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Mary O’Donnell: What Poetry Is

Writing.ie | Resources | Better Poetry Guides | Getting Started in Poetry

Mary O'Donnell

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Like many satisfying things, poetry can be difficult to define.  I am reluctant to be categorical about what exactly a poem is, yet it seems to me that a good poem has a lot to do with anxiety. Its writer has a central anxiety, something which agitates and preoccupies him, which will not let him go until he has addressed it and faced it down. But you cannot say that a poem is an anxiety. That is not enough. But if the anxiety is the trigger-mechanism which creates the poem, we could perhaps speculate that a poem is a kind of resolution, a very open-ended one.


It is a resolution in words which are laid out in a particular pattern, sometimes by formal design, sometimes from pure instinct, and the effect of this resolution is that when it is read by somebody else something new occurs. Although the poet does not, in general, write ‘for’ an audience, or with specific readerships in mind, nonetheless there is a relationship between a good poem and its readers. The thing is, once the poem is published, it no longer belongs to the poet. It is like a child which has been pushed out into the world, to encounter this and that phenomenon which may or may not respond to the child’s nature.

Charged by Emotion

Ideally, a good poem sends trajectories of language that is charged by emotion far out into what I shall term ‘psychic space’, where it then connects with the emotional trajectories of other, searching, readers. A poem has a lot to do with signification. It must signify something for a reader before s/he can be open to its deeper meanings. In a good poem – if it is really good – the triggers occur, domino-like, making the reader almost fall into the poem’s meaning, which can vary from reader to reader.

Connecting with the Reader

But there are certain poems which leave large numbers of people in no doubt as to their meaning, for example Elizabeth Bishop’s ‘Moose’, Seamus Heaney’s ‘Mid-Term Break’, Eavan Boland’s ‘Night-Feed’, Wordsworth’s ‘Daffodils’, John Milton’s ‘On His Blindness’, or Philip Larkin’s ‘High Windows’. There are, simply, poems which connect unmistakably with huge numbers of readers, allowing us to conclude that a good poem can be compared to having a ‘human’ touch, except in words, or that it is like knowing when you have met the right person, have fallen in love. It is a decision taken without your choosing, and you must follow it to its conclusion or feel the loss keenly and for the rest of your life.

What Poetry Is Not

Some people are moved to write a kind of protest-verse. They find themselves agitated in their day-to-day lives by things such as litter, smoking in public, unmarried mothers, tax evasion, teachers’ strike action, young people pushing and shoving in queues, young people drinking on the streets (or generally anything to do with young people), or cruelty to animals. The list is endless. At the outset of any writing class I usually state that these subjects might be better suited to journalism*. The poet who wants to argue and not only to argue but to make everybody see his or her point of view is usually wasting their time in a poetry workshop. Not only that, they are wasting the time of everybody else too. Anti-litter, anti-unmarried-mother poems, anti-abortion verse is usually the product of a messianic outlook which wants to convert the world.

But poets do not want to convert the world. They have no axe to grind, at least not that way. This is not to say that poets are harmless, domesticated pet-writers either. Far from it. But poetry that challenges will usually find its source in something more challenging than re-arranging the world to one’s liking.

If poetry is not about sloganising and banner-banging, neither is it doggerel. Many people believe themselves to be good rhymers. All those English classes in which we learned our rhyming poems and studied metre have had their effect, not all of it good (though some of it remains remarkably positive*), given the claptrap surrounding the examination and grading of a student’s grasp of poetry as a subject. Surely there is an argument – which poets themselves could advocate – for not being ‘examined’ in poetry?

Effects of the Past

The effects of nineteenth century Romantic poetry are still felt in the reading lives of most contemporary readers. By the time of the French Revolution in particular, there was a great deal of ferment within literature as much as in politics. By the nineteenth century, the new young bloods of the day, the High Romantics were Wordsworth, Coleridge, Blake, Byron, Keats, and Shelley and their preoccupations were new, fresh and exciting to the readers of the day. Byron had the pull and romance of any young film actor today, and literate people were stirred by the contents of verse in the same way that visually literate people today emerge from cinemas sometimes breathless with excitement. It was, you could say, a fashionable occupation. Later in the nineteenth century, in the heyday of Victoria, Tennyson, Browning, Arnold, Rossetti, Swinburne, and (arguably) Hopkins presented an extraordinary variety and intensity in their respective visions.


Romantic philosophies spurned the cut-and-dried Enlightenment viewpoint of the previous century. For Enlightenment thinkers, logic and clarity was everything. The word itself – or ‘Erklärung’ in German, meaning ‘making clear’ or ‘clarification’ – demanded an analytical, positivistic attitude to everything from the sciences to the arts and also in the manner in which people conducted their day-to-day affairs. But the pendulum always swings away in another direction, and gradually, this mood which came to be known as ‘Romanticism’ evolved, finding its musical counterpoints in Beethoven, Tchaikovsky, Schubert, Mendelsohn, Liszt and others.

