Not everybody can write poetry

This is an incredibly risky article for me to write. Let me put a disclaimer at the beginning: while I do not claim, in any way, that I am a brilliant writer, I do however insist upon the relative usefulness of my degree (English and Related Literature) in determining whether other people are. Let’s not get into the messy question of what is and who decides what great literature is. I’m just talking about the baseline of not being a terrible writer.

Now, as I have mentioned, I study English. My degree basically involves reading and critiquing literature all day, every day. It sounds like a breeze, doesn’t it? It might surprise you to discover that there’s actually a metric shit tonne of formal elements that have to be considered whenever you analyse a text, and no form benefits from closer technical study than poetry. Sure, you might know what a Shakespearian sonnet is; you could be handy with a haiku or an expert on elegies, but can you differentiate between and strong and weak caesura? Do you recognise the intricate beauty of a villanelle or a sestina? Can you identify a falling meter and understand why an author chose to use it?

I fully acknowledge the pretentiousness of what I just wrote and I didn’t even pick particularly complex examples: it is, I imagine, similar to a computer scientist speaking solely in jargon at me with a knowing glint in their eye at my utter helplessness and blank incomprehension. The difference is though that I would never attempt to design an app and foist it upon the world. Nor would I turn my hand to designing a car, or building a bridge, or writing symphonies. The seems to be a general consensus in the world that all of these tasks require a degree of expert knowledge and training – if an amateur tries their hand at it then terrible things are likely to ensue. Why is it then that poetry is exempt from this?

I appreciate that sure, no-one will literally die from reading a bad poem, as would invariably happen if anyone tried to cross a bridge I had built. But I’m fairly certain at least a part of me dies every time I read someone’s adolescent attempt at communicating themselves poetically. At best, you just feel embarrassed for them, however, in my case, I tend to get incredibly angry at their presumption.

Modern poetry is a beautiful and wonderfully difficult thing to understand, far more complex than the rigid forms of yesteryear – and yet, every other person seems to think that all it requires to write poetry that is worth reading is arbitrary line breaks, a talent for cliché and a list of synonyms for anguish, occasionally placing a single randomly chosen word on a line by itself for pointless emphasis – the more creatively inclined might even put in italics or lines in bold. Consider my attempt at this style:

Red hot fury courses through my
pulsing veins and I can’t stop myself from
my throat catches and I
Silent once again.

Even with the logical consistency behind the full stop after choke and the upper case letters for scream, it’s not brilliant: it’s awful. That doesn’t even begin to plumb the depths of the terrible poetry that I have come across linked to on social media sites or posted in blogs.

Interestingly, it’s never really the English students who fall prey to the trap of bad poetry. I know just one who writes poetry (or has written poetry, to use the continuous tense as of a habit would make him guilty of pretension to the nth), and he has never let me read any of them (I wonder why…) – they remain handwritten in a book on his shelf titled ‘Wank, and other poems.’ As with all things then, studying a specialist subject makes you only more aware of how little you can ever really know. Although, perhaps I am being too harsh, as friend of mine said of a mutual acquaintance:

‘Stop picking on X, it’s not his/her fault s/he has so many feelings, and such a poor vocabulary, ear for meter, rhythm and sense of shame.’

Actually, having said that, I’m probably not. Poetry is an art, mastering art requires skill and study and years of practice. By all means, scribble your musings away, work through the unavoidable attempts at emotional rawness, past the stage of awkward self-awareness, through mimicry and past cliché – then, and only then, should you present it to the world. For your sake, as much as for the sake of the reading public.

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