The Art of Reading and Writing Poetry

The Poetry Corner. May 2020

Poetry is for everyone. Not everyone chooses to be a poet and some consider poets to be pretentious and suspiciously obscure and yet in times of great joy or great grief or danger poetry becomes for many a secure haven. Poetry was being composed long before the written text existed and the fact that we are reading, listening, watching and performing poetry in the twenty first century surely makes a statement. Poems are always there, whether understood or not, but they are there to be enjoyed and given life. This life is conceived and birthed when the reader chooses to read the poem and ingest it with a personal understanding. A poet is a maker; the word poet comes from ‘ poiein,’ the Greek word for maker. The poet makes something from language; he chooses words, shapes them, pours emotion all over them and forms them into a poem.

Michael Longley, an Irish poet contemporary of Seamus Heaney, wrote,

” If I knew where poems came from, I’d go there.” I suggest that it is possible to find that place, it is within everyone of us, as the song sings we are all ” poetry in motion.” All we need to do is write it down and actually write it out of the conscious or subconscious. Then we awake to the people that we meet through friendship or accidentally and we become more aware of their voices and needs.

Heeding the needs of others often soothes our own hunger. In this poetic mode, streets buildings and sounds have a life of their own and of course nature’s colours are more vivid and startling. The beauty of love, the hurt of grief, the ache of stress are part of this concrete life that we all live. We can try to deal with all these issues through poetry and learn about ourselves through writing down our thoughts. Naturally, we hope that all our thoughts are happy ones full of fun and laughter and peace. Peace; Inner Peace, Family Peace, World Peace and finally, the kind of peace that settles us human beings, with a sense of calm and happiness. Award winning Portuguese poet Sophia de Mella Breyner Andressen explains ; “Poetry is my way of understanding the universe, my way of relating to things, my participation in reality.” We can try, and it can make a difference, the poet is a maker and not all things that are made, are perfect, so poetry is there waiting within us all, to be shaped and given a life by each unique poet.

The way we can read and write poetry today is due to the huge change wrought by Modernism at the beginning of the Twentieth Century. The change had started at the height of the Romantic Era when Wordsworth and Coleridge revolutionised poetry. These poets brought poetry within the reach of the average man and woman by writing in everyday language. Poetry was now the living voice. Poetry went through subtle changes through the Victorian Era, the Georgian Era, and various movements until a world, changed by the Industrial Revolution and The First World War gave birth to Modernism. Poetry is like life, it changes and changes. Modernism shattered fixed conventions that stated that only specific language and subjects were poetic. A melange of magnificence was created by calling on other cultures and by mixing alien and ancient materials. Picasso did this with the art of painting, mixing textures and introducing collage and fragmentation into painting. These changes advanced by Modernism also changed the popular audience for poetry. Some readers resisted the changes and preferred mainstream, easy to understand, poetry.

There is movement of thought and words in poetry so we read and move on through the poem. T.S. Eliot said ” We learn what poetry is – if we ever learn – from reading it.” The poet has crafted a poem within which words will delight or destroy the anticipation of the reader. A poem should stand free of intellectual examination and be interesting and good to read. If therefore, the words on the page please, the first step towards satisfaction is underway. The next thing to note is the form or shape of the poem. Is it a sonnet or a lyric poem? Is it a free verse or a rhyming poem? Everyone has a preference and may be attracted by a specific type of poem…it may simply be the length of a poem that attracts. Sometimes we want to read a short poem another time we require a fuller longer piece of poetry. There is, in fact an explanation for the reason for choosing a short poem, such as, the sonnet. The human brain is such that the fourteen lines of the sonnet suit the human psyche.  The ingenuity of its form contains the phenomenon of the golden section or the golden ratio.This fact is extremely interesting not only to mathematicians but to all of us who seek to know “the reason why” or the natural explanation of things that we take for granted. Poetry suits the changing mind. Next, does what the poet is trying to say make sense to the reader and is there a sense of agreement, appreciation or disapproval. Is there a premise in the poem that requires further study, are moral issues being interrogated?

All the above are considered like the interior of the human body. We see only the exterior body and we are either attracted or disinterested. When attraction occurs one continues the conversation. Same with poetry, it is possible to fall in love with a poem, just for itself, long before inquiring into its reasons it’s matter and explanation. We try to understand a poem through our personal knowledge and what we have learned without and within the particular poem. Like life, and living, we need to participate in the poem and bring it to life so that we seem to live in it.

Sometimes we find ourselves lost as we encounter difficulties of hidden nuances or the twists and subtleties of the words. Reading and re reading is the key. Poems can describe and try to explain life. If a poem sparks a thought or a memory in the reader the meaning in the poem may change, and become the reader’s version. The reader may take the poet’s words and see something new and exciting. That is the wonder of poetry. When we first read a poem, we need to like it and find something that makes another reading attractive. It may be the sound within the poem, its music or its whispering memories. It may simply be, how it looks on the page. Does the poem appeal to the senses? We need this reaction before looking for meaning.

