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Your poetry questions, answered



Although I teach poetry and do occasional workshops, the following is written in response to one such workshopper, new to writing poetry, who in lockdown would message me on social media with fairly open-ended questions about poetry. My answers are written after the wry manner of the Polish poet Wislawa Szymborska; wry, but generally helpful. They are not the launch pad for a new poetics. I have stopped for now at 12 questions, but the questions keep rolling in.

Question 1: Can poetry be a roadmap? It depends. Robert Frost talks about how the road less travelled ‘has made all the difference.’ Politicians call this a dangerous detour, even a dead end, because their private attitude is ‘my way or the highway’, choices that can prove not just unpoetic, but stupid. Dante Alighieri wrote a roadmap explaining existence’s dangers and delights. Consider how poetry, all exterior sounds and figures, is regurgitation of your interior journeys. Messy, no colour-coded Googlemap. Sometimes poetry’s just a walk around the block: searching memories, a surprise flower, the guard dog that barks every time.

Question 2: Can you have poems without figurative language? The academic Harold Bloom wrote a book about how to read poetry where he says all poetry is figurative speech. The first exhilaration of this claim subsides as Bloom continues, how we read poets to find their influences and quotes from other poets. Which only proves that’s how some academics read poetry. The character Molly Bloom would not give a fig for figurative. She speaks for 70 pages without a full stop, a lot of it figurative, expressive, explosive, reflexive, intensive, deceptive, informative, transgressive, and all of it poetry. Answer: Yes.

Question 3: Must poems show and not tell? Object poems are balancing acts. Is ‘juice segment planet’ an orange, or lemon? Your ‘heavy dark cloud’, the elephant in the room? Confessionals can be okay. Making them public, not so okay. Tell poems risk tell-all, making you vulnerable, not to mention those mentioned. Uplifting poems declare uplift. Getting others to feel uplift is the challenge. Syntax, word choice, analogy - you throw the book at uplift, unsure it’s not a crash landing. Take sex, for example. One poet’s description of kissing is another’s cause for hilarity. Words to avoid: luscious, tingling, full-throttle.

Question 4: Can you write poems with a single stream of words one after another? All poetry is a single-stream of words. Even concrete poetry is single words juxtaposed. Single-stream is so available today we may gawk at a comma. Is that flotsam there for some reason, we ask, as the single-stream takes us inexorably, meanderingly, towards decidedly a delta. Abandonment of punctuation coincides with recurrent desire for natural speech. Even though poetry is very exactly not natural speech. The most natural sounding poetry is oft times the most contrived. It’s a conundrum. Go with the flow, fairly much. End.

Question 5: Does poetry need to be positive? Not everyone asks this question. They charge forth existentially, dig deep relentlessly, plough on regardless. Cheerful asides are not their métier, sunrises go unnoticed. They have something to say, everything actually, they spare no pains. No one’s stopping them, but is anyone reading them? Choose subjects you are positive about. It’s hard to be negative about sunflowers, superb fairywrens say, or tomatoes. Laughing at negative subjects is curative: rudeness, politicians, space travel, things like that. Still, poetry is the complete palette, so don’t use rosepink when you are called to use blackcloud.


'To be the next Emily Dickinson, it would pay to read some Dickinson. Muscle-building is a more likely outcome, not cramps. Reading widely may teach you what to do next, and what not to do.' 


Question 6: Can slam poetry be short, or does it have to be long? Recital can be fraught. Egos contend with attention spans as a roomful of poets take their turn to speak. Some think public readings are an insult to poetry, which was written for close reading tête-à-tête. This is how far we have come from the Edwardians. They memorised epics just to get through tiffin. Slam is performance. Slam asks for entertainment about your bad attitudes and rollercoaster love life. It’s like hit records: three minutes is perfect, seven way radical. Try 40 haiku and see what happens.

Question 7: How does poetry make the ordinary seem extraordinary? Desire to do so, must be first. Not everyone thinks of turning the cutlery drawer into Spoonville. Then everyone outdoes everyone else. Your value of the seeming ordinary pushes limits. Not just the how but the why of everything nameable. Devices you discover along the way make for the extraordinary. Analogy transfigures. Words themselves lift the ordinary into something new.  Only 26 letters, too. Sharing is a main motive. It’s fine to like daffodils, or grevilleas, but the next step is showing others their explosions amidst our glorious fleshly world.

Question 8: Can poetry not be a conundrum? The smallest units of written poetry are letters and words. Conundrum itself is a poem, starting life as joke Latin amongst Renaissance under-graduates (conandrum, quonundrum), by the Restoration a riddling pun, now today, an intricate problem of any sort. We venture forth to answer questions, only to find the answer has more questions. Your poem can also be a constellation of consonants, concert of connections, confluences of content; a contrast of consciousness, confession of confusions, confirmations of contradiction; a comparison of contrariness, contact of convolutions, concatenations of concerns; a contract with contemplation...   

