What is Poetry? A Writing Excuses Master Class

experimental photograph with blue and orange refracted light
Photo by Jr Korpa on Unsplash.

Out of the many writing focused podcasts out there, Writing Excuses has long been one of my favorites. Hosted by published authors working in a variety of genres and with years of experience in the industry, Writing Excuses provides solid and insightful writing, craft, and business advice with a splash of humor — all in bite-sized 15-20 minute episodes.

In 2021, the podcast is focused on presenting a series of master classes covering a wide range of subjects. Most recently, the show wrapped up an eight-episode series on poetry, which was led by Amal El-Mohtar along with regular hosts Mary Robinette Kowal, Dan Wells, and Howard Taylor.

What is Poetry?

Poetry is difficult to define. It’s a nebulous creature. Even if one were to point to particular tropes or concepts as being hallmarks of poetry, the definition shifts along with its multitude of forms, styles, and expectations.

The first episode of this Writing Excuses master class attempts to answer this question. However, instead of simply presenting her own definition of poetry, El-Mohtar wisely turns the tables, asking the question, “What is prose?”

Prose is so ubiquitous — being present in novels, short stories, and non-fiction works all around us — that we tend to take it for granted. By asking “What is prose?” Amal shakes up our understanding of what we read and write.

Since Kowal, Wells, and Taylor are all seasoned professionals, their answers to this question are thoughtful and enlightening. The discussion leads to the conclusion that poetry and prose are not opposites (as is often perceived), rather they use the same tools and elements to engage with language in order to create specific effects.

As a person who has recently published Twelve, a book that blurs the line between poetry and prose, I found this conversation particularly resonant. Each of the poems within my book are narrative-heavy prose poems, in which poetic language is broken into blocks of text similar to paragraphs. As such, it’s been interesting reading some of the reviews and commentary about the book, as some readers feel that labeling these pieces poems is an inaccurate description, calling them instead vignettes.

Personally, I don’t blame readers for feeling bewilderment. When I started writing this collection, my intention was to write poetry with a heavy narrative focus. However, as my writing process continued, each piece grew into a hybrid creature I wasn’t quite able to define. Ultimately, I decided that since my intention was to write poetry — and these pieces feel like poetry to me — that’s what I call them.

A Growing Understanding of Poetry

Each of the episodes in the master class continued to grow my understanding of what poetry is and how to play with it. For example the next two episodes in the series Singing Versus Speaking and Day Brain vs. Night Brain, further explore the nature of poetry and its relationship with prose.

In the third episode, the hosts discuss the concept of poetic language in both poetry and fiction, each providing their own understanding of what “poetic” means. For Wells, poetic language is able to obliquely evoke an image or feeling within its own context, while Kowal felt that poetic language is represented in a line or sentence that by itself and without any context is inherently beautiful.

Bringing this discussion together, El-Mohtar notes that her hope is for writers and readers to understand that poetic language is not inherently more difficult to write or read. Rather, poetic language is a spectrum, ranging “from sparse to lush, from opaque to clear.”

Poetic Structure, Part I and Poetic Structure, Part II both delve into the types of structure utilized in poetry — whether it’s traditional forms (which are continually evolving) or the need to invent a form, the shape that a poem takes has the power to support and provide additional weight and meaning to the work.

In The Time To Rhyme, the hosts explore one of the most hated upon and misunderstood tropes of poetry. Rhyme is not inherently bad or good, nor is it inherently silly. When used well, rhyme can be a powerful tool for poets who are working to achieve a desired effect.

For the final episode, the hosts explored Poetry and the Fantastic. Paraphrasing T.S. Elliot, El-Mohtar explains, “Poetry breaks or dislocates, if necessary, language into its meaning.” For her, poetry is intricately intertwined with fantasy and science fiction. She further expands on this relationship by noting,

“If poetry breaks language into meaning, I feel like fantasy breaks reality into truth — that what poetry does to language, fantasy does to reality. The experience that we get from it as writers of genre fiction is that we’re always trying find ways to break and hack reality into a specific experience for our readers, and poetry is doing that, too, but that you can foreground or background as much as you like.”

Ultimately, El-Mohtar hopes that writers and readers — particularly of science fiction and fantasy — will begin to feel more open to poetry as something “to play with, to read, to me moved and transformed by as the stunning books they read when they were twelve.”

Final Thoughts

The Writing Excuses master class on poetry provided so many insights that I have already listened to several episodes more than once — and I will likely listen to them again. Whether you are just starting your journey with poetry or are a well-versed poet, I highlight recommend listening to this series.