On Poetry

hungry ghost festivalYesterday Jen Campbell started a discussion about poetry on twitter, asking what poetry meant to you, whether you like it now or at school, and what your relationship with it is. It got me thinking.

I don’t read a lot of poetry; in fact, I realised I didn’t even include it in my reading habits post last week. I’ve been thinking about why that is, as I love reading and do enjoy poems when I do bother to sit with them. I think it’s partly to do with how poetry is taught at school (at least, how it was taught to me) and partly about what makes poetry different.

At school, poetry is generally about mechanics. You learn to look at poems and deconstruct them according the techniques used and how meaning comes from those techniques – like, “here’s some alliteration to emphasise the darkness in the room blah blah.” I suspect this is mainly because of exams, points mean prizes after all, but I don’t remember much in the way of learning/discussing connection to a poem, or meaning, or whether you even like the damn thing. I think it makes poetry seem much more abstract than it is, and that without these ‘tools’ of deconstruction, you can’t understand or get anything from it – i.e you can’t just read it, you have to study and analyse to get anything from it.

All this means, I think, when you grow up and forget all those terms you learnt in school, poetry becomes this unreachable thing that you’re too ignorant for. So you (I) don’t bother with it. It’s a different kind of puzzling out that poetry needs – a kind of emotional puzzling out that there’s no space for in exams/school. It’s not that the mechanical puzzling doesn’t contribute to understanding, it does, but it’s not the only or most important thing. It’s a massive shame really, because if we were taught that you can just read a poem and like it or not like it, and feel things or not feel things, without needing to know what techniques contribute to that, I think more people would continue to read poetry after they’ve left school.

I read a lot of short stories, so it’s weird that I don’t read a lot of poetry as I kind of put them in the same, or at least adjacent, boxes. Both, by nature of their length, are fragments or fleeting moments, but those fragments are actually whole. They are tardis-like in speaking of ideas much larger themselves in a magically small space. The problem (or brilliant thing, depending on your perspective) with poetry is that it’s generally more abstract than short stories. That means you need more patience with it, to do the emotional puzzling out and take it in and let it simmer. I think this is my main problem. I expect too much too quickly, and then when I don’t immediately ‘know’ I think it’s beyond me because I haven’t studied literature formally for a long time (back to that school-deconstruction thing again). I give up, and go back to nice cosy prose. But, crucially, a lot of prose is lyrical and not immediate, but somehow the context of sentences means it’s not as scary. Poetry isn’t that many steps beyond a lot of what I read in terms of abstract thought. Weird, huh?

So, thinking about all this, I feel like I have to re-train my brain. Re-train it not to worry about feeling ignorant of technical terms, and to sit with poems and just feel the feels. I am definitely going to make more of an effort to read more poetry, as, probably, the less you read the further away it seems. Any suggestion of poets / poems you love or recommend would be most welcome.

(The picture at the top is Jen’s collection, The Hungry Ghost Festival, click through to her website to get it)

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5 Responses to On Poetry

  1. Jen says:

    Thanks so much for writing this, Debbie!

    You ask for recommendations – I could write a very long list. I’ll try and restrain myself… 😉
    Getaway Girl – Terry Ann Thaxton http://www.saltpublishing.com/shop/proddetail.php?prod=9781844715114
    One Eye’d Leigh – Katharine Kilalea http://www.carcanet.co.uk/cgi-bin/indexer?product=9781857549928
    Dear Boy – Emily Berry http://www.faber.co.uk/catalog/dear-boy/9780571284054

    🙂 xx

  2. Jen says:

    Ooh, and one more:
    A Body Made of You – Melissa Lee Houghton http://www.pennedinthemargins.co.uk/index.php/2011/03/a-body-made-of-you/

  3. D says:

    No worries, thanks for getting me to think about it!
    Thanks for the recommendations, I will definitely check them out! x

  4. Pingback: Love That Dog by Sharon Creech | mischief and miscellany

  5. Pingback: The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction by Alan Jacobs | mischief and miscellany

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