I can’t recall how many times I have heard ‘I don’t get poetry!’ or ‘I hate poetry!’. I know I have heard it quite a lot – but I have never really understood why students say this. Essentially, poetry is just another form of a text – a bit like a newspaper article, or a short story. Okay, it is usually a lot shorter than a story – and a poem can be tricky to understand – but poetry is a writer’s way of condensing key ideas about something into very few words.
In your Pearson Edexcel IGCSE in English Language, there is a poetry/fiction section – and you will have to study five poems. Let’s think about ‘Disabled’ by Wilfred Owen, the first in the anthology – written in World War One. Here is the first stanza:
He sat in a wheeled chair, waiting for dark,
And shivered in his ghastly suit of grey,
Legless, sewn short at elbow. Through the park
Voices of boys rang saddening like a hymn,
Voices of play and pleasures after day,
Till gathering sleep had mothered them from him.
Hopefully, you can see this is very emotive. It is about a man, sat alone, in a wheelchair. He seems to have lost some limbs. He also seems sad, perhaps thinking about memories from the past. Yes, there is rhyme (but remember: a poem doesn’t have to rhyme!) but the way Owen has chosen language is deliberate and this creates a very evocative mood. Well, it does for me, anyway, and I hope it does for you, too.
Perhaps you see poetry as something you study for an examination – but you can also read it for pleasure, just as you would a novel. Investing time in reading a poet’s collection can be very rewarding and you might find that you learn a lot about their life, or the issues that were important to them at a particular time. What’s not to like about that?
Poets must be economical with language – they do not have the luxury of writing full sentences all the time, as a novelist can. Think about the words that are used. Is there a specific rhyme scheme, or rhythm? What about the length of stanzas, or verses? You can probably say something about a poem’s structure, and this might help engage you further.
As an English teacher, I am biased: I love poetry. But you can love it, too! Reading a poem aloud can be wonderfully impactful, helping you to think about what the poet really wants to say to you. A poem is (usually) just a short text but this doesn’t mean it does not have a lot to say to you, the reader. So, when you are studying the poems from the anthology, enjoy them – and maybe you’ll read more on a theme, or a collection by a poet. Then, you’ll love poetry as much as I do.