Question 9: How much space should poetry use? Plenty. Give yourself room. Cramped lined notebooks, forget it. Lavish A4 spaces receive the full force-field. Some Italians write every direction 1metrex1metre. Fold-up in their pocket. American deadbeats set a roll in their typewriter. They needed a computer. You may compose on a fresh document to eternity. Dear Eternity, thankyou for your time. Single-spaced Times New Roman 12 pt. All that comes later. Really you may write over whatever’s available. The serviette, your forearm, seven-storey walls. A recycled ream does no harm. Crossings-out, arrows, side lists of possibilities enhance the overall effect.

Question 10: Can poetry lead to logorrhea? There are recorded cases, bookcases of prize examples. The editor of the anthology ‘Never An Unpublished Thought’ asks, understandably, isn’t poetry meant to say everything in the least words? Apparently not. Another poetic hazard is mutism. Guidebooks call this Writer’s Block: creative ferment perhaps? Perhaps not. Can a lawyer get a poet off all charges (founded and unfounded) on grounds of logorrhea? That would be an alpine stack of paperwork. But then, what poet could afford a lawyer? Mutism would be inadmissible in a court because the accused has to answer the questions.  

Question 11: Why is poetry not prose? Poetry today does everything under the sun to avoid being prosaic. There is an ardent desire to surprise, that won’t be learned from journalism. Prose-poems baffle the bureaucrats, as well. The Syntax School re-arranges the furniture. The Neologism School overdoes the unheard-of. The Figurative School turns verse squares loopy. The ancients, people who have died, didn’t do this. Poetry was about memory. They timed rhyme, repeated meter, much toned touchstones, better late than never. Yet they shared a desire to articulate, not too late, the inarticulate. When you get it, you know it.

Question 12: Should poets read other poets? Some poets refuse to read poetry for fear of influence. Their uncontainable originality could be contaminated by outside thoughts. Shakespearean forces might cramp their style. Though really, to be the next Emily Dickinson, it would pay to read some Dickinson. Muscle-building is a more likely outcome, not cramps. Reading widely may teach you what to do next, and what not to do. Far from being the solitary crazy diamond, you’ll find you lack facets; you’re a chip off the old block. Wisdom comes hard, while also becoming the cutting edge of your poetry.  


Philip HarveyPhilip Harvey is the poetry editor of Eureka Street. He maintains a word study site, a poetry readings site and a workplace blogspot.

Main image: Portrait of poet Randall Jarrell at work (Getty Images)

Topic tags: Philip Harvey, poetry



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Existing comments

Harrumph, harmony has been restored to my hard-luck story of poetic endeavour. Not to harp, but Question 8 has hardened my resolve to keep enjoying poetry.

Pam | 04 November 2021  

“But the questions keep rolling in…Can poems have a mind of their own?
Give me your hand and I will take you to another land.
Find a raindrop in the dewy grass, set yourself an impossible task.
Wear a sock upon your head.
Look inside an empty shoe, if you wish to see things anew.
Stand at school gate with ashen or blushing face.
Look high as your friends go by.
Letting your spirit run free, look not at him nor at me.
Now begin the race, but think not of the pace.
Let your heart flow in full flight.
Catching anything you might see, be it bird, ant, or flea.
Holding back no thought as we dance free.
Now take the three of them, what can we do, look again inside your shoe.
There’s lots of room in there, but doe’s the sock restrict your hair?
Of course not, it’s not there.
But where is it to be found, we’ll have to look around.
Ah! Look what the ants have found.
We’ll put it back inside the shoe, it will do for me, will it do for you?
Our musical pen is dancing free, hopping from your heart to mine as jumping flea.
The bird is free, but he is you and also me.
But what is that you say, he is not white but grey, is that how you see the day?
Take your pen (Heart) and make it white, see the wonder of reflected light
This little ditty is doited fun, no thought was given but we could let it run and run and run.
kevin your brother
In Christ

Kevin Walters | 04 November 2021  

Thank you, Philip. Wry perhaps, but also witty, and wise.

Jena Woodhouse | 05 November 2021  

Addendum to the answer to Question 12: Poets would also be wise to read the words of poetry editors.

Maren C. Tirabassi | 07 November 2021  

Question 12 Should poets read other poets?
I am uneducated myself leaving school at fifteen unable to read or write; today I would probably be classed as dyslexic.
So, I have read little but even so, you cannot help but come into contact with classical poetry and cultural poets such as Bob Dylan etc, while also absorbing words and expressions of a poetical nature. Original thought is not shop bought so it could be said that even those who cannot read have a book to read and comprehend which lasts a lifetime.

