If you get a group of writers together, it’s pretty much impossible to come up with a definition of poetry that they will all agree on. One of my personal favourites describes poetry as “the genre where the writer has more control over the presentation on the page than the layout artist does”, but I’ll admit it isn’t tremendously helpful.
This quote from Phil Roberts is another of my favourites:
The most complex and ‘adult’ word-game of all: the poem.
At poetry writing workshops, tutors often set challenges to get the participants writing. Although this can be useful, it can draw unnecessary attention to the word-game aspect: strict forms such as sonnets can be reduced to syllable counts and stresses arranged with mathematical precision but which completely fail as poetry.
I wrote the following in response to a challenge many years ago:
Have you seen the hunters? Riding
whip-like, along the horizon –
tally ho! – after the fox.
Trotting now, slowing, walking the horses, waiting,
listening, as the Master of Hounds whistles
to panting dogs. Now, once more, they’ve caught the scent:
bottled energy detonates and they’re off
springing, bounding, jumping over fence and hedge,
rowdily baying pursuit. Disappearing at last from view:
points fading into nothing. The curtain closes.
Although I knew it wasn’t brilliant, I remember being quite proud at the time that I had managed to produce a reasonably coherent piece of writing that had all the right tops-and-tails run-ons between lines without unnatural twisting of word order and without too many clichés etc.
Re-reading it now, I see just how badly it fails: the overt text is facile and doesn’t fulfil its role as a poem as I was much too focused on contriving the run-ons. These are correctly placed and the piece even loops back on itself, but there’s no consistency between the way “riding whip”, “horizontally” and “whistle-stop” are formed, and, anyway, how do the embedded words connect to the poem as a whole?
The complete list of hidden words – riding-whip, horizontally, fox-trot, waiting list, whistle-stop, scent bottle, offspring, hedgerow, view point, close shave – clarifies nothing, reveals nothing and adds nothing to the overt text; they don’t even work as a stand-alone parallel story. So the text has fulfilled the terms of the challenge, but in an entirely superficial manner. It’s as if I’ve played the children’s version of a word game: the answer is technically correct, but it doesn’t show any sophistication or adult wit.
This is one of the problems of writing poems in response to prompts and challenges: it’s easy to get bogged down in the details and forget that the aim is actually to write poetry.
This doesn’t mean we should reject challenges completely, but we shouldn’t force ourselves to follow arbitrary rules if they aren’t helpful. Workshop exercises are often good as starting points, but they aren’t necessarily going to be more than jumping off points.
With this piece, I could have gone back and written about the topic in a less simplistic manner, completely ignoring the idea of hidden run-ons; maybe there’s an image I could explore – perhaps even one of the ones I had to reject in order to complete the challenge; maybe the odd collection of hidden words could trigger a more interesting line of thought that’s worth pursuing.
It’s far too late for this piece now: I won’t go back to it, as it didn’t really interest me even at the time: it was never more than a mechanical construction. Even so, it serves as a reminder that poetry isn’t a simple word game.
Note: the photo clearly isn’t exactly a hunt, but it was the best I could find in my files: the motley pack of dogs were all busy tracking their own quarry, though I think they’d have been as surprised as I would have been if they’d actually caught anything.