Jonathan Pinnock - Writer of Stuff

NO SOONER THE WORD THAN THE FICTION

The Problem with Poetry

I had this post lined up for last Saturday to coincide with Every Day Poets announcing their November schedule, including an interview with yours truly. However it got bumped to make room for those competition results. Anyway, there doesn’t appear to be anything else looming on the horizon, so I can now let it go out. (And if you really can’t wait until November 23rd to read an interview with me, the one I did for Small Stories a while back has just gone back up again.)

Here’s a thing. I can write all manner of unpleasant stories involving things like murder, cannibalism and brain transplants, and my family will read them quite happily – even if they sometimes give me a bit of a funny look afterwards. But if I mention that I’ve written another poem, there’s a fair chance that I will be shunned for up to a week. My daughter actually went so far as to say that if I ever call myself a poet, she would refuse to speak to me ever again.

You could say that poetry has a bit of an image problem. A lot of the problem lies with free verse, which is essentially the conceptual art of the poetry world. If it doesn’t rhyme, it’s often hard to see the craft in it. It’s like “my four-year-old could have written that.” The other problem is that it genuinely is a lot easier to write a bad piece of free verse than it is to write a bad story. So there’s a lot of really bad free verse out there.

Even writers have issues with poetry. We’ve been having a discussion recently in the on-line forum of my real-life writers’ group, the Verulam Writers’ Circle, about supposed non-poets being worried about critiquing poetry put up by other members. Notice I said “supposed” there. I know all about this. I’ve been there. Up until very recently, I would most definitely have described myself as a non-poet. So I know exactly where they’re coming from.

Poetry is scary. I’ll qualify that: free verse is scary. It’s scary because you have to make the rules up yourself as you go along, and trust that you can give the reader enough hints as to what those rules might be. Every single word counts. (See where I’m going here?) Actually, it’s more than that. It’s not just every single word that counts – it’s where every single word goes that counts. It’s where you break the sentences, where you break the lines and where you break the verses.

Or to put it another way: it’s all about how you write it.

Which is why I think that anyone who wants to write anything really well needs to get to grips with poetry. Because if you can learn to control the flow of a free verse poem, imagine the power that will give you over a piece of prose. And it is of course also possible that, like me, you will get completely sucked in. But I’m still not calling myself a poet quite yet.

6 Comments

  1. See, I think free verse poetry is the best mind-exercise there is. I avoided it for a very long time and really only gave it try when I got more comfortable with flash fiction.

    Congrats on the interview…can’t wait to check it out.

  2. admin

    November 2, 2009 at 11:56 pm

    As you say Barry, it’s definitely an excellent mind exercise, even if it is quite scary at first.

  3. Free poetry is hard to do well, but so is the more formal sort, if only because, while it is easy to produce a mediocre poem following the form, it is much harder to follow it while at the same time conveying emotion and/or meaning.

    I mostly seem to have given up on poetry these days, except for the silly sort.

  4. admin

    November 4, 2009 at 2:37 pm

    Good point about formal poetry, stu. And it can so easily tip into doggerel if you’re not careful. But don’t knock silly poetry – I often get the impression that poetry editors tend to get loads of miserable ultra-serious stuff and will welcome anything with a dash of humour in it. The same applies to prose as well, of course – in fact, didn’t you say as much when you accepted my piece for Gloom Cupboard?

  5. I did. I think that some places, once they make the mistake of asking for “literary” stuff, are never going to see another funny piece again.

  6. admin

    November 6, 2009 at 4:40 pm

    Absolutely. It’s also true that the intersection of literary and funny is non-empty.

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