Friday 3 January 2014

Poetry is next to godliness?

I like to read, as you know, but I find myself all at sea with poetry. I am a prosaic sort of person, I suppose. I like a narrative, ideally not too tricksy, although the fantastic and the satirical suit me fine, better probably than the strictly down-to-earth. But poetry? That’s another matter. Too insubstantial? Maybe. Too intense? Sometimes. Too opaque? Almost always.

That’s not to say that I never enjoy poetry. I loved Keats and the metaphysical poets when we did them at school; that process of analysis that unlocked the meaning and left you, comprehending, to enjoy the words. I loved, still love, lots of funny poems for children: Edward Lear and Ogden Nash, A. A. Milne and Lewis Carroll, Michael Rosen and, oh, lots of others. I know some by heart, not from learning them, just from reading them over and over. When I was at school I used to sit near the poetry shelves in the library and pick up Ted Hughes when I was bored. I couldn’t get much meaning from it, but there was something in the language and the violence that appealed to the teenage me. And there’s the moment when only a poem will do, breakups and deaths, that sort of thing, bound to send you scurrying to the shelf for Emily Dickinson.

But these days, given the choice, do I make for the poetry shelves in a bookshop? No I do not. Do I keep a slim volume of someone or other by my bedside? That would be no too. I do not seek out poetry.

Poetry, it seems to me, is rather like faith. I do not get poetry in the same way that I cannot believe in God or gods. There is no logic in faith that satisfies me. And yet... I see people who do believe, perfectly sane, intelligent, admirable people, so logically there must be something, mustn’t there? And now and then, the faintest whiff of what it must be like to believe comes my way, funerals, weddings, births, that sort of thing, all heightened emotions and that feeling that there must be some greater being organising all this.

How is this like poetry? Poetry is a state of mind, I think. Some people hear or read poetry and something in it speaks to them, not necessarily everything, it could just be the sound of the words, or a single combination of words, or an image or a feeling conveyed. For me, it has always taken more than this. I need complete understanding, every word accounted for. That’s why I appreciated those poems I studied and picked apart at school I suppose, and the read and re-read A. A. Milne et al.

Lately though, I have begun to listen and enjoy poetry without necessarily understanding each word. I have the writers’ group I belong to to thank for this. I hear poetry read by its authors and I get to ask questions: “Why this word?” “Why does this line run on?” “Did you intend this effect?” It’s extraordinary, thinking about poetry in this way, from the poet's point of view, like something moveable and changeable.

So I have decided to embrace poetry. I would like poetry to speak to me. As I rooted around the house for poetry books (I found a few, no Ted Hughes though), I thought that what people need in order to enjoy poetry more is just to be exposed to it more. And since I have at my disposal the tame primary school where I go to run the library and talk to children about books, I came up with a poetry project I could run at school: lots of poems read, some learned, lots written. And the teacher I approached said yes, she’d love me to do this, she didn’t think she was good at poetry. Me neither, I said, but I’m hoping this will help.


  1. Oh, good - I thought I was in a minority, not "getting" poetry. All my adult life it's been prose all the way (Sterne, by way of Coventry, then the main road of Austen, Scott, Dickens, Thackeray, Trollope, till it all peters out in a plethora of by-ways - Woolf, Wodehouse, Waugh, White). But then, when I read this, I began to think, well, actually, when I was reading to the children (which occasionally felt like a chore, and now I remember as heaven), it was the books that were written with repetition, with a careful choice of word, that we went back to again and again. There was a series "A Poem a Day" (three versions of this) which opened my ears (and I hope theirs too) to some wonderfully childish stuff ("Never Let me Catch You Doing That Again") and extracts from more classical pieces. But, by and large, poetry is poncy. All those half lines, and sentences
    Cut in
    For no good reason I could
    See. Or, for
    That matter, feel.
    Except, and except, and except, that all the phrases that come to mind to describe things most accurately, and all the lines that feel like incantations
    ("And ride in triumph through Persepolis!
    Is it not brave to be a king, Techelles?
    Usumcasane and Theridamas,
    Is it not passing brave to be a king,
    And ride in triumph through Persepolis?")
    turn out to be - in fact, in prosaic fact - poetry. Bother it.

    1. Oh yes, and as a starter I've asked the children to supply me with their own definition of poetry, something the poets I asked were unable to do...

  2. Great post, Claire. I'm glad the writers' group has had such a positive influence and wish you luck with the project.

    1. Thanks Mary, and for the huge heap of poetry books on my desk, too!


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