When you are 62 years old things may begin to be clearer; you begin realise to the full extent what territory you are in and demarcating; and I now know what for me is important in poetry and has always been important even as I go back and review work I’ve written some fifty years ago. For that is the case: I have been writing poetry since I was 13 and really have been a poet since that time. It does not bring in money, although winning Second Prize in the recent Society of Classical Poets’ competition got me $100! But it’s not about money, but about something much more important.

I was on a residential poetry course some years ago; it was really good. We all had to do some exercise and produce some work and this for me produced a surprising result; for the best and profoundest compliments are those that are unsought, unplanned and spontaneous; they simply emerge from the universe. So we sat round, about a dozen of us, and shared what we had written. After I had read my short poem out, one woman kindly said, but with a note of astonishment in her voice, ‘But James, that is real poetry’, and having said it the others rushed to agree. (The poem, incidentally, was ‘Could I But’, which appeared in my collection, To Be a Pilgrim, in 2011).

It was a strange feeling. Weren’t we all writing real poetry? What was different about mine? And there, obviously, was the answer: they had responded to the exercise by jotting down their thoughts and feelings, as one might, and so had written what is sometimes called free verse. Of its kind it was all worthy stuff; worthy, but unmemorable, and also indistinguishable.

My poetry, by way of contrast, and by way of habit of mind, started with form and structure in mind, because the desire for beauty was also in my mind; beauty without which the whole endeavour is vain. Furthermore, beauty can only come from the patterning of language, from the discipline of language, and not from simply having thoughts, feelings and ideas and noting them down. There is a powerful therapy to be had in writing down thoughts and feelings, which is a vital healing role for poetry (poetry is associated with the god, Apollo, who superintended both poetry and healing); but poetry as high art it is not. So, noting down thoughts and feelings, using line truncation as the sole enabler and signifier that this is poetry, is limited at best.

Free verse is possible, but in reality extremely difficult and near impossible to write. At least, to write well, so that it is returned to again and again like a Yeats or Hardy or Frost poem. The most famous free verse poem of the 20th century, ‘The Waste Land’, by TS Eliot is, ironically, full of rhymes, iambic pentameter lines, and structured effects which offset the so-called ‘freedom’ of the lines. I say this because I don’t wish to be elitist about poetry. It is for everybody; but not everybody can write poetry. Indeed, Lord Chesterfield observed, “I am very sure that any man of common understanding may, by culture, care, attention, and labor, make himself whatever he pleases, except a great poet”. There is a vocation in being a poet, and not all are called, or even many. But my point is this, to write poetry without form is like trying to create a table without tools: imagine having to construct a chair without vice, saws, planes, rulers and other instruments that enabled you to fashion exactly what you imagined? Without tools or techniques we would be shaping the wood with our hands and teeth – we might make something! – and that is how most free verse feels and looks.

People – including leading academics and especially left-wing professors of literature – complain that rhyme is facile, and William McGonagall is always trotted out as the perfect example (as if producing an example of someone who can’t create a decent table proved that nobody could!); but that’s the challenge: to use rhyme and not be facile when using it. That’s what it means to be at least a good poet. Stephen Fry in his wonderful book, The Ode Not Taken, makes the point that the ability to be able to write a sonnet used to be considered the very sine qua non of being a poet. Just as using the tools of carpentry effectively is what it means (or is at the least the by-product of) to be a good carpenter; so by analogy, as the lady on the course implied, a real poet uses tools of the language and actively explores their possibilities. Given the range of tools, the choices that we have to use and deploy, there is a wonderful and wide field in which we can operate in order to make the ordinary ‘wood’ into something beautiful and useful like a table. To name just a few of these tools, or techniques, we have metre and the deliberate structuring of rhythm first and foremost, we have rhyme, alliteration, assonance and consonance and all sorts of sound effects, and we have all sorts of other patterning effects, including line length and acrostics and so on. However, less this seem too daunting, it needs to be said that the Pareto principle applies in poetry too: 20% of the techniques will create 80% of the powerful effects, which is why metre and sound (rhyme being the best example of sound in the English language) are so important.

To write, then, poetry with any degree of power, and to create true beauty without which the effort is vain, requires form and discipline. The word ‘poet’ is etymologically derived from the word in Latin for ‘maker’; the poet makes. We need, therefore, to encourage all makers of poetry, and all those who seek to find the form for their expression, and use the fabulous tools of the English language to produce that beauty without which, as I said before, the effort is vain.


