How do we know that this is a poem?
John Mole - 5 March 2006
There's a splendidly forthright character in Jan Mark's novel 'Zeno Was Here'. His name is Dermot Crane, a schoolboy and his class's 'lateral thinker'. 'How do we know this is a letter, Dermot?' asks his English teacher who is encouraging the pupils to differentiate between types of writing. 'Sir, it's got an address and a date and it says Dear John. . .' When it comes to poetry, as we shall see, Dermot is equally confident and direct.
After presenting the class with various poems, the teacher attempts a summing-up: 'They aren't all in iambic pentameters, they are not all in stanzas: some rhyme, some do not, some have no discernable structure at all on first sight, and yet we have accepted them as poems. We may not have liked them all - some of you haven't liked ANY - but we have never doubted their claim to be poetry. Now we have to ask ourselves, how do we know that this is a poem?. . . Dermot?' 'Sir? It says Ted Hughes at the bottom.'
I found myself remembering this scene the other day when reading a piece by a GCSE student whose homework had been to write a sonnet, following the rhyme pattern of Shakespeare's sonnets, and then to give a short account of what she had learned from this. She said that she had enjoyed the challenge and found it very different from writing 'a normal poem'. I was rather intrigued by this, and wondered how she might have defined poetic 'normality'. Let me ask a few questions of my own in the hope that they may receive a few answers. Is a 'discernable structure' important to you when reading ( or writing ) a poem? Are rhyme and metre less 'normal' than they once were? What do you make of Robert Frost's remark that writing poetry without any 'rules' is like playing tennis with the net down? Or W.B.Yeats who when asked where he got his ideas from replied 'Searching for the next rhyme.'? Is this an answer which surprises you? ( Incidentally you can hear Yeats reading on the Archive ). For Dermot, a poem's guarantee was the name Ted Hughes. In his case, of course, this had nothing to do with his enjoying the poem, but it does prompt one more question. Are there any poets who, when you see their name at the bottom of a poem, really make you want to read the poem because you have enjoyed others by the same poet?