I teach loads of adult students who loathe poetry. Sometimes I hate it more than they do. I look at books of it piling up around me and I feel sick. I feel like the miller’s daughter locked in a room of straw without the faintest hope of Rumpelstiltskin.
I’m not a creative writing tutor. That’s different. People who want to write poetry often love it. I teach literature (some of the time) in further education. Many of the people who arrive there read novels and enjoy films. But mention the big Po and a troubled look comes over their faces. I wish I could suggest a few hours in my classroom transforms their feelings. Sometimes it’s the reverse.
Pomophobia is normal. Why? All sorts of reasons. School has a lot to do with it. We get Poetry, like an attack of flu. To get rid of it, we have to analyse it. We don’t understand it and this makes us feel stupid. We don’t like feeling stupid and we tend to dislike people and things that make us feel that way. So. . . .
And yet there are bits of verse (stuff the word ‘poetry’) that people do like. They’re memorable, frequently rhythmic, sometimes funny and, as you get older, and especially if you’re a boy, frequently rude. You can skip to them, sing to them, stamp to them, sigh to them, get revenge on them:
Helen Curry is no good (substitute name of victim).
Chop her up for firewood (you have to say ‘fy-er-wood’).
When she’s dead, stamp on her head
And make her into currant bread.
So it’s okay to rejoice in that kind of thing. I wish I dared share some of the rudest examples. I do collect them. 'The Good Ship Venus' is a winner.
But back to hating poetry, before I work myself back into an inadvertent lather of liking the stuff.
All those books piled up staring at me. Three more arrived to review yesterday. There are at least ten waiting unread already. I have books of poetry that people sent me as gifts. And I have small collections waiting in coloured folders waiting for me to read through and make them into HappenStance pamphlets.
The trouble with poetry is that it is so bloody demanding. It has one assertion only and it is this: READ ME. Total attention. Nothing less will do. READ ME. And then – READ ME AGAIN.
Coupled with this is the unstated promise: I WILL REPAY. The idea is that you read the stuff and it does something magical for you, something you won’t forget. Isn’t that so? But somewhere in there, there’s a secret, like the name of Rumpelstilkskin or Tom Tit Tot or Whuppity Stoorie. If you can’t come up with the secret name, the whole thing will stay straw and you’ll be stuck in that room with it for the rest of your life.
So how do you feel, when you read it and the spell doesn’t work? Horribly cheated, that’s how. Vengeful. Especially since the thing you didn’t understand a word of, or were totally bored by, is supposed to be important. The person who wrote it is hugely significant and has the key to the whole of life: it says so on the back cover.
But there is quite a good thriller on the bookcase and it won’t make you feel like that. All it demands is:
READ ME, IF YOU HAPPEN TO FEEL LIKE IT
It will be easy. And a bit of fun.
All this I understand all too well.
However, on Friday, I sat quietly in a room full of poetry and a little bit of prose (some prose is necessary, like pasta, rice, bread or potatoes with your dinner). And the magic worked again. I had Mike Horwood’s book Midas Touch – not one poem made me feel inadequate. Lovely first collection. And August Kleinzahler’s New and Selected – a bit more nervous about that, and there were bits I teetered over, but some whole poems were okay. And Tim Liardet’s Shoestring pamphlet – oh hey – it even tells a story, a beautiful, sad story. And did you know Brian Aldiss, the science fiction writer, did Po too? I didn’t, but he does. Perhaps not the best poetry I have ever read but hey, it caused me no pain at all to read the lot. And I sailed through the one by Gail White practically singing.
But even better than this. I went back to three folders of PIPs. That, for the uninformed among you, stands for Poets In Progress, and these PIPs are the next three HappenStance pamphlets. They are Mike Loveday, Lorna Dowell and Lydia Fulleylove. Oh my goodness! I haven’t read them for ages, not properly, not since I said Yes to the pamphlet possibility. I slowly perused the poems that had been sitting in my yellow box beside the dining table for months, and I came out of the reading calm, happy and enriched.
And excited. It was the same with Ross Kightly and Kirsten Irving, only a few weeks ago. This is why I do it. I’m only the miller’s daughter. The magic has nothing to do with me, but these poets have transformed paper and scratchy words to gold. I want to share them and there’s nothing I’d rather do.
Meanwhile, I’ll inflict a poem of my own on you, no matter whether you hate it or not, because it’s relevant and I’d forgotten I’d written it until I came to do this morning’s blog. It emerged ten years ago, as a direct result of three lovely adult students who came to me woefully after I had forced them to read Shakespeare sonnet 138, ‘When my love swears that she is made of truth’. One of them really did say to me, ‘We’ve tried and we’ve tried and we can’t like it.’
The Challenge of Literature
(‘We’ve tried and we’ve tried and we can’t like it. . . .’)
I gave them the sonnet I always used.
‘You don’t have to like it,’ I conceded
when hardly a single one enthused.
‘Shakespeare can grow on you. Go on—read it.’
I was convinced it would do no harm
to meet the best of the best. Great art
is good for exams; it keeps you calm.
Some people even learn it by heart.
On the last day, in no mood for sighing,
I tossed them a titbit by Wendy Cope:
some nice little lines, a kind of test.
What would they think? Well—I dared to hope.
The bastards. They liked it without even trying.
I might have guessed.