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Don’t write poems – write an artwork, a musical composition, a dance

What if we quit thinking of poetry as a literary form, and instead conceive of it as a broader artistic practice? Or put another way, might we be doing poetry a disservice by grouping it with other literary forms such as the short story, the novel or the script? In my experience, attempting to answer these questions can prove incredibly liberating of the poetry writing process.

To appreciate what I mean, it might be good to have a go at an exercise I use in opening workshops, where I ask writers first of all to draw a poem – and not a picture of what it looks like on the page, but rather a drawing which captures the essential essence of the poem. After this, I ask writers to draw a short story, a novel, a stage or screen play, a painting, sculpture, classical music, dance… What emerges from this exercise is a sense of writers’ preconceptions about the different art forms. And what I have come to conclude from running this exercise in a range of contexts, is that coming at poetry from the perspective of its correspondence with non-literary art forms can be revelatory.

So my tip is this: if you approach poetry as a non-literary art practice, it will help you circumvent the transactional ways we conventionally go about reading and writing on a day-to-day basis (which really gets in the way during the writing of poetry as an open-ended process).

We are so used to reading, for example, a newspaper article from start to finish, with the expectation that if we start at the beginning, and read to the end, the meaning will become apparent. And whereas the above process of reading might also work with short stories or novels, it isn’t going to work with poetry, even if poetry shares with these other literary forms the medium of words. Looking beyond language, what could we therefore learn about poetry by asking in what ways it shares the relationship of form and content with visual art (in the negotiation of what Jeffrey Wainwright calls ‘deliberate space’*)?

Might comparing poetry to classical music help us understand how the (abstract) sound patterns of poetry communicate experiential meaning? Can thinking about photography help show how an image can be a container for emotion? And how much does dance / physical theatre share with poetry the dynamics of movement rhythm and energy flows? How about, rather than seeking to write a poem, we set out to write a painting, a sonata, a Highland fling…?

* Poetry: The Basics. Routledge (2004)

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