Monday 1 May 2017

Genre - Exploring Poetry

by Valerie Volk

I grew up with a father whose simple philosophy was expressed (often!) in verse quotations:

Life is mainly froth and bubble;
Two things stand like stone,
Kindness in another’s trouble,
Courage in your own.

From Adam Lindsay Gordon to Longfellow:

Life is real! Life is earnest!
And the grave is not its goal;
Dust thou art, to dust returnest,
Was not spoken of the soul

These were my father’s creeds  - but he would never have classified himself as a lover of poetry. How intriguing that lines of verse expressed best the values that were so important to him!

Why does the word ‘poetry’ set up barriers?

Two preliminary thoughts spring immediately to my mind, and they are both significant. One is the poignant moment when I stood in an Adelaide bookstore and watched people pick up my just-released verse novel Passion Play – only to put it down immediately saying “Oh, it’s poetry ...”

The second, equally sad, comes in that very popular 1989 film, Dead Poets Society,  where before the advent of the charismatic Mr Keating, a poetry lesson consists of the dreary reading aloud of chapter one of a ponderous tome on the topic “What is poetry?”

Perhaps this second thought explains the first. Too many schoolrooms where the study of poetry has been a soulless dragging through besmirched classics with a relentless analysis of rhyme, rhythm, symbolism, similes and metaphors  -  and let’s not forget alliteration, assonance and onomatopoeia – these have been the breeding ground for a general automatic response: “Poetry is hard work!”

But prose writing is relatively recent!

“Too hard’ is a sad reaction, because poetry has been throughout the centuries the instinctive response of people (not just that breed we call ‘poets’) to an experience that they wish to communicate as vividly as possible to others. It’s interesting to recall that novel writing, prose fiction, any of the non-poetic genres of today, are comparative newcomers on the scene, only a few centuries old, where poetry was the natural form of expression for thousands of years.

In ages before people could read and write, audiences in the great halls of castles, gatherings around camp fires, villagers welcoming travelling minstrels, fair ladies being wooed by optimistic troubadours, all were being entranced and entertained by poetry. What did it offer them?

Certainly, for the pre-literate ages the use of verse made communication much easier. The epic poems, the sagas of a heroic age, depended heavily on the devices and techniques that made the oral traditional tales easy to listen to and to remember. Rhyme and rhythm were important as an aid to understanding and literary devices such as assonance, with its repetition of vowel sounds, and alliteration, with its use of repeated consonants, were there not to be clever or ‘poetic’ but to get right into the hearer’s consciousness and memory. So still today works like Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey, the Anglo-Saxon Beowulf, Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, Milton’s Paradise Lost, Shakespeare’s plays are part of our literary heritage, all of them in verse.

So what does poetry offer us today?

Here we come to the crux of it: what really does poetry offer? It provides the opportunity to capture experiences, emotions, ideas in a more precise and meaningful way, for this is what poets of all ages have wanted to do: to communicate at the deepest level with readers in ways that make their words a shared experience, and one to remember. Poets want to open our eyes to see things in a new way, whether it’s Wordsworth standing on London Bridge on a fresh new morning, a sight so touching in its majesty, or Shelley, listening to a skylark, and marveling at its unpremeditated art, or Wilfred Owen, bringing home to us the horrors of World War One, with its returning soldiers bent double, like old beggars under sacks, knock-kneed, coughing like hags.

Difficult? No. The fact that poetry has been, traditionally, broken into lines seems to make casual viewers think that some special initiation into this art form is needed. Yet the line divisions in fact give us the chance to pause, hesitate, feel the emphasis on words in a way that allows them to carry special weight and power. Similarly, the language use in poetry is often richer and more flexible than that in everyday speech. Again, it heightens our responses. The potential of even standard devices, such as alliteration, is recognized in today’s advertising world – how many product jingles depend on alliteration! Try watching commercial television with an ear to this, and you’ll swiftly see its value in making an impact.

We read poetry to be moved and challenged to see the world in new ways. When Hopkins writes The world is charged with the grandeur of God we catch our breath with the sudden shock of his words – and that’s exactly what he wants.