The Romantics

In the world of literature, that moodiness and emotionality was also reflected. The subjects of the Romantics were of course the big ones – death, love, eroticism, beauty – and these were played out in big, long, rhythmically arresting word-works. But the manner of interpretation by individual poets reflected emotional turmoil, an unresolved feeling that did not provide neat conclusions. The intellect was not top dog according to this poetic world view, so much as the notion of soul. Soul was where the truth about human nature and all our doings could be found, it was argued, soul was what unleashed the true passion which lay unhealthily oppressed behind genteel conventions. In Goethe’s ‘Leiden des Jungen Werthers’ or ‘The Passion/Sufferings of Young Werther’, we observe the result of an unrequited passion when a young man falls in love with a married woman. She is so hopelessly out of his reach, married sensibly to a sensible and decent man, and at the end Werther commits suicide. The effect of his novel on the young novel-reading population of Europe was, a bit like Byron’s poetry, startling. People began to dress like Werther, and there are accounts of imitation, ‘copycat’ suicides similar to that in the novel. The book caused a sensation because it struck a chord that had obviously not been played in literature before.

For the present-day writer, it must be remembered that there is an enormous legacy at our backs, whether we wish to acknowledge this or not. Even if one does not feel particularly part of a specific tradition, we have absorbed a great deal of the rhythms of previous centuries. And for some of those who attend writing classes, this means rhyme.


‘What,’ I was asked recently in a writing class, ‘has happened to the discipline in poetry? Nobody rhymes any more!’

To some extent, this is true. Very many published poets do not use rhyme in the accepted sense of the word. That is, they do not use what is called ‘end rhyme’, where the last word at the end of a line rhymes with the last word of the next one, or if not there then it will rhyme at the end of the third line. Or sometimes the first line rhymes with the fourth one. Or perhaps, in the case of a villanelle* like Dylan Thomas’s ‘Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night’, or Derek Mahon’s ‘Antarctica’, a particular pattern is evident in the rhyming scheme, with two very obvious rhymes carrying right through the whole poem until both are carried in the final quatrain.

Re- reading

Sometimes I think that readers to not always observe the presence of rhyme in poems because they do not read very well. That is, they’re not prepared to go back over a poem if they have not grasped its ‘meaning’ on a first reading. It’s a little like ‘looking’ at abstract painting. People who prefer representational or illustrative art will tend not to like abstract works in which there is no obvious drawn image, but instead perhaps what they perceive as blocks of colour, or splashes and drips, or a few wide swipes of the paintbrush. But they more you look the more you see. And it’s the same with a poem.

A second reading gives more to the reader. And a third even more. And if you have still not grasped the sound-patterns in a poem perhaps it’s worth going back to it another day. Or trying a new poem. Because a poem is like a person and some poems are just not to our liking. The thing is, poets use rhyme quite commonly. It’s just that people who claim an absence of end rhyme are not actually reading perhaps as widely as they should. If they read the works of living poets they would observe that very many contemporary Irish poets are indeed using rhyme in their work, and end-rhyme at that.

Sound Patterns and Internal Rhyme

For those who do not use end-rhyme, there is still an engagement with sound patterns. Some writers use internal rhyme, where a word placed in the middle of a line, or anyplace but at the end, rhymes with another word in the middle of another line. Or perhaps there is a half-rhyme, where the last word at the end of one line rhymes with the first word of the next, or a word in the middle of the next. Poets play around with sound all the time, but most practitioners are reluctant to make the ‘meaning’ or direction of their poem subordinate to rhyme. In other words, if there is a better, more precise word to be found which expresses exactly what they mean, then they will choose it in preference to one which rhymes perfectly but is inadequate in meaning.

Alliteration and Assonance

There are other ways of creating word groupings that we remember, of course. Alliteration is one of them. This was the most important principle of Anglo-Saxon poetry. It made verse more memorable, added to the effect of the rhythm, and the recurrence of the same sound pleases the ear. Used to excess it has a comic effect (think of the operas of Gilbert and Sullivan and ‘I am the very model of a modern major general …’ etc.), and Shakespeare understood this in ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’ when he made Bottom say:

Whereat with blade, with bloody blameful blade,

He bravely broached his boiling bloody breast.

But once a poem is in the process of being re-drafted you might find that a little alliteration creeps into the phrases and it’s a good idea to be sensitive to the effect of this.

Assonance creates another sound pattern, resembling both rhyme and alliteration. It is the rhyming of the principal vowels of the stressed syllables of neighbouring words, e.g.:

When the black herds of the rain were grazing

In the gap of the pure cold wind

And the watery hazes of the hazel

Brought her into my mind,

I thought of the last honey by the water

That no hive can find.

