Poetry is not a clique
I don’t know anyone who reads poetry, except people i’ve met through poetry. It is a bit of a rarified community. If you’re not within it, poets look like neurobiologists or nuns, initiates into mysteries that have no connection with the rest of us.
For me, this is easier to understand than it is for many poets. I was well into adulthood before i began to ‘get’ poetry or even to want to. Let me tell you how it came about.
IT STARTED WITH SELF-IMAGE
I always saw myself as a writer, yes. Words were my oxygen and my clay. But poems, nah. I blame this on a rather unimaginative English teacher who had a reasonable grasp of rules but not much sense of art; but when i think about it, i’d have noticed what was lacking at school if poetry had been part of the nutritional mix at home. So i can blame it on my parents’ esteem for music, travel and theatre, if you like. As crimes of neglect go, a low dose of T S Eliot isn’t up there with the greats.
In accordance with the fantasy of Being A Writer, i started taking Writers News (and still do). It’s a great magazine, though i prefer Writing Magazine which nowadays comes with it to subscribers. A monthly serving of the techniques and business of writing, author interviews, analyses of published works, competitions, and market news. I used to read each issue cover to cover, leaving out the poetry bits, which didn’t have anything to do with me. After a few years i started reading every page for the sake of it, to make it last longer. Including the poetry bits.
AN EDUCATION ADD-ON
Writers News and Writing Magazine have taught me more about how fiction works – its anatomy, things like plot structure, characterisation, style – than seven years at a ‘good academic school’ and another four writing essay for a degree that was three-eighths literature. Several years after graduating i suddenly began to see what the lit crits were doing. It was by no means the fault of the teaching. My natural bent is towards sciency thinking, analysing and organising abstract concepts, so physics and Latin grammar came more easily. (What is odd is that this sciency mind ended up so committedly artsy, but i now know many people straddle that divide.)
Anyway, poetry. Some of those articles were very technical, and i already knew a lot of the jargon: what an iamb is, for instance. Now, give me a how-to and my response is to give it a go. Whether it’s a knitting pattern, guidelines for public speaking or how to raise orchids (or your kids! (say it in tempo and you’ll hear the joke)), seconds into reading/hearing it i want to begin; i suppose the imperative, rather than the descriptive, rouses me. (I have to ration my eHow time.) And there i was reading piece after piece about how to write poems. How could i not have a go?
I’d never realised that selecting a word was about the sound of it as much as the meaning – or that selecting a poetic form was about relating the form’s character to the poem’s theme. Yes, i knew the urban myth (is it?) about Virgil spending three weeks perfecting a single line – none of us could get our heads round that, how many years would it therefore take to write the Aeneid?! – and even i could see, if i’d thought about it, that e e cummings was doing more than just talking about his feelings. But i’d never grasped what was going on and it had never seemed relevant to me. As an undergrad i’d scribbled my share of ‘poems’ but only now was i finding out (1) that angst-with-linebreaks isn’t poetry and (2) why it isn’t.
I take pleasure in the way words do several jobs – beyond double meanings, they’re also contributing to rhythm and the aural texture of the poem; touching emotions and manipulating a mood, whether of wistfulness, outrage or amusement; surprising or lulling the reader. Altering a single comma sometimes makes as big a difference to the ‘feel’ of the read-through as inviting Brian Blessed to your dinner party would to your evening.
I took to this medium – gradually – as a way of communicating not only the facts but the truth (my truth, of course) of a situation. I discovered, and later became comfortable with the fact, that you don’t have to make literal sense and in fact can convey more by leaving the sense open to the interpretation of other people, all of whom will experience (and, if you’ve done it well, remember) different content.
So here i am, by perhaps an unusual route, an enjoyer of poetry. And yes, though it still seems presumptuous to say so, a poet.
And if that can happen to me, it can work for anyone.