James Sale, FRSA is a leading expert on motivation, and the creator and licensor of Motivational Maps worldwide. James has been writing poetry for over 40 years and has seven collections of poems published, including most recently, Inside the Whale, his metaphor for being in hospital and surviving cancer, which afflicted him in 2011. He can be found at www.jamessale.co.uk and contacted at james@motivational maps.com. He is the winner of Second Prize in the Society’s 2015 Competition

Featured Image: “Childhood of Christ” by Gerard van Honthorst

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17 Responses

  1. J. David Liss

    Thank you for the essay, James Sale, as well as the wonderful poem (congratulations on the prize!) and finally your attention to my poem on this Website.
    This piece reminds me of Aristotle’s point in “Poetics” that anyone can learn rhetoric but the creation of metaphor is a talent that is reserved to poets alone. Perhaps your next essay will tackle whether making poetry can, in the end, be taught.

    • james sale

      Thank you for your kind comments, David. Maybe I should attempt just such an article? Here is one view that is striking from the C18th: “I am very sure that any man of common understanding may, by culture, care, attention, and labor, make himself whatever he pleases, except a great poet.”–Lord Chesterfield

  2. J. David Liss

    James, I wish this Website has a “like” button.
    Please do consider such an essay.

  3. Joseph Charles MacKenzie

    This is indeed an excellent essay, to say the least. In my mind, however, there is something of vital importance missing from it, and that is the word Truth. All our rhymes and jingles, however fine, produce nothing better than the emptiest modernism if our words are divorced from Truth. Keat’s “Beauty is truth, truth beauty,” given his great ignorance, is an almost miraculous utterance. We Thomists take for granted the transcendentals: unum, bonum, verum, and even we had to wait a bit for St. Bonaventure, the Seraphic Doctor, to add pulchrum to the list. Consider: Why are all the great poets great? Think Dante, Petrarch, Tasso, the Pleiade, Shakespeare, Donne after his conversion, Dryden, Pope? They all understood that the meaning of life is derived from Highest Truth. What good is all of Tennyson’s Idylls of the King if it only gives us the empty shell, the mere decor of the Middle Ages without a hint of the Truth by which medieval man lived?

    • james sale

      Hi Joseph, This is a very good point. I am not a Catholic but as a very good Catholic once said: “But there is (as the greatest of the Ancient Greeks discovered) a certain indissoluble Trinity of Truth, Beauty and Goodness. You cannot deny or attack one of these three without at the same time denying or attacking both the others. Therefore with the advance of this new and terrible enemy against the Faith and all that civilisation which the Faith produces, there is coming not only a contempt for beauty but a hatred of it; and immediately upon the heels of this there appears a contempt and hatred for virtue.” – Hilaire Belloc. However, we need to be careful here: whilst it is true that great poets are indissolubly wedded to great ideas, great truths that we discover in their poetry, the fact is that poetry is not great by only being about truth or Truth. If that were the case then all philosophers, theologians and such like would all be writing poetry, since they are writing ‘truth’, but that clearly isn’t the case. The essence of poetry is in form and in its mastery, which usually designate as ‘beauty’; but the great poet is able to create form around the greatest truths and this produces sublimity. But here again, we need caution, for Milton is undoubtedly a poet of the highest order, and yet the profoundest critique ever made of his masterpiece was by Blake, who said, he ‘was of the devil’s party without knowing it’! What we think the ‘truth’ is and what deep mind – the Muse – informs us of may be widely at variance!

  4. Chris Webster

    I agree with every word, and follow similar principles in my own poetry – perhaps you remember me as a fellow poet with whom we did some work for Stanley Thornes in the late 80’s? Get in touch – it would be good to see you again.

    • James Sale

      Hi Chris – great to hear from you! Long time! Last time we were in contact you were off as an English Adviser to HM Armed Forces schools in Germany – how did that pan out? And I remember those books we did – and also the one I didn’t do with you: your wonderful anthology for the publisher Cassells – the poetry anthology of poems of Humour and Horror – that was a great collection. Whatever happened to Neil McCrae – lost touch with him too? Yea, get in touch. Where are you based now? I am in Bournemouth – by the sea! all the best – James

  5. Satyananda Sarangi

    It is always soothing to go through your posts such as these that hammer on the very fundamentals of poetry. If a craftsman doesn’t know how to beautify his creation with the tools, is he a devoted craftsman in the first place?

