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Your poetry questions, answered

  • 04 November 2021
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