“Poetry? Yeah babe, but it’s just a bunch of words on a page”
Naturally, my relationship with the speaker of these words didn’t last. I like to think that this was due to irreconcilable differences – I liked books and James Blunt, he liked Glee and drink-driving. So we finished, him getting over it watching twerps on TV destroying every decent song known to humanity, and me screaming Goodbye My Lover at the neighbourhood cats.Yet this is just one of the disheartening responses I am met with when I reveal my passion for poetry.
Common responses to my favourite literary form include:
- “That’s cool, but I don’t understand poetry.”
- “But that’s not a poem; it doesn’t rhyme.”
- “It’s boring; I don’t want to hear all about flowers, I want to listen to Rammstein and bang my skull against inanimate objects.”
- “Shakespeare? Nah, I don’t like his hair.”
It disappoints me to see that so many people remain under the illusion that poetry is simply concerned with sonnets about love (like a red, red rose innit), daffodils in a field, or some lone bloke proclaiming “O!” at regular intervals. I think early education is partly to blame.
Until the age of 16, the only taste of poetry I’d had throughout school was concerned with flowers, nature and changing seasons. I could read the poetry in a literal sense, but I wasn’t really reading it. I knew all about similes, alliteration and metaphors. I could see whether a poem was meant to be happy or sad (poets get very emotional about leaves falling off trees). But I couldn’t see what the poem really meant. Poems appeared literal – a poem about falling leaves was a poem about seasons, right? All the poems I’d read so far had rhymed. They had to rhyme or they weren’t poems. I didn’t see anything particularly clever or moving. Back then, poems actually bored me.
But then my teacher read us one of her favourite poems: Seamus Heaney’s poignant Mid-Term Break. We’d been starting to look at poems properly that term; reading between the lines of Wordsworth’s Upon Westminster Bridge. Taking apart Wordsworth and writing my first poetry analysis, my eyes were opened to the possibility of exploring of a poem. I got enjoyment out of probing into every word, beginning with the careful construction of a poem and the importance of making every word really say something. But Upon Westminster Bridge hadn’t really moved me or sparked any further interest in poetry. Mid-Term Break on the other hand really struck me. I remember the response in class: “But Miss, it doesn’t rhyme.”
Yet the sheer beauty and simplicity of the language as it came together was astounding. I felt the emotion the poet was trying to convey. I was there with the boy as he saw his brother lying there, perfect and still, with the “poppy-bruise” on his cheek and his mother as she “coughed out angry tearless sighs.” This poem was simply beautiful and fresh and I wanted to read more of this new kind of poetry. Why hadn’t we been taught earlier that poetry didn’t have to rhyme or use archaic, romantic language? Heaney had created something so much more powerful out of words, so much more simple, and the words haunted me long after I’d finished reading. Read it yourself and see what I mean.
When I discovered Carol Ann Duffy at A Level, that’s when I decided I wanted to write poetry myself. I loved her metaphors. I loved the way she wrote of heartbreak, deceit and simple moments in love. I loved these condensed and glittering jewels of human experience. From there I found Sylvia Plath, Dylan Thomas (my homeboy), Matthew Sweeney and Brian Patten to name a few of my favourites. And I love how I discover new poets and new pieces of work all the time.
Unfortunately, there still isn’t a great enough variety of poetry being introduced to students at a young age. Why must we wait until much later to discover that poems are not all strict form and nature and rhyme? Why do so many go into adulthood still believing that poetry is still just “words on a page” and nothing more? It’s great to see both Seamus Heaney and Carol Ann Duffy featuring more on GCSE syllabuses but I still don’t think there’s enough focus on it for younger people at that age – when children are more enthusiastic about new things and discussion of creative ideas.
I am not alone in believing that poetry has a far greater impact on society than most people give it credit for. I questioned a few local poets on what they thought about poetry’s place in society. Nigel Jenkins, Swansea University lecturer and local poet, highlighted the importance of the poet in this country; the Welsh-speaking parts in particular.
“At a local level, the village poet might be called on to craft an englyn for someone’s gravestone or might turn his or her hand to the making of a humorous cywydd, for recitation at a gathering in the pub, to celebrate Mrs Jones passing her driving test at the umpteenth attempt.
“At a more elevated level, the National Poet (currently Gillian Clarke) might be expected to voice the nation’s grief at a mining disaster or to echo its joy at winning the rugby Grand Slam.”
It cannot be denied that poetry is in our lives more significantly than we think – pick up any birthday card and it most likely has some nauseating verse proclaiming how much you want to tell your sister she is the sunshine of your life/a joy that makes your heart glow and usually concludes with something that rhymes with “hope your day is as special as you”. Verses such as these have what Nigel refers to as a “ritualising power” in times of celebration and are just one example of how poetry is a part of everyday life and special events.
Welsh poet Rona Laycock also stressed the importance of poetry in society in times of tragedy and celebration: “Poetry seems to inhabit a special niche in society, a niche that is not visited very often but that has to be there in times of trouble, almost like a talisman that confers some sort of power on an event.” This was supported further by Wisconsin-born poet Alan Kellerman, believing that “frequently, poetry is a catharsis or a form of – not always self prescribed – therapy, often associated with moody teenagers, (one of which I can claim to have been). How often, when faced with difficult circumstances, have people turned to verse? How many times has Dylan Thomas’s elegiac ‘Do not go gentle into that good night’ been read at funerals?”
Yet all of the above poets have bemoaned the lack of engagement with the ‘real’ poetry of today. Though they all agree that poetry has its place during these times, it has indeed made people blind to the real talent that there is out there. How many people can honestly say they’ve gone to a poetry reading and just listened to the words a poet has carefully crafted? How many people have perused the poetry section of Waterstone’s and dipped in and out of anthologies, discovering the sheer variety of styles there are? Sadly, not many.
Unlike the novel form, where most readers have had a taste of different genres, it is generally thought that poetry really is only restricted to either a Shakespearean sonnet or something that rhymes in a card shop. I like to think of this as something quite sad, like Charlie finding the Golden Ticket, going to Willy Wonka’s factory and only pocketing a Wonka Bar before shrugging and going home because chocolate’s just chocolate, yeah? No. If poetry is a (metaphorical) chocolate factory, then you should know it’s not all just the same old chocolate; there’s lickable wallpaper and fizzy-lifting drinks and chewing gum that never loses its flavour to try too.
So the next time someone claims that poetry is “just words on a page” (future boyfriends, be warned), consider this. Yes, I understand that poetry is not everyone’s thing, just as Justin Bieber doesn’t get the entire club hitting the dancefloor in fevered excitement. But like novels and like music with all their genres, there is more than one kind of poetry. Open your eyes and explore it. You may find that actually, Allen Ginsberg really strikes a chord with his raw political voice or maybe TS Eliot’s imagery really grips you. And don’t overlook the local poets; -Swansea is extremely lucky to have so much local talent. Try attending a poetry launch at the Dylan Thomas Centre.
Even if after that you decide to just stick to seeing poetry in a birthday card from Mum that’s fine -most events at the Dylan Thomas Centre include free entry and include free wine – so everyone’s happy!
During these times when it seems that real poetry just doesn’t seem to matter to people at all, Alan Kellerman reminds himself of the words of Polish poet and Nazi internment camp survivor, Leopold Staff: “More than bread, poetry is necessary at times when there is no need for it at all.”
By Natalie Holborow