Page one did start when we came out of the dark
Were we the same? One thing is true;
the light that dwells in me also dwells in you
We dwelt in a different frame
Looking out, reflecting on the light within;
why is life tainted with sorrow and sin
Seventy-five is my page and I say to you;
are you on page nine or ninety-two?
Back to page one before name touched page
Were you a white or black babe?
Christian, Moslem, or Jew
Perhaps no inheritance was given to you.
But a doll or car you surly knew
We played together pages, one two three and four
Gradually we went through a different door
Our needs were the same to quell suffering and pain
The pursuit of happiness is life’s cruel game
As we wander down the Churchyard lane
We hardly notice the ball and chain

“Wisdom comes hard, while also becoming the cutting edge of your poetry”

The pages of the book of our own life, truly live, when reflected upon/read in sincerity against the ultimate ‘never-changing reality of His inviolate living Word (Will)
John 12:48 “The one who rejects me and does not accept my words has a judge; the word I have spoken will judge him at the last day”
As righteous fear is the beginning of Wisdom, as it transforms the heart.
kevin your brother
In Christ

Kevin Walters | 07 November 2021  
Show Responses

Hello, Kevin. ‘at fifteen unable to read or write; today I would probably be classed as dyslexic.’ How do you get meaning from the printed word today? Read it yourself? Get someone to read it to you? Use software that can read a computer screen? Audiobooks?

roy chen yee | 13 November 2021  

Thank you, Roy, for your comment. For clarity I should have said leaving school at fifteen unable to read or write, today I most probably would have been classed as dyslexic (At Fifteen years of age)

“Dyslexia, also known as reading disorder, is a disorder characterized by difficulty reading in individuals with otherwise unaffected intelligence. Different people are affected to different degrees”

In my case without the spell /grammar/ check and paste facility on the computer I would not be able to fully participate on any sites as previously it would often take me hours to find the correct spelling for a single word while my lack of education limits my interaction with others under many articles, as an example when anyone refers to a famous person such as Thomas Aquinas, etc my knowledge is often nonexistent or very limited.

In stating that I have read very little in the past I was trying to convey that I am uneducated which is often manifest in using words that sound the same which have a different meaning as the spelling check on the computer does not pick up the difference while letters such as b and d can pose a problem as in bed, I will at times write deb etc.

Although using a computer and participating in different Websites over the last decade has greatly improved my reading while my spelling remains a problem. I hope that this information answers your questions, Roy

kevin your brother
In Christ

Kevin Walters | 14 November 2021  

Thanks, Kevin. You must have very good coping and survival skills.

You can get good sources of information from YouTube. No need to read. Just watch and listen. Perhaps your parish priest or someone else can give you a list of good sources.

Here's one, The history of the Roman Catholic Church Part 1. It takes you up to the time when the Orthodox churches went their own way. It's a lecture to adults who are about to be confirmed.


I might email a few dioceses to see what sources they have, or know about, for students who are better at absorbing information through hearing.


roy chen yee | 15 November 2021  

Thank you, Roy, for your comment and sincere advice for which I am most grateful nevertheless in my brokenness in the present moment after a very convoluted journey of spiritual enlightenment I am comfortable with this question direct at St Peter “Who do you say I am?
As can be seen in a pasted previous comment….

“For over thirty-five years. I have carried a small yellow book, the “Thoughts of Jesus Christ”. It was issued by the Catholic Truth Society London in 1972 to combat Mao’s Little Red Book (Older readers will remember it) it presents no shallow fashionable image of him. It expresses his unique authority his clear ethic and good news of the kingdom, as it reveals Him God-man, the risen Lord, whose message is truly radial because it is supernatural…
“Jesus Christ thought is the only message for an era in which human beings find themselves alone and purposeless”… The only information given is direction under different headings with Gospel reference. The simplicity of the book with minimal information impels the reader to contemplate the words of Jesus Christ in different life situations, this can be and is illuminating and encourages further study and spiritual growth, the onward transformation of the human heart…

Quote “It is the most powerful ideological weapon for opposing oppression, misery, and inhumanity. Jesus Christ’s thought is the guiding principle for all of those who would follow him to perfect manhood. Therefore, the most fundamental task in our social political and ideological work is at all times to hold high the sign of the Cross, to arm the minds of the people throughout the world with it and PERSISTLY use it to command every field of activity”…

The cover has long gone, like much of my old self, the remaining pages are yellowing and torn, some words can no longer be read but it is of no importance as there is no vacuum in my heart, as to some degree His Word now lives.
To anyone who may consider reading The Little Yellow Book *(if you can obtain one) note it is a tool for contemplation, as it contains the ‘living’, Word of God which is supernatural and radial, it cannot be misunderstood by anyone approaching his Word (Will) with honesty, it’s beauty (Truth) cannot help but inspire integrity, no matter of what religion, race, creed, state of being you are or belong to.

Whatever happened to the little yellow book?

But more importantly, whatever happened to our God-given ideals once propagated by the Church”
kevin your brother
In Christ

Kevin Walters | 16 November 2021  

'Though really, to be the next Emily Dickinson, it would pay to read some Dickinson.' I spilled a little tea at that line.

Penelope | 22 November 2021  

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