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What Is A Poem?

I've got so many unanswered questions about poems and poetry.


What is a poem? What is a poem not? What does a poem do? Why does it exist? How does it differ from other written forms? What are all the different types of poem? What are all the different rhymes, schemes and formats about? What are the rules of poetry, if any? Why are some of them so difficult to understand?


My aim in this series is to answer all of these questions and many more that inevitably crop up along the way. By the end of this journey, I no longer want to feel overwhelmed or excluded by poetry. I want to breakdown all the pervading snobbery and elitism and to demystify the different forms of poetry, just enough to make it a world we can enter but not too much so as to totally remove its magic and mystique.


Broken down into it's simplest form a poem is a collection of written or spoken words that convey ideas, feelings and emotions. A poem seems to stand out from other forms of writing by deliberately looking different, therefore causing us to look again, to think, to decipher the meaning more so than we would have to with prose. One description that resonated with me was - poems use words to draw a picture. I love the simplicity of that, although it isn't quite the complete answer.


When you look at a poem, you instantly know what it is. You know it isn't a novel, a screenplay or an article. Poets often use words sparingly, not having the luxury of wordiness that prose allows, and the chosen words seem to be deliberate because of this.


Poems are often difficult to read, because they don't follow the normal rules of punctuation, grammar or layout. I find this both exhilarating and confusing in equal measure; I understand this to be an intentional device by the poet but often it is lost on me.


If you are anything like me then you were brought up with poems that rhymed. It was the consistency of the beat of early rhyming poems, combined with the satisfying sensation when consecutive lines rhyme with each other that made me love poetry from an early age.


My first and still most enduring memories of poetry were care of the Dr.Suess books, and in particular The Cat In The Hat.


The sun did not shine.
It was too wet to play.
So we sat in the house,
All that cold, cold, wet day.

I sat there with Sally.
We sat there, we two.
And i said, 'how i wish
we had something to do!'

Too wet to go out
and too cold to play ball.
So we sat in the house.
we did nothing at all.

So all we could do was to
sit!
sit!
sit!
sit!
And we did not like it.
not one little bit.

That was my first encounter with poetry, and it has remained with me all of my life, such is the incredible power of poetry. The effect of rhyming poetry on me as a child has endured to this day. My brain thinks in rhymes constantly and I write rhyming poems; indeed I have published two children's rhyming poetry books. So while I don't want to do rhyming poetry any injustice whatsoever, and indeed it is a largely important part of the landscape of poetry as I'm sure we will come to discover, however it's the 'other' types of poetry that I struggle to come to terms with and want to explore more.

Perhaps a historic but brief (and fun) journey through the history of poetry is the next best place to go and what we will touch upon in the next piece.


If you haven't read my Back To Basics Introduction to Poetry then you can read it here.

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