Brightness was drenching through the branches

When she wandered again,

Turning the silver out of dark grasses

Where the skylark had lain,

And her voice coming softly over the meadow

Was the mist becoming rain.*

So, if we break down the sound patterns of this poem it’s apparent that the presence of rhyming vowels creates its own repetitions. For example, ‘rain’ rhymes with ‘grazing’ in line one, but so also do these two words rhyme with the ‘hazes’ and ‘hazel’ of line three. This ‘a’ sounding sound-rhyme continues into the second stanza, with ‘again’, ‘lain’ and ‘rain’ also rhyming. The poem also contains two other assonance patterns, as in line six of stanza one, with ‘hive’ and ‘find’ and then there’s an internal rhyme in stanza two with the words ‘dark grasses’ and ‘lark’.

Don’t be Over Anxious

I believe it is really important not to become over-anxious about these formal aspects of poetry, not because they are unimportant – they do matter and always will matter – but because they can make writers over-cautious and virtually unable to compose a poem. But nonetheless it’s worth knowing what the technical jargon implies and has implied in the past, in order to strengthen your own starting position.


Modern poets make all kinds of formal choices in the writing of poetry. I do not think that for most the actual form of the finished work presents itself at first draft stage. Instead, perhaps a blank verse is produced, largely unrhymed, and as blank verse implies, it is not divided into stanzas.  After a while the poet may look over what she has written. Certain questions emerge such as whether that draft is ‘complete’, but mainly the poet casts her eye over the main ideas in the poem. What is their direction? Are there links between one idea and another? Should she break the ideas up in the way fiction-writers make paragraphs, to indicate a change or development of some kind? This is the sort of nitty-gritty decision-making which poets automatically undertake in shaping up a poem. And so, if a poet opts to move away from blank verse, there are choices to be made.

Some poets divide their block of poetry into lines or verses of three, called triplets. Strictly speaking, triplets traditionally involve end-rhyme as well but in contemporary terms this does not often occur and many writers regard an unrhymed three-liner as a ‘triplet’. This is not something the purists would approve of but that’s more or less what happens.

A quatrain is a stanza of four lines, but often – perhaps because of its traditional place in the ballad or indeed in the verse of the past – poets don’t use it a great deal unless perhaps in the Shakespearean sonnet. But there’s a huge range of formal options available to poets, from couplets, to three-liners, to quatrains, to five-liners, on to six, seven and eight line stanzas.

Finding the Fire

It is not something to worry about. If you cannot use these forms it does not mean you are not writing poetry. Equally, if you are skilled and confident at how you section off your poetry, nor does that mean youare writing poetry.

Because a poem is like a salamander, in its most mythic sense. Like the salamander, it is forged in fire and lives in fire (think of the private fire of your life!) It is strong enough to resist the effects of fire and, in surviving, takes on the colour and fierceness and delicate beauty of fire. Fire is many things. So is a poem. Think of salamanders and poems and find the relationship.


Of course, it is an insult to professional journalism to assume that it should be the target-practice for what are essentially crank concerns. Professional journalism is dispassionate and where it is passionate it is not didactic.

For one thing, well-taught poetry can draw younger readers out of the immediate, pushing them to read about experiences and emotions they may not yet have ‘lived into’ but eventually might. There is an argument against ‘relevance’ and ‘accessibility’, given that a great deal of adult inner life is devoted to analysing and debating situations and problems which are complex, difficult, and which elude out complete understanding

The Lost Heifer, by Austin Clarke

About the author

© Mary O’Donnell

Mary O’Donnell is the author of eleven books, both poetry and fiction, and has also co-edited a book of translations from the Galician (See Books Published). Her titles include the best-selling literary novel “The Light-Makers”, “Virgin and the Boy”, and “The Elysium Testament”, as well as poetry such as “The Place of Miracles”, “Unlegendary Heroes”, and her most recent critically acclaimed sixth collection“The Ark Builders” (Arc Publications UK, 2009). She has been a teacher and has worked intermittently in journalism, especially theatre criticism. Her essays on contemporary literary issues are widely published. She also presented and scripted three series of poetry programmes for the·national broadcaster RTE Radio, including a successful series on poetry in translation during 2005 and 2006 called ‘Crossing the Lines’. Today, she teaches creative writing in a part time capacity at NUI Maynooth, and has worked on the faculty of Carlow University Pittsburgh’s MFA programme in creative writing, as well as on the faculty of the University of Iowa’s summer writing programme at Trinity College Dublin.

In December 2001 she was elected to the membership of Aosdana, the multidisciplinary organisation of Irish artists which is administered by the Irish Arts Council (An Chomhairle Ealaine). Aosdana honours artists engaged in literature, music and the visual arts who have made an outstanding contribution to the arts in Ireland.

She is a member of the Irish Writers’ Union and served for three years as an external representative for arts and culture on the Governing Authority of the National University of Ireland, Maynooth. Mary O’Donnell now lives near Straffan, County Kildare.

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