October is National Poetry Month

By our Guest Blogger, Ryan Thompson.

If you had to draw it, what would poetry look like? Frilled collars, quills, dusty heaps of leather-bound books? In reality, poetry goes well beyond the clichés. It is an active art, created by all ages, all backgrounds. It takes on any shape.  For that reason, the benefits of writing poetry towards improving literacy and creativity are extensive.

In 2000, “October is National Poetry Month” was established to inform and enthuse about poetry in Britain and Ireland.  In honour of that, this blog will offer some tips to get started with, or sharpen, poetry writing.

1. Poems are about moods

As they say, everybody hurts.  The challenge behind writing a poem is to take an abstract feeling, such as sadness, or being joyful, and expressing it through precise and original language. It is a linguistic puzzle.  Take, for instance, 'Father's Old Blue Cardigan' by Anne Carson. Through the familiar and clear image of the cardigan hanging on the father’s chair, Carson deftly builds a sense of loss. The poem turns on the chilling line, ‘Coldness comes paring down from the moonbone in the sky’. This profound moment stands out amongst the simple and direct language of the rest of the poem.  Building a deep connection between reader and writer depends on these very human sentiments. The writer’s skill lies in gradually releasing the power of the underlying emotion. 

2. Poems capture a moment 

After choosing the emotion to deal with (or feeling it so keenly they simply must write something), poets wrap it in a moment.  It is a snapshot, a passing event caught in a flash, like the photograph from a Polaroid. As such, good poems are inherently dynamic, and therefore, they are led by their verbs, the active words.  A personal favourite, which accomplishes this well, is ‘What the Horses See at Night’, by Robin Robertson. The use of verbs guides the reader at the pace the poet controls. We go from day-birds who have ‘settled’, through the ‘flitting drift’ of deer, and the moon ‘dragging torn shreds of cloud behind’. The verbs are getting progressively more violent, building dread, for the fox whose deadly call is ‘red and ribboned’.  This poem tumbles with energy. It evokes a secret world, conducted away from human eyes over a single night. We are left feeling that any other night may not be the same. 

3. Poems are meant to be read aloud

The renowned critic Basil Bunting put it that ‘poetry, like music, is meant to be heard.’ In other words, if read in silence, a reader instinctively looks for what a poem means, and misses the emotional depth, and beauty, of how it sounds.  Imagine a piece of music that existed only in its score, or lyrics that lived only on the page.  That does not mean a new poet is expected to perform at a Poetry Slam; but the most readable poems are also ones where the writer has considered the “music” of the piece.  To revisit ‘What the Horses See at Night’, it includes the entirely made-up word ‘plowt’, which resembles the noise a herring makes as it enters a river.  Notice also, how the poet uses alliteration in ‘a shoal silvering open the sheeted black skin of the sea’. The “ess” sounds are stealthy, adding to the night-time drama of the piece.   Poetry is a form which invites with open arms such inventiveness and rule-breaking. This means that there is absolutely no need for a poem to rhyme (a common misconception)! 

4. A Quick Exercise

Tear between 10 and 12 scraps of paper. On each piece, write a feeling (e.g. rage). Then tear another 10 or 12 scraps of paper. On each piece, write a solid object (e.g. kettle, cardigan). Keep the piles separate, turn them over and mix them up. Pick one feeling and one object, and write a poem that brings out the feeling through the object.  This is a terrific exercise for stretching your mind to come up with interesting feelings or unusual objects, and thus write a distinctive poem.  It doesn't need to rhyme (this is called “free verse”). However, there are various poetry types to explore and a huge range of stylistic devices to choose from.

Poetry is an excellent way of improving writing and literacy skills. Beam Tuition is dedicated to providing the very best English tuition and can also support your child's learning in other core subjects. To find out more, contact us.