Through the Lens

A poem is more than its style or type, but there is one thing that connects all poetry.

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There is a question that echoes throughout the writing world and the answer is much debated. It causes arguments, rivalries, and attempting to answer it without due care and concern has left some careers in ruins. It is almost the ultimate question in regards to artistic, linguistic expression.

What is poetry?

Perhaps the question itself is too vague, or maybe people just need more parameters in order to define what poetry is. Does it need to rhyme? No. Does it need structure? Not necessarily. Does it need to contain imagery? Probably. Does it need to be defined? No.

The point of poetry is that it is an articulation, delivered in a style of the poet’s choosing. If the poet wants to use ABAB rhyming and iambic pentameter, they can. If they would prefer free verse, that is their choice. To tell a poet how to structure or style their words is to tell a painter how to use a brush: advice can be offered, but what is done is up to the individual.

There is one thing that connects all poetry, one common concept that exists within all types and styles: poetry is expressed through a lens. That lens may be thick or thin, clear or obscured, simple or distorted, magnifying or miniaturising, precise or warped—and it is entirely down to the poet as to how the lens is—but whatever is expressed must be through a lens of some description. Poetry cannot be a literal description of an emotion, situation, person, place, issue, or anything else; the subject-matter must be expressed through the lens of the poet.

As an example, I recently read a poem by a fellow writer which was inspired by and based on a picture. It was an excellent poem with symbolism woven into the words and the lines told stories that elicited emotional responses. Instead of merely describing the picture, the poet had interpreted it in their own way. It was a fascinating and wonderful piece of writing, but it had a flaw. The opening and closing lines were insistent that this was a description of a picture, telling the reader such, and removing the wonder of the rest of the piece. They were a peek past the lens, a literal explanation of what is being seen instead of a figurative one. By removing them, the poet was able to create a masterpiece; allowing them to remain meant the piece was unfocused.

It isn’t important what topic a poem is covering; every poet will look at it through their own lens. I would not read the same poem if I showed that picture to ten different poets, or a hundred, or ten thousand. Each would see it literally, and each would also see it through their own artistic lens, and it is the latter through which they should create their poetry.

Whether a figurative exploration of an emotional state or a literal stream-of-thought on a political or societal issue, written or spoken or both, each and every poet will express what they see through their own lens. What matters is not how the poem is written or delivered, but that the poet was looking through a lens. The choice of lens is down to the poet.

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Seb Reilly is a writer, fiction author and occasional musician. He lives by the sea in Thanet, Kent, with his family and two cats.

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