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.

Bone by Yrsa Daley-Ward

Poetry that strikes: Bone by Yrsa Daley-Ward

Bone is a striking and moving collection of poetry that focuses on growing up, love, sexuality, being different, and working through inner thoughts and feelings in stark ways. Daley-Ward’s poems vary from telling vivid stories in a tiny space (‘the not quite love’) and addressing concerns like growing up religious in a concise, direct way (‘liking things’) to longer, heartbreaking stories like ‘some kind of man’. There are poems that will strike a chord with teenagers and adults about love not being with the right people (‘emergency warning’, ‘I’ll admit it, I’m drawn to the wolves’) and poems that can offer advice, optimism, and blunt suggestions of regret (‘things it can take twenty years and a bad liver to find out’, ‘mental health’).

Her writing is distinctive and offers stark stories and emotion. Many of the poems in the book have particular endings, a couple of lines or so that hit you right in the chest. A number of pieces near the end also consider the act of writing poetry and where creation and truth come from, highlighting storytelling and using words to work through difficult things. It is hard to talk about Bone without wanting to go through and point out the best lines in everything; it is a collection of poetry to savour in its blunt emotion and careful expression.

Boy Wizard: an ode to Harry Potter

To celebrate the 20th anniversary of the UK publication of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, I could make a recommendation list of books I feel are similar. However, I can’t. Partly because even as a child when I first read the books, I didn’t really like much fantasy and the main book I loved that also had mystery and magic was Terry Pratchett’s The Amazing Maurice and His Educated Rodents. And partly because it is very difficult to compare the phenomenon that is Harry Potter with any single book or other book series (maybe Lord of the Rings, but as is well-documented on this blog, I am not a fan).

Many people will have a Harry Potter story relating to the books and/or the films, even if that story is about how they refused to pick one up at all. Particularly with people around my age—I read the first four aged seven and then waited what seemed like forever for the fifth to come out—Harry Potter has been constantly there for a long time. There’s plenty that has been said about all this on the internet so I’m not going to add my own thoughts right now. Instead, I’ve gone for the slightly stranger approach of including a very rough poem I wrote about part of my own Harry Potter experience (please share your own experiences, whether they be in poetry or not!).

Best friends celebrated in poetry

Best Friends Forever: Poems About Female Friendship edited by Amy Key

Best Friends Forever: Poems About Female Friendship is a heartwarming and often brash collection of poems that explores different female friendships, young and old, sisters and best friends. It is a refreshing breath of honesty about the small details and big feelings in friendship from The Emma Press, a UK independent publisher.

Many of the poems focus on the intensity and specific feelings of teenage friendship, such as ‘Snakebite’, Catherine Smith’s wonderful poem about feeling grown up and invincible, and ‘Agnosia’, Martha Sprackland’s poem about friendships changing when a shared hometown is left. On the other hand, Kathryn Maris’ hilarious ‘Will You Be My Friend, Kate Moss?’ is one of a few poems looking at making friends when older. The vivid retro aesthetics and female dangerousness of ‘I Want To Be In Your Gang’ by Andrea Quinlan and ‘Roller Girls’ by Camellia Stafford are a particular highlight in the collection, as are the details and ordinariness of ‘best’ by Laura Webb and ‘Stars of the County Down’ by Fran Lock.

The collection can’t help but make readers reflect on their own friendships and on the details that make them special. It is an emotional anthology, and one that contains some exciting poetry as well as a nostalgic feel. Buy it for your best friends, or keep it for yourself and make them read it over your shoulder.

(Note: I got the ebook from their website here.)