I've always read poetry, but it was workshopping other students' poetry at Glamorgan, under the aegis of the likes of Sheenagh Pugh, Gillian Clarke and Tony Curtis, that taught me a bit about how poetry works: most particularly contemporary poetry, where it's so much less obvious what the poet is doing and how they're doing it. The rest of what I know about how poetry works I chiefly learnt from Ruth Padel's 52 Ways of Looking At A Poem. Now I go to readings, and work on poems and poetic techniques as part of developing my prose, and get my students to do the same.
So far, so sensible. So why is it that every now and again I find myself with a line thumping in my head, which demands to be turned into a silly bit of verse, complete with a regular scheme of consonantal end-rhymes (which is what non-poets mean when they talk about rhyming), a thumping metre and traditional stanzas? And I do mean verse - the lord knows this isn't poetry.
One reason is that the perceived difficulty of handling the very basics (which aren't that difficult really) of formal verse disarms my inner critic. No one's expecting Art. The meaning doesn't have to be profound, and I'm not pretending that my very faulty technique serves the meaning in any significant way. Nor am I exposing my self too much, as I would be if I appeared to Mean It. The world assumes that lyric poetry is all about yourself, but as with many novelists and most actors, fiction is as much mask for me as it's direct self-expression. But this is just fun, right? It's the same principle as the writing class which sets lots of small, quick exercises. If it doesn't work, who cares? Indeed, some kinds of not-working in writing light verse can be part of the fun, since there's always a potential silliness about rhyming in English (unlike, say, Italian) and in working with very regular, skipping-rhyme meter: a silliness which also disarms. And, perhaps more seriously, I enjoy doing this stuff, and while play is a good reason for doing anything, being silly with the tools of a trade you take seriously is always particularly direct therapy.
But another reason is more important. Theodore Roethke said that "Form is not regarded as a neat mould to be filled, but rather as a sieve to catch certain kinds of material", which seems to me one of the most profoundly true statements about art anyone's ever made, and why people who think that it's not poetry unless it rhymes and scans, and it is poetry if it does, are so wrong: they're mistaking the sieve for the meal. But traditional poetic forms are very clear, well-proportioned sieves. So what on earth was I trying to catch? Well, this line arrived in my head: "I wished I were an author and could write the whole day through". An iambic hexameter, and I realised while wrangling with it that the stressed syllables aren't equally stressed, so you could get all technical and argue about anapaests and substitutions and clipped feet. (But let's not, not least because I can't find Stephen Fry's The Ode Less Travelled to make sure I'm getting it right. Fry's book is both annoyingly good ammunition for the tedious, die-hard, rhyming-and-scanning brigade, and brilliant at explaining it all. And at times it's very funny and vulgar.)
I wasn't trying to say anything new so form wasn't sieving out any thoughts I haven't had. But in trying to get my very easy rhyme scheme and my not-so-easy metre to behave themselves, my mind did have to range in a different way through my word-hoard. Sound and rhythm came into it, not just as a plus to make the writing sound better, but as a necessary qualification for a word to get in at all. And suddenly the search started to turn up words I hadn't known were right: form was catching meanings, and meanings I didn't know I'd meant. It was, if you like, both great fun, and rather serious, writing this. (See? I still can't bring myself to call it a poem...)