Let me tell you what poetry is - Ian McMillan

When I was a young man starting out in the wild and untamed forests of freelance life, I ran writing workshops all over South Yorkshire and always, at the end, just as we were stacking the chairs and I was getting ready to go to the bus stop, somebody would ask A Big Question.

It's hard to define what poetry is exactly...

They would say “Do you need an agent to get things published?” or “Does a short story have to have a twist in the tale?” I would promise that we’d deal with it next week, hoping (between you and me) they’d forget, but of course they never did.

One bloke once waited right until I was about to go out of the door and asked, in a voice sonorous with seriousness: “Look, if you make your own book, what kind of glue should you use to bind it, or would Sellotape do?”

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The question that came up most often, though, in those fractious and terrible times in the mid-1980s was “What is poetry?” Sometimes the question was as straightforward as that.

Sometimes the questioner wandered around the question before going in for interrogatory kill, as it were: “Yes, but Ian we’re looking at all these modern poems and to me they’re just prose sliced up and they don’t sound like poems, so can you tell me what is poetry?”

Others would miss the question out and go straight to the answer, or the answer as they saw it: “You see, for me, if it doesn’t rhyme it’s not a poem. It has to rhyme or it isn’t a poem. That’s the rule.” Ah, the rules of poetry! That golden rhyming rulebook!

I would try to answer aphoristically, quoting things like “Poetry is the best words in the best order” or “Poetry is the music of what happens” but that didn’t satisfy them and, in the end, it didn’t satisfy me either.

The thing is, although I felt that I could recognise a poem when I saw one, I often couldn’t define with any certainty what made it a poem.

A lot of the people in those writing groups liked to write poems though, and they liked rhyming poems so we often used to write poems that had strict forms and rhyme schemes, like limericks and sonnets and villanelles and that made them happy.

Then I got them writing haiku, which is an ancient Japanese form of tiny poems that have three lines and a set number of syllables (at least in English). The first line has five syllables, the second line has seven syllables and the third line has five syllables.

They’re very satisfying to write and they can be beautiful miniatures but, as more than one person pointed out, they don’t rhyme. Several people tried to make them rhyme but that didn’t seem to work.

“They’re nice but they’re not poems’ a woman said. “They’re like snapshots.” “Well, let’s call them that, then,” I replied, only slightly irritated.

And now it’s thirty-odd years later and I’m still not sure what a poem is except maybe “a poem is what I say it is”. That’ll do for now.