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.

About the contributor

Related Articles

Poems as Time Machines by John D. Kelly

This Petty Pace If tomorrow is now                      where did time go? Was...

The Burden – Essay

    The Burden - The Gardener by Rudyard Kipling. By Mike Smith Several critics of Kipling mention this story. It comes in the 1926 Debits and Credits...

‘The Art of Creating an Anthology’ by Julia Kaylock

It only takes a second to get a bright idea. One of these came to me in January 2020, in the midst of the devastating bushfires that were raging around Australia.

More Like This

Fearful Symmetry: William Blake as an artist

Did he who made the Lamb make thee?  William Blake, ‘The Tyger’ The historical and social context in which William Blake lived and developed his...

A Writer’s Coronavirus Diary Part 4

Brendan Landers reflects on flowers, flesh and the neighbour's cat in the fourth instalment of his Coronavirus diary

A Cup of Turkish Coffee

Sometimes a cup of coffee offers much more than we had previously imagined, as Joan Leotta recalls. Anxious to cross into Asia, to be...

Serendipity

I have an appalling sense of direction. I won’t say that I have no sense of direction because I’ve got a reasonable idea of where I’ve been once I’ve got there, if you catch my drift

The Art of Attention – Where Poetry and Mindfulness Intersect by Daragh Byrne

Poet and Convener of The Sydney Poetry Lounge, Daragh Byrne explores the value of mindfulness in writing poetry, 'using the flawed tool of language.'