Here are some useful tools that we can use to examine a poem and try to reach an understanding and add to our enjoyment of poetry.

Imagery is use of descriptions that appeal to the reader’s five senses. ie. The scent of a rose. The sound of the sea.

Metaphor is a comparison between unlike things. ie.The poetry of her life was a sonnet.
The wine is heavenly.

Simile is the same as metaphor but employs the use of ‘ like’ ie It is like the scent of a rose.
It is like the sound of the sea.

Personification is giving human characteristics to animals or non human things. ie. The trees listen to my words. The house knows when we are home.

Patterns; Repetition of words or phrases.

Feelings; Atmosphere of the poem.

Puzzles; Something or mysterious in the poem.

These definitions are useful when reading, and especially, when reviewing a poem. There are, of course many aspects of a poem to consider and that is why so many reviews differ. This is wholesome, as each reader may have a different interpretation

A critique of a poem from “The Toga and The Rose”. The Hand of God Gloved.

The Hand of God Gloved

A life that should have been yellow, coloured grey.
Cotton fields blazing sun and laughter
Singing in the cloisters like angels
The man swung his belt and blasted
The beauty from all time
As innocence lost its rhyme
They found a new reality.
A life that should have been yellow, coloured grey.
Black skin the only sin
Eyes dark as the blood soaked earth.
As the light dimmed and died
The singing in the cloisters of demons
Rattled the chains
Of hunger and thirst
A life that should have been yellow, coloured grey
Is now black.
The hand of god gloved.

I walked into a meadow
And asked a man for gold
He said that I was ugly
And that I should be sold
For half a pint of nothing.
A life that should have been yellow, coloured grey.
I was the Devil’s Agent, he said.  He took the child away.
The well is deep.  How harsh the sleep
There is no anodyne for pain
The constant gnawing strain
For a life that should have been yellow, coloured grey.
The hand of god still gloved.

(c)2014 Sheighle Birdthistle (The Toga and The Rose)

Attention is immediately drawn to the title of the poem. A gloved hand lacks intimacy so the inference is of a God who is distant or uncaring. The poem opens, telling of a life that should be happy ..yellow is a bright colour think of sunshine and warmth, but here we have a metaphor for a life no longer happy. The colour grey…dullness, drab grey, colours this life with misery instead of happiness. Then we have the simile of the person or persons singing like angels as the tone changes suddenly and we realise through the use of the plural pronoun that the life being lived is more than one. The cruelty of the man takes away the innocence of those singing as they realise that their reality is indeed grey and without joy. The repetition of the line “a life that should have been yellow, coloured grey” serves to state firmly the damage being done. Over and over again.

We know now that this first stanza is about abuse, global abuse of race. “Black skin the only sin” We read of hunger and thirst and the spilling of blood and the only reason is the colour of those at work in the cotton fields.

The second stanza is told in the first person making the conversation with the reader a personal interaction. “I walked into a meadow and asked a man for gold”. Walking into a meadow, a field of grassland often covered with wild flowers sounds gentle and easy but this premise is quickly shattered by the man’s reaction. Asking for gold…this is a metaphor for help, for assistance. But his response “half a pint of nothing” is that “I” am worthless …devoid of all respect …the Devil’s Agent.
“I” am the temptation that cannot be resisted, but he is the one who destroys the innocent without remorse. There is no solution for the abused, the depressed for the tortured sleeplessness of the injured. This person longs for a life that should have been a normal happy life. It is still a damaged grey because the hand of God is still gloved. The poem closes as it opened with a metaphor of colour for the good, and the bad, experienced in life. “A Life that should have yellow coloured grey.”

Some poems for you to enjoy.

Undiluted dismissal …

Oh to be and not to be
when too tired to try
To please the world
Or the little world
Of those you love
Unresisting the slights
Expiring the breath
Of undiluted dismissal
And losing it, losing it
As night snores on you
And the moon seems to
Cloud over and sneer
Oh to be and not to be
When tomorrow may
Put on it a different
Veneer of life or death
And it might be too late
To care whether or not
It matters or not
To be or not to be.

(c) Sheighle Birdthistle.

The Kiss

The sea is a flirtatious lover
It rolls in and kisses the rocks
Rolls out again waving gently

In those moments I glimpse eternity
On it goes its power exploding
Like the love in my broken heart

My gaze takes flight  beholds a ship
My soul finds its wings to rest aboard
And sail safely in the ocean’s kiss

(c) Sheighle Birdthistle


She looks out through the window pane
Sea and sky have blended to one
Yachts moored with tall moaning masts
In the harbour of discontent
Reflect the feel of the nation
And the blasting inertia rains on limbs.
As the wealthy prepare to sail.
The sunrise is perfect delight
Sunset is a fire raging mad
Class war is hidden in purple rage
As nations pretend to vote again.

Sheighle Birdthistle.

Astley, Neil (Ed.,) 2002 Staying Alive real.poems for unreal times Bloodaxe Books Ltd.

Highgreen, Tarset, Northumberland.NE48 IRP. UK.