Poetry and me: a love/hate story

Lots of people love poetry. Lots of people hate poetry. It’s something you’re forced to read (and often try and write) at school and something that might not seem to come up often after that, except in greetings cards. Poetry is great, but it is also about finding the poems that work for you. Whilst it can be argued that almost anything with words can be poetry (as my undergrad English class tried to do with the category ‘literature’ when made to investigate the term), even the writing more typically termed ‘poetry’ can vary a lot and, though it can be off-putting for many reasons, there’s a lot of different poems out there to try.

I used to think I couldn’t ‘do’ poetry. In secondary school, we studied poems and sometimes they made sense, sometimes they didn’t. People were often too busy chatting or messing around for real discussion of the poems, so it could be difficult to be taught how to approach them, and they weren’t always ones that might interested thirteen year olds.

At GCSE (aged 15-16) there was quite a lot of poetry to look at, all housed in a handy anthology that someone had ill-advisedly decorated with black and white pictures that we used to colour in instead of reading the poems. We went through some of them in more depth and there were definitely some I connected with (thanks Simon Armitage for writing a poem—‘Kid’—about Batman and Robin that I read post-The Dark Knight and therefore thought was great). However, these were short and usually quite simple to pick techniques out of. The older poetry was usually awkwardly thrown at us so nobody really understood the point of say, Browning’s ‘My Last Duchess’, other than having written ‘dramatic monologue’ at the top of the page at the teacher’s insistence.

By A level (aged 17-18), the English Lit class was much smaller, and there was more time to look at poetry. We did Carol Ann Duffy’s The World’s Wife and mostly it introduced me to the stories and myths she was retelling rather than give any poetic insight. We did the metaphysical poets and they were okay, but still, a headache. Too many conceits, really. By that point, maybe the teachers assumed we knew how to read metre, or there just wasn’t time to spend more than the time it took to remind us Shakespeare mostly wrote in iambic pentameter. I remember once being told about iambs and dactyls and mostly thinking it sounded like the dinosaurs I loved when I was five.

I did find, though not through school, the next poem that was ‘mine’, one that I loved the sound and meaning of and would attempt to analyse because somehow it felt like it made sense. This was ‘The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock’ by T. S. Eliot, quite an obvious choice, but at the time it felt like a revelation. All the line breaks and separate sentences were chunks I could follow and the huge ambiguity of the poem appealed to teenage me. I printed it off the internet and reread it a lot.

When I got to university to study English, though, I still felt poetry was something I just didn’t understand. It was too hard and nobody had showed me how to read it properly. Faced with a lot of poetry, I tried, I tried hard, but sometimes it was the week we did Gerard Manley Hopkins in our Victorians paper and I had to try and write an essay about political stuff in his work because I didn’t understand it enough to write about the poetic techniques he was using. At times it felt like it must have been going to a state school that had done it, that I’d not been taught how to ‘get’ poetry and was now paying by desperately clawing my way through tutorials about scansion in Victorian poetry.

Luckily, the Victorians didn’t last forever. In second year I discovered Elizabethan narrative poetry and Milton that wasn’t the hell bits of Paradise Lost and then, after the headache of Middle English,  we got to the Romantics and I picked up Byron’s ‘Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage’ and loved it and discovered Keats is worth his reputation. By finding poems that made my brain go ‘this is incredible’, I could believe I could read and understand them, and discuss them in essays and tutorials without everything being a hesitant guess.

Of course, it might not be the Romantics or Milton who help you realise some poetry is for you. It could be twentieth first century stuff with modern references, or poems that relate to your own identity and experiences, or lines that are spoken or sung not read. There’s a lot of options. And poetry might seem pretentious or irrelevant, but when you find the lines that speak to you, that make you go ‘oh, yes, that’s how to describe that’, it helps make poetry seem worthwhile. And after all my insistence I can’t do poetry, I now love reading it, write it with varying degrees of success, and have had a poem published (admittedly one about swearing). Poetry isn’t for everyone, but give it a chance.