Poetry is magic with words

On those surprisingly frequent occasions when someone asks me what I’m doing in my retirement, I cannot help but hesitate – because what I’m mainly doing is writing poetry.

If I admit it, a glazed expression comes upon them, because poetry has unfortunate connotations to the average consumer. That’s because it’s such a catch-all word, covering anything that more or less rhymes and has shortish lines.

The subject matter in much poetry is often one-dimensional, and rarely goes beyond the descriptive. It may use flowery language, but it is rarely creative. It is often self-indulgent and only accidentally surprising.

One of my favourite poets, P J Kavanagh, who died recently, put it well: “Phoney-rustic bards / Spare us your thoughts about birds.”

But there’s a catch, because I’ve noticed that quite mediocre poetry may be well received, especially if it rhymes and contains key words, like sunset or God. And if it evokes some kind of favourable reaction in the reader or listener, doesn’t that make it good?

I’m not sure it does. A lot of unexceptional writing gets favourable reaction from some people – and makes others tear their hair out.

Maybe there should be two different words: verse and poetry. Verse is easy, harmless and can make you smile. It may be good on its own terms. Real poetry, however, is – well, I would call it magic with words.

If a poem pulls a rabbit out of a hat, saws a lady in half (and puts her together again), makes the heaviest things float in mid-air, waves a wand, surprises the audience and moves quickly enough to deceive the eye, then it has achieved something. If it simply reminds us that beautiful things are beautiful and birds are nice to look at, there is no magic.

Real poetry is an art worth cultivating. It can turn your world upside down. It contains truth and something beyond. Always something beyond. It’s what I’m always aiming at, though whether I ever achieve it is for others to say. As Leonard Cohen put it, “poetry is a verdict, not an occupation”.

When I say I’m writing poetry, “magic with words” is what I would hope might come into people’s minds. Sadly, I suspect it doesn’t.