By Josie Whitehead

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First of all you have to define what a good poem is and also what is popular with the audience you are writing for.  Another person may tell you that something is good but I may disagree, and that is the problem.  This is the problem you will face if you enter poetry competitions, as I have said on this website before.  I would not enter competitions and especially not enter if the one who is judging my work does not write poetry I would particularly like myself!  As I write for children, it is children who have always judged my work and children from 132 countries chose me as Inspirational Poet 2007.  It wasn't a competition that I'd entered.  I knew nothing of this until an email arrived asking for my photograph.  


I know what I like and what many people who read my poems like, but I am not sure if I could say that it was good whilst condemning other types of poetry altogether.  So I would suggest that if you want to write poetry in the style of your favourite author, and perhaps it is not myself, you ask them for their advice.


For myself, and perhaps I am an 'old fashioned girl ' as Eartha Kitt would say, I love poetry that has structure.  I like to know that my poetry is readily distinguishable from prose, and this is not because I think poetry is superior in any way because there is good and bad prose and I like good prose.  Well, in actual fact, Stephen Fry has said in his book and his article what I and many people feel, but perhaps he has been more outspoken than I would have been, so I will let you read it yourself:


AN ODE LESS TRAVELLED:  'Some people will tell you that if you want to write a good poem, then just pick up your pen, or turn on your computer and write just what you think.  It is as simple as that.  Well, perhaps not quite so simple.  Some people at least would break this paragraph up into various length lines so that at least it resembled poetry to the naked eye, I will give them that.  So if you are happy with calling that good poetry, then you will not need my advice for you have all you need.'  


Why not also write good music, or even play it at the same time - in just the same way?  Just lift the lid of the piano and hammer away without any instruction.  Call it good music and save yourself the cost of piano lessons.  It is the same thing.  When I think of all the time I wasted learning to distinguish between crochets, quavers, learning scales and arpeggios - well!  I just didn't need this.  It was the same with ballet:  When I think how I studied for years, learning all the names of the steps, getting my feet and the rest of my body in the position that someone else had determined was correct, well, I wasted my time.  I also taught Pitman's Shorthand, another very disciplined art, for many many years.  How my students struggled to learn such a difficult subject, and yet, they could easily have opened their notebooks and scribbled and called it the same thing.  So would someone please tell me why it is deemed correct to treat poetry in this way?  Why do people think that the way to write good poetry is just to put pen to paper and write, without any idea about technique?


I have to tell you that, having studied well the above mentioned arts, I had an inbuilt love for disciplined arts.  I felt there was a right and a wrong way of doing things and it had to be learned.  I had learnt to clap to music from the age of three, had learned dancing from that age onwards and later the piano.  I also liked words and loved my childhood poems which were written with rhythm, for I found them relaxing.  So I didn't find it too difficult, when I started writing, to write in a similar way.  However, Stephen Fry's book 'The Ode Less Travelled' was given to me as a Christmas present  and I took it on holiday to Tenerife.  As I read through his book, I felt as if the words he had said were exactly the words that I also had in my own brain. (See link above).  I also discovered, looking at what I had written, that in fact I had written with metre very well indeed and was surprised, quite honestly, that the various rhythms within my poems actually had names to them.  They echoed musical and dance names also, and one of them you can see in use in my poem 'Mr Wind's Little Games.'


I learned that a Viennese waltz translated itself as a 'dactyl' in poetry.  Go and read this poem and tap your fingers as if you are doing a Vienese waltz:  Tum titty Tum titty Tum titty Tum.  Walk your fingers across the table or bang on a drum or whatever, but you will see /--/--/--/ with four beats (feet) per line.


I actually find it very difficult to write free verse and not know where to start or stop my lines.  I would advise you to buy Stephen Fry's Book, or borrow it from your library, and then come back to this website with some good poetry for me to display to others.  Write and tell me how you got on.  I will end from a quote from his book:


'The poet who writes free verse is like Robinson Crusoe on his desert island:  he must do all his cooking, laundry and darning for himself.  In a few exceptional cases, this manly independence produces something original and impressive, but more often the result is squalor - dirty sheets on the unmade bed and empty bottles on the unswept floor.'  


Oh dear.  I'm not sure whether this will inspire you to read the book, but please do.  I recommend it.  In the meantime, go and see the rest of this site, and particularly go and see the children's section for I'm teaching them poetry technique there.


Please do not leave this website before you have been to my other pages.  I am giving lots of advice and help with the writing of poetry.  You can see that I have been going through poetry projects etc and helping.  Why not try some of these.


Last but not least, join a writing community.  There are lots of websites which invite you to submit poems.  Be careful, though, for some are better than others.  

Listening Page
Please do go to these pages for practice