Introduction to this LiCOR module on poetry

The goal of this module is to help you recognise, make sense of and appreciate those formal features of poetry and their corresponding effects that are distinctive to poetry alone and that are not shared by writings composed in prose. And by appreciate I mean both enjoy and allow yourself to experience in full the influence a poem’s deployment of its formal properties can have upon your thoughts and feelings.

The American poet Carl Sandburg put it very well, I think, when he declared that ‘poetry is the journal of a sea animal living on land, wanting to fly in the air.’ The unusual manner in which poems are put together can make us feel as we read them very much like a sea animal that has been taken out of its natural element and cast out into a world in which everything is unfamiliar. Once we have become at least partially acclimatised to this new linguistic realm of metres, rhymes, lines and stanzas, however, we may actually feel our appetite spurred on to look for still more ‘extreme sport’ and still more adventure: more metres, more line formations, more of the pleasures and novelties poetry always seems able to offer. When the Russian poet Joseph Brodsky remarked that ‘in poetry one travels farther faster’ he was reflecting some of this sense that poetry would appear to possess more gears, and make more sudden gear-changes, than many other linguistic forms. If this is true, it is because of poetry’s distinctive gearbox, the specific mechanisms it possesses that enable it to take you on the kind of ride that no other artistic form can even begin to emulate.

This explains why we will in this module focus for the most part on identifying and interpreting those distinctive properties of poetry that are absent from prose. (For advice on how to analyse a poem’s use of widespread literary devices such as tropes, syntax, diction and so on, see the Literature module). I say more about this approach and some of the main formal properties we will be exploring in the video below:


Next: Interpreting poetry: four basic principles