by Stephen Andrews
There are lots of different types of writing. Novels, journalism, blogs and academic essays to name just a few. These types of writing are called prose.
But there’s another kind of writing that’s quite different from all the rest. Poetry.
The difference between poetry and prose - normal writing - is that poetry expresses ideas through the sounds and rhythms of words. Poems are divided into verses, or stanzas, that is, a certain number of lines. There might be just one or two or several verses in a single poem.
Poetry used to be very popular in Britain. In the 18th and 19th centuries, poets were treated like today’s rock stars. You may have heard of the Romantic poets who were writing in the mid-18th century, such as Shelley, Keats and Byron (once described as “mad, bad and dangerous to know”). They were extremely popular and lived very dramatic lives, taking drugs and generally misbehaving! Even now, they’re probably the poets most people have heard of.
Today, though, poetry isn’t that popular and tends to be read only by a few enthusiasts and in universities and colleges. Which is a shame, because there are some really great poems being written today.
What makes a poem?
Poems vary a lot in length, structure and subject matter. As I mentioned, some are divided into separate verses, commonly of four lines, others are just one continuous piece. Some rely heavily on rhyme, where two words sound the same like ‘’same and ‘game’; and metre, the rhythm of a line. Others are written in what is known as free verse and don’t use rhyme at all (see below).
Here’s a popular rhyming poem with a very distinctive rhythm, by the American poet, Robert Frost:
Fire and Ice
Some say the world will end in fire,
Some say in ice.
From what I’ve tasted of desire
I hold with those who favor fire.
But if it had to perish twice,
I think I know enough of hate
To say that for destruction ice
Is also great
And would suffice.
Some poems are humorous and some very dramatic. They can also be descriptive, focusing on a particular thing, or they can be about a feeling, such as love. Here’s the first verse of one of the most popular love poems in the English language, written by Lord Byron. I’ve marked the lines to show that it’s in the most common kind of rhyming scheme: ABAB.
She Walks in Beauty
She walks in beauty, like the night (A)
Of cloudless climes and starry skies; (B)
And all that’s best of dark and bright (A)
Meet in her aspect and her eyes. (B)
Different kinds of poem
You’ll probably have heard of the haiku, an ancient form of Japanese poetry that’s very popular all over the world. Haikus consist of just three lines. The first and third lines have five syllables, whereas the second has seven. Haikus don’t have to rhyme and are usually written about a particular mood or moment in time.
Free verse is a popular style of modern poetry, and there’s a fair amount of freedom when it comes to writing a poem like this. Free verse can rhyme or not, it can have as many lines or verses as the poet wants, and it can be about anything you like.
This very old form of poetry is made up of 14 lines and usually about love. There are two main types. Italian sonnets follow an ABBA ABBA CDE CDE rhyme scheme, whereas Shakespearean (English) sonnets are typically ABAB CDCD EFEF GG. Here’s Shakespeare’s Sonnet 18, probably the most famous sonnet, ever:
Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?
Thou art more lovely and more temperate:
Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May,
And summer’s lease hath all too short a date:
Sometime too hot the eye of heaven shines,
And often is his gold complexion dimm’d;
And every fair from fair sometime declines,
By chance or nature’s changing course untrimm’d;
But thy eternal summer shall not fade
Nor lose possession of that fair thou owest;
Nor shall Death brag thou wander’st in his shade,
When in eternal lines to time thou growest:
So long as men can breathe or eyes can see,
So long lives this and this gives life to thee.
Not all poets lived centuries ago!
Some well-known 20th century poets include Seamus Heaney, Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath.
Like to listen to them?
Seamus Heaney reads his poem ‘Digging’ here:
Ted Hughes reads his poem ‘Crow’ here:
Sylvia Plath reads some of her poems here:
One of my favourite poets is Edwin Morgan, a Scottish poet, who wrote experimental poetry. Here’s an interesting poem of his called ‘The Loch Ness Monster’s Song’. As you can see, he uses made-up words to imagine the sounds that the Loch Ness Monster might make as it swims and dives:
Hnwhuffl hhnnwfl hnfl hfl?
Gdroblboblhobngbl gbl gl g g g g glbgl.
Drublhaflablhaflubhafgabhaflhafl fl fl –
gm grawwwww grf grawf awfgm graw gm.
Hovoplodok – doplodovok – plovodokot-doplodokosh?
Splgraw fok fok splgrafhatchgabrlgabrl fok splfok!
Zgra kra gka fok!
Grof grawff gahf?
Gombl mbl bl –
The poem is even better, and funnier, when you hear Edwin Morgan reading it:
So that’s a little introduction to British poetry. There’s really a huge range of different, entertaining and beautiful poetry out there. Maybe you might explore and even try writing some of your own …