Poetry: what is being said and how is it expressed?

Elizabeth Whittome

Poetry communicates in words. To do that successfully, it always has something important to say, expressing it in a unique way. Whether you are writing poetry yourself or analysing poems written by someone else, you should be thinking about these two broad categories: what is being said, and how it is being expressed.

What is being communicated may be something profound or something amusing, something deeply emotional or something which has just made the writer stop and think. Whatever it is, the theme of the poem will be something worth saying. If you are writing a poem yourself and are not very experienced, it’s best to choose a topic you feel deeply about: perhaps a strong memory or a feeling such as regret or love. Writing a poem which begins ‘I remember’ is a good way to focus your attention on something really memorable, where you are delving into a richly detailed incident or emotion to bring its essential qualities into a poem for someone else to share. The great Romantic poet William Wordsworth spoke of the inspiration for poetry being ‘emotion recollected in tranquillity’ and this is certainly a way to begin.

However, if you think about it, two poems could easily have the same theme and yet be completely different. There are many poems about, for example, the death of a loved one – so what makes them distinctive? How they are expressed is the key. It is the way the poet writes that you need to analyse if you are writing about a poem; and if you are writing one yourself, you must choose the form and the words which suit what you want to express.

Everything I’ve said so far could apply to a short story written by a prose writer, so what’s different about a poem? For a start, poems are very concentrated and there is no room for any wasted words – every one must count. I think it also goes back to human beings’ love of patterns – whether it’s repetitions, regular rhythms and stresses or numbers of syllables. If you are writing a memory poem, for example, you could begin each stanza with the phrase: ‘I remember’. You would have created a word pattern straight away. Add to this descriptive words, vivid images and apt comparisons, and you’ll have a distinctive utterance, different from prose. You don’t have to use rhyme, but it can help to give shape to your verse. Many modern poets use it selectively to give emphasis to the meaning of their rhymed words. Free verse is much harder than people think because it depends upon some very subtle techniques; starting with more regular units of verse can be easier.

I am often asked about song lyrics and whether they are poetry. Of course a song lyric can be very expressive, and so can a hymn tune. They are written with great feeling and often have regular verses, refrains and rhymes, so plenty of patterns to spot. But don’t forget the music. They are intended to be performed with music as an essential part of their communicative effect. A poem has to create all its effects from the arrangement of words alone.

Elizabeth Whittome, author of Cambridge International AS and A Level Literature in English, is a passionate teacher, author and reader.