I’m the opposite of a poetry snob. I’m a poetry slob. Like many people, overexposure to gradiose verbiage from TS Eliot and Thomas Hardy during my later school years led me to distrust poetry.
It’s not straightforward, not clear in its intent, and some of it is more than obscure, it’s maliciously unintelligible.
I know a couple of poets, and one (The amazing Mark Niel) is a poet for the people. He often writes “stuff what rhymes”. He writes about events, and if he uses metaphor, you can spot it for what it is and understand WHY he’s used it. His poems make you smile, more often than not, and the conclusion will have you nudging a friend or neighbour as you grin and say “Look at this!”
To me, it comes back to the old argument about art and intent. When ordinary folks look at modern art pieces, they often say ‘What’s it meant to be?” and get told “That’s not the right question! Don’t be silly, it’s not supposed to ‘be’ anything” etc etc. Worst of all, some artists deny ever having any intent beyond “Provoking a reaction” in their audience. To me, this is a failure. Art should always have intent, an aim, a message. Poetry, I think, has a harder job than prose, because you are deliberately choosing to frame that message in a set format, either the rhyme scheme, or the number of syllables per line, or the more complicated rules of the many, many other poetry forms. If you don’t know what I mean, pick up one of Neil Gaiman’s collections of short stories – he always includes some poetry, and usually explains the rules of the form he has chosen.
So while I love prose, and the freedom of banging out a play or short story, using the odd trick or effort to create a better image or atmosphere in what I write, poetry makes you, the writer, work harder for your piece. In the last week I was tagged in the five days of gratitude challenge on Facebook, and for a giggle decided to do the whole five days in rhyme. Even though for most of the challenge I was only using doggerel (rhyming couplets, if you prefer), there was a huge strain in trying to fit the things I wanted to say into the confines of those rhythms and rhymes.
Adrian Plass once gave a talk about poetry that I attended, and he said “Let the content dictate the rhyme”. It’s simple advice, but harder than you think. It often involves throwing away a perfectly decent opening line because it won’t allow the right content for the following line.
I think my message here is not to be afraid of poetry – don’t mistake it for some ethereal creature, tied to Byron and th’moon and the vagaries of the Muse. Poetry can be fun, it can be tough, it can break your heart in four lines, and it’s always a damn good workout for your brain.