EXTRACTS FROM 52 Ways of Looking at a Poem.

Cover page.




"I Want to Know about Modern Poetry, What are the Rules?"

  • Rules?
  • Do You Use Rhyme?
  • How a Poem Hangs Together: the Partnership of Sound and Sense
  • Poetry “Without Rhyme”: Blank Verse, Free Verse, and Iambic Pentameter
  • Rhyme without Rhyme Scheme, Rhyming Variety
  • Saying the Unsaid

History: A Changing Britain

  • Regionalism, Thatcherism
  • Wit, Allusiveness, Adspeak: Street and Screen in the Age of the Image
  • The Mother of Metaphor: Censorship and the Surrealities of Eastern Europe

Fall-out from British Rule: The Common Wealth of “English”

  • Meeting the British
  • Non-Standard English and Other Languages
  • Identity – and History’s Twisted Root
  • Where do Poems come from? Imagination, first


  • How do Men read? Think Technical, Think Male
  • Feminism’s Breaking Wave: Why the Starting Point is Different
  • Escaping the Ghetto: Persona, Tone and Talking Back

Readers, This is Your Poetry

  • Has Poetry Lost its Audience?
  • The Literary Community and the Media
  • It’s not that Difficult, not Elitist, Obscure or Irrelevant - and it’s Written for You


  • Jo Shapcott Mrs Noah: Taken After the Flood
  • Derek Mahon Courtyards in Delft
  • Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin Swineherd
  • Charles Simic Two Dogs
  • Maura Dooley 1847
  • Michael Longley Ceasefire
  • Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill The Language Issue
  • Paul Muldoon Quoof
  • Medbh McGuckian The Butterfly Farm
  • Christopher Reid Tin Lily
  • Selina Hill The World’s Entire Wasp Population
  • Sean O’Brien Rain
  • Rita Ann Higgins Some People
  • C K Williams Harm
  • Kathleen Jamie Skeins o Geese
  • Les Murray On Home Beaches
  • U A Fanthorpe Rising Damp
  • Fred d’Aguiar Mama Dot Warns Against an Easter Rising
  • Fleur Adcock A Surprise in the Peninsula
  • Simon Armitage The Fox
  • Elaine Feinstein Rosemary in Provence
  • Derek Walcott From 'Omeros'
  • Gillian Allnutt Barclays Bank and Lake Baikal
  • John Hartley Williams John Bosnia
  • Colette Bryce Buster
  • Tom Paulin Klee/Clover
  • Carol Ann Duffy Prayer
  • Seamus Heaney The Skunk
  • Sarah Maguire Spilt Milk
  • Don Paterson Imperial
  • Helen Dunmore The Surgeon Husband
  • Matthew Sweeney The Hat
  • Vicky Feaver Judith
  • James Lasdun Eve
  • Patience Agbabi Transformatrix
  • Michael Donaghy Liverpool
  • Jackie Kay In My Country
  • Paul Farley Keith Chegwin as Fleance
  • Glyn Maxwell The Breakage
  • Sharon Olds I Go Back to May 1937
  • Paul Durcan Self-Portrait, Nude with Steering-Wheel
  • Lavinia Greenlaw Invention
  • Peter Redgrove The Visible Baby
  • Anne Carson From 'Hero'
  • Michael Hofmann Cheltenham
  • Pascale Petit As if I were Winter Itself
  • Neil Rollinson Giant Puffballs
  • Liz Lochead Sorting Through
  • David Dabydeen El Dorado
  • Susan Wicks On Being Eaten by a Snake
  • 52 Thom Gunn Still Life




1. "I want to know about modern poetry, what are the rules?"

This question from a reader of the paper where I published a weekly Sunday Poem column, 1998-2001, haunted me. Three years later, here is the best I can do by way of an answer.


From leatherwork to Pacific Rim Cuisine, all crafts have evolved specific ways of making things. Jewellers have to make sure the earring’s metal won’t infect the ear; and no one will buy them if the garnets fall out. Bakers keep stones out of their bread.

If you are looking for rules, the place to start is with the materials and their practical requirements. Then there are the conventions of your craft: the traditional shapes of a loaf, the ways of twisting silver. You can invent a new shape of baking tin, you can make earrings out of recycled Coca Cola cans or cattle dung abd, if you make them well enough, people will respond to the new as well as the old.

Poets work along similar lines. There are general writing principles which apply particularly sharply to poetry because it is so concentrated, so small-scale. You have less room to manoeuvre than in prose and every word counts. (Ideally, of course, every word counts in prose too. But poets feel prose writers can get away with things they cannot.) You must, for instance, have movement through your poem or there won't be any life in it. You must reveal or imply rather than spell out. Workshop students know this as "show, don't tell" and groan when you point out they have infringed this "rule", as we all do, yet again.

You must be on guard against the great spellers out – adjectives and especially adverbs. Be sparing with abstract nouns: they convey much less to readers than vivid concrete language. And at the end frisk every word to make sure it’s necessary, that it is pulling its weight.

But over and above these basic writing requirements, what is unique to poetry is gritty technical stuff, and that is all to do with pattern and sound. Line-length, line-ending, relation of vowel and consonant, arrangement of lines (or not) into "stanzas" ("stanza" means "room", stanzas are rooms in the house of a poem), the length and stress of each syllable in relation to all the others. Plus beat and rhythm; especially, but not only, metre.

These things are all-important: the instruments on the carpenter’s bench which helps you make a chair proportionate, stable, good to look at and sit in. They make a poem hang together musically, be aurally convincing. They have always been part of poetry and still are. You can’t make a good poem without them.

But they are tools, not rules. Not bye-laws to be obeyed but a ball to run with. Too conservative a technique does turn the tools into rules, but the more experienced the poet the more daring she or he can be with these instruments, picking them up, putting them aside, using them in new ways.

Part of the art is making the way you use these tools invisible in the finished product. You don’t see glue blobs, or marks of the adze, on the leg of a Chippendale chair. Many readers who feel alienated from today’s poetry only see, as it were, the invisibility of these tools. The biggest alienating thing, the place where modern poetry seems to them to have broken with earlier poetry and therefore with what they feel poetry ought to be, is the role of rhyme.

Do You Use Rhyme?

Some people who wrote to me about my column felt strongly that only one thing makes a poem: rhyme. Poets are often asked, “What sort of poetry do you write?” As they wonder how to answer, that question yet again, another comes. "Do you use rhyme?"

By this, people usually mean, "Do your poems have end-rhymes - a rhyming scheme, in which the last word in the line rhymes with one or other end-words?" They feel, I think, that if they know your poems rhyme in this way, they’ll have a handle on "what sort" of poetry you write, Poetry that rhymes, That sort.

Rhyme in this sense, a repeated pattern of line-endings, has been a key element in English language poetry since early mediaeval times: though poetry in English has also always depended on stress and rhythm too. Rhyme was poetry. “Thomas the Rhymer” meant Thomas the poet. The desire to see rhyming "rules" as the main thing, bossing poetry about like a timetable, seems to run very deep.

In every language, poetry creates meaning and music by making relationships between words and has two basic ways of making this relationship: rhyme and rhythm.

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