It's a dumb question, but when running writing workshops in schools I often ask, "What is poetry?" The definitions that follow from both pupils and teachers are refreshing. My favourite is that of a nine-year-old boy, who said: "Poetry is a short, sharp song." It's a beautifully compact statement, open to technical and aesthetic appreciation. The phrase has an alliterative, rhythmical strength. A run of assonant vowels give it subtle musicality. The compressed syllables of "poetry" are balanced by the three even stresses of the final words.
Poetry is short because each word in a poem has to earn its keep; poetry is a vision from which unnecessary verbal clutter and excess information are removed. Sharp, because it is focused, each observation, each utterance honed to its essence. Then, just as poetry seems to chill into austerity, the word "song" glows with lyrical possibilities. Precision in the service of liberty.
I've learned a lot from my students. Not least that poetry is a shared enterprise, probing what it is to be alive: sentient in and sensitive to the world. All art tries to deliver this vitality - working from the immediacy of our physical senses towards the urgency of emotional and imaginative response, the calm of reflection. And all art seeks to redraw whatever line seems to divide the actual fom the imaginative, the real from its dream of possibility.
Much more than a mere descriptive agent, human language is experience: enacting, assembling, synthesising. Our sense of the world is developed through verbal communication, our lives made up of words as much as things. When we write, language moves from transience to stability, travelling through time and space to its readership. When we write poems they burnish our ordinary lives, revealing a world that is infinite, extraordinary, enriched.
So what do we need to be good at to become a poet? Vocabulary, grammar, spelling, poetic technique, a sense of form? To be sure. But then national curriculum key-stage attainment targets have all that in hand. Relax. First of all we need to be alive, responsive to those worlds that lie inside and outside of us; alive with unvanquished curiosity, humour and hope. I look forward to receiving poems from your school.
Graham Mort is TES guest poet for the spring term 2001. A freelance writer and tutor, his latest collection, Circular Breathing (Dangaroo Press), is a Poetry Book Society recommendation. Please send poems, preferably no more than 20 lines long, to Young Poet, Friday magazine, Admiral House, 66-68 East Smithfield, London E1W 1BX or email firstname.lastname@example.org. Please include the poet's name, age and school address and the name of the submitting teacher