This one line actually crystallizes what I’m saying. Take that word ‘charged.’ In a single word it opens so many thoughts, from the sense of electric vitality and force with which God created the world to the responsibilities we are charged with as custodians of the earth. It would take prose several paragraphs at least to explore these ideas, but in the succinctness of poetry they are evoked with one word. That is poetry’s potential.

But what we are talking about with this term poetry anyway?

Let’s move away from the blanket definitions, like Coleridge’s famous ‘the best words in the best order.’ It’s not a genre in itself, but almost needs a series of discussions on the various types of poetic genres: epic poetry, narrative poetry, descriptive poetry, lyric poetry with odes and idylls, dramatic poetry and the dramatic monologue, didactic poetry with its focus on teaching a lesson, satirical and humorous verse, specific forms such villanelles, sestinas,  triolets, rondels, ballads and sonnets, foreign forms like haiku, tanka and cinquain. What about song lyrics or rap poems? Poets can write in strict rhymed forms with lines that follow a huge variety of patterns, or they can choose unrhymed forms such as blank verse or the even more open free verse. Or further still these days, prose poetry, where it is only the heightened language use and phrasing that makes the classification ‘poetry’ possible.

Why do I write poetry?

I write poetry because I want to share as intensely as possible a scene, a person, an idea, that has been important to me, and I try to communicate this by calling on all that poetry makes possible. I try very hard to overcome the threatening reputation this genre so unfairly has acquired.

What makes me happy is when someone reads my work and says: “I’ve never read poetry, but you know, I could understand that. It really didn’t seem like poetry.”

I like to think my Dad would have felt the same. And I’m intrigued by the realization that many of the important ethical lessons he taught me I recall easily because they are expressed in poetry.

This blogpost was also published on Christian Writers Downunder 

Meet Valerie Volk:

As a seven-year-old I wrote embarrassingly bad fairy stories. Now, many decades later, I’m still writing  ... but I hope there’s been improvement. In between, there have been years as an academic, a researcher and an education program director in three Australian states –  but at last I’m a full-time writer with awards for both poems and short stories, which are to be found in journals, anthologies and magazines.

My first published collection, In Due Season, won the national Omega Writers CALEB Poetry Prize in 2010. The following year produced A Promise of Peaches, a verse novel, (Ginninderra Press), while my third book, Even Grimmer Tales, (Interactive Publications) is a dark and wickedly funny modern take on Grimms Tales, but, as the sub-title warns, definitely ‘not for the faint-hearted.’ My fourth book, Passion Play, an extended verse novel (Wakefield Press), is a modern reincarnation of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, with the medieval pilgrims replaced by twenty-first century characters travelling to the famous Passion Play at Oberammergau. Next came two shorter collections of verse, Flowers & Forebears and Indochina Days, while 2015 brought a Biblical fiction prose work, Bystanders, (Wakefield Press) and 2017 will launch Of Llamas and Piranhas, South American poems.

My main interests, apart from writing, are reading (especially crime fiction), film and theatre going, music, and food - both cooking and (as a lover of good restaurants) eating. I’m an enthusiastic traveller, especially overseas, but my focus is always the writer’s first question: What if ...?

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  1. Really enjoyed reading this, Valerie--thank you. I particularly appreciated your statement, 'Poets want to open our eyes to see things in a new way.' I write novels and memoir and have never considered myself a poet, but last year, I wrote a brief piece of prose about solitude that ended up on display in an art exhibition at our church. To my surprise, people said to me, 'Oh, I loved your poem about solitude--I took a photo of it!' Now in thinking about it, I realise I wrote that 'poem' to open people's eyes to the value of spending time in solitude with God--something I feel passionate about. And maybe it WAS poetry, after all!

    1. Interesting - and that's exactly my point. I think a lot of the time we are involved in thinking/speaking/writing 'poetically' without even realising it.

  2. Great post, thanks Valerie. It is perhaps one of those imponderables of life that many people declare their dislike for poetry, yet it surrounds us in the lyrics of the songs and hymns we love, the catchy advertising jingles, in picture books, and remembered snippets from Shakespeare or remembered and much loved verses.

    1. You're so right - there's a world of poetry surrounding us that most of the time we don't recognise. The poet's role is to stop and get it onto paper so that we see what is there!


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