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A (very) short introduction to poetry

Poems aren’t a riddle or a puzzle, they exist simply as they are. 

To enjoy, to think about, to get a glimpse of something outside yourself.” 

– Andrew McMillan 

Poetry is for everyone. When people feel poetry is not for them, they say this with good reason (a bad experience of learning poetry at school, for instance). However, in many cases, they have simply not found the right kind of poem for them. The reason they might not have found that poem is because we are often given a very narrow sense of what poetry is and can be.

The dictionary defines the word poet quite simply as ‘a person who writes poems’. The origin of the word, however, can be traced back through Latin to the Greek poētēs, which is a variant of poiētēs, ‘maker, poet’, from poiein ‘create’. Another definition the dictionary gives is that a poet is ‘a person possessing special powers of imagination or expression’.

The idea that a poet is someone with ‘special powers’ is a powerful one. It suggests that a poem is the result of inspiration and that only a certain kind of person, a genius, can be inspired in the right way. What it ignores is the way in which poetry has always been deeply bound up with ideas of making, work and craft. This is clear from the word’s root in Greek: poet = maker.

When we think of poetry as a craft, it means we can think of it in terms of skills, tools and techniques. This is important because skills, tools and techniques can be passed on from person to person – genius and inspiration cannot. In other words, when we think of a poem as something that is ‘made’, then elements of that ‘making’ can be taught – to anyone. It also means poetry is there for anyone to enjoy.

Watch the video below to see Andrew McMillan give four tips on how to enjoy poetry. Andrew is a poet and senior lecturer at the Manchester Writing School.

Reflect on the video above.

What is your earliest memory of experiencing poetry? How did you feel about it?

When was the last time you heard or read a poem?

Do you have a favourite poem or song lyric?

What does Andrew mean when he says ‘a poem is not a problem to be solved?

Why does Andrew feel it is important to read poetry out loud?