English teachers (at least in Australia)
- CJ Bowerbird- “Clicktivism”- still a relevant topic for today, addressed in an entertaining way
- Alysia Harris- “Not a Number”- On a more serious note, I just discovered this in response to National Human Trafficking and Slavery Prevention Month earlier this year
Written– There are plenty of short, powerful poems around.
- Maya Angelou- “Caged Bird”- you probably recognise Angelou’s name from pithy greeting cards, but she had some longer, pretty powerful poems about topics such as race
- EE Cummings- “dive for dreams”- you may have heard this name while studying poetry at school; he played around with poetry forms but has some short, easy to follow poems such as this
- Emily Dickinson- “‘Hope’ is the thing with feathers”- another classic, and for good reason
- Madeleine L’Engle- “Lines Scribbled on an Envelope”- the A Wrinkle in Time author discusses the point of praying in a world of pain (bear in mind the context of the time)
- Sherman Alexie- “The Facebook Sonnet”- for a discussion of a modern problem
- Judith Bishop- “Swan Lake”- I’ve had experiences of performances lifting my mood during difficult times more than once, a feeling this poem puts into words
Unexpected– sometimes poetry can be found in surprising places
- Graffiti- Not often a good thing, but this phrase has become insta-famous
- Comics- Michael Leunig is usually called a cartoonist, but often illustrates his poetic musings
- Social media- Speaking of insta-famous, instapoets are now a thing, one of the most famous being Rupi Kaur (also big on Pinterest)
And of course if none of those take your fancy, there are always these classics https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gGV4hxhxW8o