The English Oxford Living Dictionaries define the noun ‘poetry’ as a “literary work in which the expression of feelings and ideas is given intensity by the use of distinctive style and rhythm” and additionally suggests that the term, when used to encompass poems collectively, describes a genre of literature.
Unlike prose, poetry is designed to convey emotion in a very condensed package, using a variety of language tools to take the reader on an emotional journey. The way that this works is that poets creatively produce rhythm or sounds which are intended to strike feelings, with the use of repetition, assonance and incantatory effects to make the words seamlessly flow off the tongue like a piece of music.
Being a style of writing which emphasises linguistic features to tell a story rather than relies solely on creating meaning with words, poetry is almost impossible to translate into another language. This, to me, makes it all the more sacred and special as a form of art. As such, a poem can be described as truly unique.
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How Can Poetry Move You?
If you are unsure if poetry is an area of literature which appeals to you, I would recommend keeping an open mind because there is such a vast selection of poetry available to suit all tastes. And don’t be fooled into thinking that all poetry rhymes or is only about heartache and romance!
Poetry over the years has covered an enormous range of topics from accounts of war to losing a loved one, to missing a dear friend. Nevertheless, poets have the freedom to write about ordinarily unemotional situations too like cleaning a car or putting the washing out, however these subjects are unlikely to evoke much feeling in anybody!
Reading poetry was once associated with groups of creative minds reading works by others with the same special powers of expression. Yet, this does not have to mean that you need to be a lyricist yourself to enjoy a piece of this genre of literature (remember, also, that not all poems rhyme!).
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Students studying English Literature at A Level (whether with AQA, OCR, Edexcel or another examination board) will no doubt be required to study poems by established poets like Carol Ann Duffy, Christina Rossetti, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, John Clare, Seamus Heaney and William Blake, am many others.
Although great examples of poetry from different times and cultures, these texts may not inspire all. At least, not without the help of a passionate teacher. Being taught ways to creatively read and interpret poems is vital in helping learners to approach the texts receptively.
Being inspired by poetry is not always a direct correlation with the content presented, it is about how we interpret the given story and apply it to our own understanding of the world. Everyone can relate to poetry in some way because they are written by humans like ourselves and about themes that are ever-present in today’s world like romance, friendship, deceit and many more.
The Powerful Poetry of War
Many Britons will only have heard about war by watching the news, reading books or from hearing stories told by relatives who may have fought in the war or whose parents may have been deployed. However, some may have experienced war zone first hand and can understand the range of emotions that a soldier might feel. In addition, they might even have had the opportunity to communicate with locals in towns under fire to get a sense of how they would have been feeling.
War poetry has a very significant place in the poetry genre. Although fiction and non-fiction prose can powerfully present war, poetry takes this narration to new levels and invites the reader to actually feel what they would have been feeling inside.
Reading such poetry in conjunction with classic literature can give you a unique perspective of that time period!
One of the best known poets who wrote on this topic is Siegfried Sassoon, an English poet and soldier. Reporting on the First World War, he was commended for his bravery. He was so brave, in fact, on the front line that he was known as 'Mad Jack'.
Doesn't Mad Jack's story add to the pile of evidence that reading is important? How else would you know of him?
Who better to share their insight into the front line of WWI than a recognised war hero? Sassoon's poem ‘Attack’, published in 1918, expresses horror for the unraveling events and sympathy for those soldiers who were a part of it. The poem then concludes quite dramatically, just like the end of a war, with a huge sense of despair coming from the military writer.
Along with Sassoon, Wilfred Owen is yet another war poet who successfully portrayed the terror of war in his works. Also a soldier during the First World War, you may have heard of Owen and fellow war poet and friend Sassoon as a result of studying their works at GCSE level.
The AQA English Literature syllabus consists of a section named War and Conflict in which poems by these two inspiring poets are taught. Owen’s most renowned poem is ‘Dulce Et Decorum Est’, published posthumously in 1920. Naturally, these poems are taught to pupils across the country because of their importance to our nation.
Such works and others serve to encourage and motivate our students to read!
Rudyard Kipling was an English poet active in his field during the late 1800s and early 1900s. ‘If’, one of the writer’s most inspirational poems, presents a powerful message about overcoming challenges and obstacles in life, which he himself had experience of.
His early life as well as his later years were sadly filled with trials and tribulations as well as deep sorrow, which makes his words all the more motivational to those reading them now. knowing that Kipling has been through his own battles shows the reader that his words have substance and sincerity.
‘If’ is a poem full to the brim with mottos and rules related to adulthood, many of which Kipling wrote as a personal philosophy to himself. The words consequently have such meaning to our nation that a line from this poem appears above the players’ entrance to Wimbledon’s Centre Court as motivation. It reads: “If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster, and treat those two imposters just the same”...
Also an extremely inspirational poet, Maya Angelou’s works celebrate courage and power in the face of racial inequality in the early to mid 1900s. Angelou was born in America in 1928 and became a confidant of Martin Luther King Jr thanks to her devotion to raising awareness of the African American experience.
Her famous poem ‘And Still I Rise’ embodies this tenacity and addresses those who mistreated black people. The theme is one of hopeful determination and her powerful words successfully draw on the readers’ emotions. This poem, along with many others, are the incredible woman's legacy.
Anonymous but Positive Poems
Anonymous poetry needs to be mentioned, I feel. The fact that these inspiring words have been penned by somebody who does not want to be, or could not be, identified as the owner is just astounding.
They seek no fame, no recognition even. All that they want is to see their words touching others. In some ways, reading poems by anonymous authors can be even more engaging as there are no preconceptions, nor any background information to consider, so the words can be taken exactly as they are.
Studying anonymously written poetry, on the other hand, can be quite the challenge as there are no facts to back up evidence or theories, so the interpretation really is left up to the individual reading the poem.
A poem I read recently (and found charming and heartwarming) is called ‘A Smile’, published by an anonymous author, and is a collection of words that, on the surface, seems straightforward. Describing a smiling epidemic, thus poem's purpose seems to inject a sense of gaiety and hope into our otherwise serious lives.
The poet implores its readers to remember to be happy, and highlights how our own behaviours can impact on those around us. In this instance, a smile is caught “like the flu” and infects all of those in its path. As we cannot relate this poem to its creator’s life, we can but apply it to our own.
As an example, in today’s society, one might interpret this poem as accentuating how complicated life in the 21st century has become as a result of advancing technology and the value we place on money. As such, it could be gently reminding us to think about the bigger picture and our existence.
What is there in life if we don’t have happiness? Does the world not revolve around feeling content – finding jobs in which we are satisfied, finding love, doing activities that please us… ? When you think about it, it seems like everything we do is centred around trying to feel this emotion.
Smiling, and even more so laughing, is infectious but what the author is saying, in my opinion, is that forcing yourself to smile even when you feel down can make your troubles seem smaller.
With any luck, some of the poems mentioned above will have left you feeling inspired and wanting to explore this genre of literature more!