A new kind of poetry appreciation
The news that independent publisher Salt is no longer going to publish single author collections of poetry has been greeted with much sadness across the poetry world, with everyone from poet laureate Carol Ann Duffy to Salt's very own Katy Evans-Bush, mourning the passing of a vital channel.
I must confess I'm not a great poetry reader. I have binges where I ask my poet friends who I should try reading. I go off and buy them all, marvel at the linguistic acrobatics – 'eye-quiet world' being my current favourite verbal magic from Alice Oswald's Dart – and then slowly but surely get sucked back into the world of prose.
I'm an even worse poet than I am a reader, although I have made two 'attempts' in my life to write some. The first time I was seven and kept a ring-binder file full of little scraps of paper on which I penned awful odes to Christmas, Easter, Bonfire Night and birthdays, complete with equally dreadful illustrations. You name a holiday, I had a poem for it.
I stopped after a while. Whether I'd run out of subject matter or became embarrassed, I can't remember now but a whole decade passed until I tried again. But like my seven-year-old self, I soon packed it in. I still have the book in which I wrote these teenage angst-ridden disasters, however. The urge to burn it overwhelms me every now and then but so far I have resisted. The book is a piece of me and instead of cringing at the shocking lack of any form and the excruciating subject matter, I am now trying to embrace my terribleness. After all, at least I tried.
One of the joyous things about the past two years of studying for an MA has been the rediscovery that I like trying to write poetry, even if I know it's awful. Embarrassing or not, it gives me the chance to express a part of myself that I just can't seem to get down in straightforward sentences.
In a blog post for The Guardian, Billy Mills argues that the Salt news isn't cause for alarm; that, in fact, poetry is adapting to a new publishing age, with smaller publishers thriving, poetry websites popping up all over the place and live poetry 'slams' becoming increasingly popular. But for the amateur writer or casual reader who doesn't have poet friends to bother for recommendations, poetry as an everyday discourse can still feel a little remote.
The real magic of poetry does, of course, lie in the performance. I was lucky enough to hear mesmerising readings from both Alice Oswald and Robin Robertson at a recent event for the Royal Society of Literature. I'd read Robertson's Swithering on a friend's recommendation and was not disappointed. Listening to him read from Hill of Doors - with his deep Scottish accent that sounds like the wind through trees just before a storm breaks – was breath-taking. Oswald, meanwhile, read all her work from memory and seemed almost possessed by the act, as if the words and sounds were coming from a part of her over which she has no control. I can count on one hand the number of times I've been moved by poetry in this way and I'd like more of it.
As with so many of an individual's likes or dislikes, I think it starts with the way poetry is taught in school. My study of poetry consisted of pulling a poem apart line by line and persistently asking 'what did the poet mean by that?'
To this day, I remember my mock A-level poetry appreciation exam involved picking over Philip Larkin's 'To the Sea' in this manner. I thought it dull and turgid. I thought I disliked Larkin. I thought this interpretation of a man I would never know difficult. But take the following lines:
Strange to it now, I watch the cloudless scene:
The same clear water over smoothed pebbles
How lovely the hard 'c' of 'cloudless' and 'clear' feels in the back of your throat, set off with the soft 'ssssing' of the tongue at the end of 'cloudless' or the start of 'strange', 'same' 'scene' or 'smoothed'. If we had spent more time studying that and the effect it has on the ear, than whether Larkin was talking about his childhood or not, I might have come away with an entirely different view of his poetry.
Which brings me to my point (at last). The real question we should be asking kids is 'how does that line sound as you roll it round your mouth?' or ' what do you see when you hear the words 'eye-quiet world'?'
Consider Dr Seuss:
The other weekend I was reading his Oh Say Can You Say? to my nephew. Filled with nonsense tongue twisters we were soon both giggling as I chewed my way through Dinn the dinosaur and bed spreaders versus bread spreaders. He had no idea what I was on about but the beauty was in the sound.
Poetry should be a raucous, joyous affair. I'm not saying it should be frivolous or even that the subject matter happy – much of the poetry I wrote last year was quite moody – but the joy comes from the sound of it being spoken out loud. And there is not enough of that in school.
The news about Salt is sad. No doubt about it. Single author poetry books deserve their place in the traditional publishing scene. But maybe we're going about this in the wrong way. We need to start helping children discover that poetry doesn't have to be 'understood' in this formal, literal sense. Instead, we should teach them that there is joy to be found in the sounds and images of even the most unfathomable poetry. And with that in mind, I am endeavouring to read one book of poetry a month starting now. I'll keep you posted on what I discover.
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