    Sir, I have read many posts of yours and each of them has stood out. Hence, I decided to write something like an ode to you and true beauty in poetry (I may be excused if there are mistakes, since neither English is my first language nor I am a student of literature) :

    Verdant lawns that cover the lands here,
    Sweet recreation smiles at every verse;
    Never can life be so grand yet austere,
    For here weariness drowns, and hearts immerse.

    The cologne of wonders sprayed can’t be gauged,
    Festive times throng this place in colonies
    Like the lost birds desiring to be caged,
    Shunning their houses in mahoganies.

    This emotion that oft plays as my flute,
    Sings of my poesy when rest is mute.

    © 2017 Satyananda Sarangi. All Rights Reserved.

    English isn’t my first language but I have been trying to explore classical poetry. Maybe I can boast of the fact that I haven’t penned a single poem without rhyme till date.

    • James Sale

      Hi Satyananda – thank you so much for your kind words and your dedication. First, and you rightly perceive it is the message that is important: namely, we all ought to help equip people to like, to seek, to express beauty, and we must be resolute in our rejection of the ugliness – aesthetic and spiritual – of what passes for ‘poetry’ in the media now. Second, I really appreciate your writing, and being inspired; I like this poem a lot – there are some lovely and expressive lines in it, especially the line ‘Like the lost birds desiring to be caged’ – that is so well said. And considering English is not your first language, your skill is remarkable; I, for one, could not write any poem in a second language, so I stand in admiration of you. Well done.

      • Satyananda Sarangi

        Thank you for your encouraging words, Sir. These few words will pave the way for my betterment and an escalated drive towards the highest forms of poetry.

        Since the past ten months or so, I’ve been writing sonnets ( I doubt if they are sonnets at all for their only features are 14 lines, rhyme scheme of ababcdcdefefgg and 10 syllables in each line). As English isn’t my first language, I have been unsuccessful in employing the iambic pentameter into these. At the end of it, these poems are nothing but syllabic verses. Now, the question is: can poems with such features still qualify as sonnets?

        To let you understand the three above mentioned features, I am sharing the last six lines from one such poem of mine below:

        Let not a few words of praise rinse my soul,
        I have but to saunter many miles more;
        Then beside the victor death, I may fall
        To smear the sandy shore with my rich gore.

        When a comrade comes to seek my remnant,
        All he would have for me is a penchant.

        Are syllabic verses as above considered as sonnets?

      • James Sale

        This is a complex question, Satyananda, for even I am prepared to concede that a poem in free verse can be a poem, because what makes for a poem is not just formal rules. By and large I prefer to err on the side of caution, so that, for example, I strongly recommend you read ‘The Making of a Sonnet”, edited by Edward Hirsch and Eavan Boland. In this they go to preposterous extremes and claim certain poems are sonnets, which completely subverts any just understanding of the meaning of the word. For example, they include Brad Leithauser’s ‘sonnet’, Post-Coitum Tristesse: A Sonnet, which has 14 lines BUT only one syllable per line! It is ingenious; it has a certain wit; one smiles; but it is so trivial compared to what sonnets actually do when we expand their range – using iambic, etc. Thus, rather than my answering your question, I invite you to answer it yourself: not with ‘Am I technically correct?’ but with ‘Does the spirit of poetry live in my lines?’ And that related to my most recent article on these pages – Poetry and the Muses – do you know the Muse? I suspect you do.

      • Satyananda Sarangi

        This is the best answer I could have ever got. Thank you, Sir.
        I will see if I can get ‘The Making of a Sonnet”, edited by Edward Hirsch and Eavan Boland.
        Many months ago, I had read an essay by Evan Sir on how to write a sonnet. It can be found here: http://classicalpoets.org/write-poetry-sonnets-easy-to-hard/
        This essay offers a five-golden-level procedure to pen down a perfect sonnet. If we go by the rules mentioned there, I would surely make the Level 3. Though the answer seems a bit clear now, I’m still exploring more on it.
        Gratitude for the guidance, Sir.

      • James Sale

        Thanks Satyananda – the best thing, of course, which is what you are doing, is to seek multiple advice and find what works for you, and what can improve your work. There is inspiration, and there is practice; we need both, although the former is the more important if we understand it as not being an easy option. See my article Part 1 for more on poetry and the Muses. All the best.

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