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Appendix C: Communication Goals and Media in Poetry

Communication Goals

The main objective of most poetry is communication. You are trying to communicate your ideas and feelings to your audience, or you are trying to entertain them. Admittedly, some poets write for themselves alone and have no audience. Those who never show or read their poems to another human being are the exception to this rule. But for the rest of us, we are trying to communicate. Some of the suggestions in this book were based on pure communication principles, starting with the idea that there are four goals for communicating: to inform, to entertain, to persuade, or to query.

Each poem has its own communication goals. It may have one, or it may have more. A riddle is a type of poem that is meant to entertain, but it also uses the query form. It asks a question that may or may not be answered in the full poem. Of course, if you are a sphinx, a riddle can also be used to determine whether to eat those passing by. The old riddle song is both riddle and poem. It proposes impossible ideas in the first verse, asks how it can be in the second, then answers in the third:

I gave my love a cherry that had no stone.
I gave my love a chicken that had no bone.

How can a cherry have no stone
How can a chicken have no bone?

A cherry when it’s blooming has no stone.
A chicken when it’s pipping has no bone.

Other than riddles, the query is infrequently used in poetry in any other than the rhetorical sense. How often do you encounter a serious question asked in poetic form?

Would you be so kind,
if you really wouldn’t mind,
as to tell me where to go,
and please don’t be too slow
for I really have to know,
’cause I really have to go,
which way, please indicate
to get me quickly to the jake?

Have you ever had someone ask you a question that they actually wanted an answer to in poetic form? Have you ever tried writing such a poem? Imagine having a group of query poems handy for everyday occasions. Perhaps they could even be songs with tunes assigned to them?

Where can I find a phone,
that happy dog and bone?
Which direction should I try
to make my light words fly?

One could have a lot of fun and get laughs from friends using poetry for this communication goal. Of course, serious queries only work well in performance poetry. One cannot expect someone to answer questions in a poem printed in a book or on the Web. There are always exceptions to that rule, but it is more likely that the questions you use will be rhetorical:

Why does my heart ache?
Why do my legs shake?
Why am I so blue?
Could it all be you?

Other poems have a main goal to inform.

A jingle is an example of a poem designed to help persuade. Imagine, if you will, a radio campaign for a record store (or maybe a crack house?):

For the best in rock come down to our block.
Enter in the back, and check out our racks.
You’ll get more from us, so don’t take the bus.

Okay, so that’s why this author does not write commercial radio jingles. There are those who say that much of rap music is trying to persuade children who listen to it to emulate the lifestyles discussed in the songs. Most of the rappers say that the communication goal is just entertainment. The same connections were made between rock music with sex and drugs in earlier decades.

Let’s look at the communication goals in a much more famous set of examples of poetry in the works of Dr. Seuss. Much of Dr. Seuss’ work had the primary goals of entertainment and information. A book like One Fish, Two Fish, Red Fish, Blue Fish helps teach children numbers and colors in a way that is entertaining for the child and for the parent who has to read it to that child for the ten-thousandth time. Dr. Seuss was also known to put persuasive messages in his books. Green Eggs and Ham carries the message that if you actually try something, you might like it; so don’t judge it by appearances alone.

When you are writing poetry, take a look at what your communication goals are. Are you meeting those goals effectively? Does the poem convey the feelings you want conveyed? Does it tell the story well? Can the reader get the information out of it? Does it entertain? Entertainment doesn’t have to be funny. People go to horror movies and serious dramas or tragedies for entertainment. Spooky Halloween poems are also entertaining. If you are writing for an audience, you have to meet your communication goals to be successful, and the first step is knowing what your goals are. This allows you to write more focused, tighter, less meandering, more professional poetry.


Does the medium through which a poem is delivered matter? Does it matter whether the poem is in a book, recited, or delivered as a song? Does that change the construction of a poem? Does it change anything else about a poem? The answer to these questions can definitely be, “Yes.” The medium through which a poem is delivered can make a huge impact on the feel of the poem. Words on paper can often be subject to many interpretations. Is the writer being sincere or sarcastic? It becomes much more open to coloration by the reader. If you ask a dozen readers the same ten questions about the mood and meaning behind a poem, you will certainly get more than one answer. You may even get more than a dozen answers.

When you as a poet read your poem before an audience, you do more than read a poem. You are orally interpreting your own work. Through expression, gesture, tone and other vocal and body language aspects, you give more depth and meaning to the poem. It becomes more than just words on a page. Even Les Barker, the English poet whose performances are very understated, adds a huge amount to his poems through a pause or change in tone. We might never know the true richness of some of the famous old poets, because they have left us with words on the page and little more as a legacy.

Taking performance a step further, does singing a poem as a song add more? First, it is usually a more creative endeavor, since the melody and other parts of the musical arrangements are also created. For the listener, the music can set a mood, which either reflects the mood of the poem, or it can provide a contrast by which the poem’s message is brought out more fully. It has been said that songwriting is the last province of the rhyming poet. Where rhymed and structured poetry is mostly considered passé in most of the art world, it is nearly necessary to the songwriter. Most people expect songs to have rhythm, rhyme, and structure. Even such modes as rap music are heavily influenced by rhyme and beat. If you like writing in the structured forms, songwriting is the most influential direction to travel. If you can’t write music, team up with a friend who does. Someday, you may become a famous lyricist.

There is also a difference between recording your performance and doing live performances. Like words on a page, a recorded performance is static. It will be the same every time. A live performance can be fresh and new every time. The Canadian singer, James Keelaghan, tells how he came to write his various songs before each performance of the song. Every time he tells his stories, they are different. A little more is told or something new is added in the retelling. He doesn’t include these stories in his recordings; you can only get them live. There is also the audience interaction factor. There is only so much one can do on paper to evoke what a poem can be like performed live. In the case of Les Barker’s “Jason and the Arguments,” does putting the words “(Audience Responds)” after some lines really clue the reader in to what this is like in a pub or folk festival with a rowdy crowd vehemently responding to the poet? Each crowd is also different. The poet may interpret his poem as sweet and light before a grade school, while putting more bitterness into his voice in front of an adult audience. Also, with a live audience, you can perform query poems and expect an answer. At one of Steve Goodman’s performances, he broke a guitar string. He sang an off-the-cuff song asking for someone who worked for the club to go back to the performer’s room and get a guitar string out of his case. The audience all laughed and loved it. It was a treat for them that they would get no other way. You can’t do that without an audience.

Medium also matters in other ways to your audience. For instance, with poetry written on a page, your audience can stop and re-read a paragraph. With a recorded performance, the audience can stop and listen again. With a live performance, there are no stop and rewind buttons, so repetition and devices to pause and let the audience think are used in place of those abilities.

Boiling all of this down a bit, medium does matter. The more senses that are stimulated in the audience, the more that they get the poet’s interpretation. Also, live performances give even more interaction to the performance of the poem. The poet can learn and adjust his performances through live audiences. Lastly, each medium has strengths and weaknesses, and a poet should play to the strengths of the intended medium and environment.

You, as a poet, can improve and focus your poetry through understanding the communication goals you are trying to meet and using the strengths of the media through which you disseminate your poems.


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