Poetic Insights by Mike Smith

In the last couple of weeks of May a couple of writing buddies sent me poems to look at. Co-incidentally I’d been tinkering with some of my own. The question on the tips our pens – we’re old guys – was, were they really poems, and if so, were they any good?

The definition of poetry has always been contentious; something to be considered, debated, argued about. Form doesn’t really do it since we took the net down and started playing our tennis without it. Technique, and it’s worth proving this to yourself whatever you write, doesn’t do it either, because the only writing technique that prose doesn’t use too, is the line break (and I just bet you know a piece of prose that does that too!).

Wilfred Owen tried to get us, and perhaps himself, off the hook by saying that the poetry was ‘in the pity’, but there are pieces of writing that are pitiless, and still poetry. Those with supreme confidence – I’m digging at young poets here, or at least, at the type of young poet I was – might declare that poetry is whatever you want it to be, and anything you want to be it, which is both true and absurdly useless: like saying a chair is anything you want to sit on. I suppose a fakir might pitch in sharply here, and a fence will always serve, though uncomfortably.

Of course, what we might be trying to do when we’re trying to pin down this particular cloud, is find out what it is we’re actually trying to aim for with the piece of writing about which we’ve posed the question; ‘Is this a poem, and if it is, is it a crap one?’

The implication is there that we know it isn’t something else. It isn’t an essay, or a short story, or even a flash fiction or a shopping list (though they, if I remember the seventies clearly, did go through a period of confusing similarity). And what’s more, we probably know why it isn’t any of these things. What we don’t know is ‘is it a poem?’, and until we do know, we won’t be able to ask, let alone answer the other question.

Perhaps the important thing is for each of us to know to the extent we need to know what it is that we are trying to do, and not worry about getting anybody else to agree to our terms of reference. Yet, there is that desire for recognition that we have done something that others might put to the same name as we would.

I fudged the answer to my friend. I told him that it was a ‘good piece of writing’, and I don’t how he felt about that, but I knew it wasn’t a very good answer: only as good as most such answers can be. I did go on, having mulled it over, to point out that there was something specific about the way that the good writing was working on me – it was something about his descriptions of the people in the poem that demanded I should define them, rather than letting me follow his defining words – that seemed a rather neat poetic trick.

But I couldn’t guarantee that I wouldn’t try to pull off the same coup in a short story!  

Mike Smith writes poetry, plays and essays – mostly on the short story form, in which he writes as Brindley Hallam Dennis. He blogs at www.Bhdandme.wordpress.com . He lives on the edge of England within sight of a sliver of Solway Firth.

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