What is Poetry?

posted in: Michael Rosen | 2

whatispoetrySo 10 days into our Poetree Calendar and it seems to me like a good time to sit back, relax, and ask ourselves, “Where are the chocolates you’re meant to find in advent calendars?” just what IS Poetry?

Fortunately, we’ve a really good book at hand to help explore this question, and – as it turns out – have quite a lot of fun along the way.

What is Poetry? The Essential Guide to Reading and Writing Poems by Michael Rosen is a conversational, unassuming and liberating toolkit for exploring what poetry can be and what it can do, full of suggestions for writing your own poetry alongside signposts to help you become an (even more) intrepid explorer of poetry.

Rosen investigates how poetry can suggest things, express beliefs, play with language and how it can be personal, ironic, or even help us make new sense of things. He’s clear that poetry isn’t just for reading on the page, but also (sometimes, when we want to) for reading out loud and as a starting point for painting, music or other forms of expression. He shares some of the processes he himself goes through when writing poetry and suggests lots of sources to spark poems, how to get those ideas out of your head and down on paper, and then how to play with what you’ve got to get it into the shape you feel most happy with.

Using Rosen’s own distinctive pedagogical approach (if you haven’t read his Good Ideas, I’d recommend it), this is a book where lots of questions are asked, lots of doors are opened encouragingly, but neatly parcelled-up answers are not delivered straight into your hands. It’s much more of a conversation than a lecture, with Rosen chatting directly with the reader in a personable, non judgemental and unpatronising way.

I suspect there may be some readers (grown-ups or otherwise) who might find this frustrating (‘What sort of student guide repeatedly includes the phrase “Perhaps, Perhaps not?”‘ said a particular sort of person who wants to learn or to teach the “right” sentences to do well in a test), but my kids and I found this approach really exciting – even (however weird it sounds to me, having hated analysing poetry at school)…thrilling. It made us feel that our own answers to the questions Rosen poses are just as valid and worth exploring as any he offers.

The open-endedness of the conversation might be surprising for some, and so too might Rosen’s eclectic and not undemanding choice of examples of poetry. Shelley, Browning and Tennyson are found alongside Bob Dylan (serendipitously, for the book went to print before the Nobel Prize for literature was announced). Nonsense verse mingles next to a selection of Rosen’s own poetry. Perhaps to keep costs down, there aren’t many poems from other 21st century poets in this book, but in the end I found the juxtaposition of Rosen’s curiosity-driven fresh approach worked really well to illuminate poems that I might have thought too old, too stuffy, too traditional for my kids to enjoy.

The publishers have been canny about how the book has been produced. It looks and feels more like a notebook with annotations and doodles (lots of line drawings by Jill Calder inside add an extra dimension to the text), rather than a Textbook with a capital T. And yet it could be used brilliantly in the classroom to explore poetry (I’d suggest, from 11+). For any person, young or young-at-heart, who has an interest in writing or reading poetry it works equally well as simply a fun book to read at bedtime. An in-depth appendix, listing poetry resources and lots of “poets writing and performing poems that are particularly intersting for children and young people” (NB: not ‘children’s poets’), and a solid index are the icing on the cake.

For Rosen, poems are “a midway point”, a space “between poets and readers”. Rosen turns what is, for some, a no-mans land fenced off with intimidating technicalities and fear into an inviting, exiting panorama waiting to be explored and embraced – all with the help of the map he’s created called What is Poetry?


The poem my kids are finding in our Poetree calendar today is also to be found in What is Poetry?.

Ozymandias by Percy Bysshe Shelley

I met a traveller from an antique land
Who said: “Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert . . . Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them, and the heart that fed:
And on the pedestal these words appear:
‘My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!’
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.

2 Responses

  1. Rebecca Stonehill

    Sounds like a great book. I was going to mention Good Ideas (which I agree – it’s just fab), but then you already did 🙂 Love this Shelley poem. A few years back my husband and I learnt a poem a month over the course a year and this was one of mine. By the end we had a repertoire of 12 poems we could recite. I often think about extending this to my kids.
    Rebecca Stonehill recently posted..Tracy Rees: Catching a dream and soaring to Richard & Judy bestseller heights

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