It was World Poetry Day this week. I’ve always had a troubled relationship with poetry. Where does it fit? Do you curl up and read a volume of poems the way you do with a novel? Is it possible to get lost in it, in the characters, the situations, the way you do with a novel?
Looking at this, I have decided school was the place that turned me off poetry. I know some people hate books because they had to read them at school but for me this was always the opposite – I love Hamlet because I had to study it, ditto Pride and Prejudice. But I feel that school did succeed in putting me off poems. And mainly my grammar school, where I took my GCSEs and A Levels. Our third year teacher taught us Sylvia Plath’s poems while clearly hating Plath himself, and told us (a room full of girls) that everything she wrote was the result of a hysterical fixation with her father. Our first set text at A Level was WH Auden, a poet I have much respect for now I don’t have to write critical analysis of his writing any more. I discovered that many of his poems were wonderful, full of lyricism and insight, but many more so difficult. The latter were, of course, the ones the essays were to be written on. My A level grade was two lower than predicted, making it harder to get into university, and my grandmother heard this and said, ‘oh Susie, I thought you were good at English!’ I’m not wholly blaming Auden but he didn’t help.
Yet, away from school, poems I remember from childhood have positive memories. My family loved Milne, Lear and other nonsense – I wanted to read Sonia Spell at my grandfather’s funeral. I always refer to black beetles as ‘Alexander’ and can still quote The King’s Breakfast to my daughter which makes her laugh.
As an adult, I encountered some lovely poems while reading novels. My favourite poem, ‘Autumn Journal’ by Louis Macneice, was featured in a Rosamunde Pilcher novel, where the scene when Antony Hopkins reads ‘He Wishes for the Cloths of Heaven’ in the film version of 84 Charing Cross Road would always make you love that one.
On September 11 2001, I was in the audience for Radio 4’s book club programme. My reading group had applied to attend and we’d been assigned poetry with Wendy Cope. This was possibly the first time I had seriously read and examined poems since school, and could think of nothing to say or contribute to the discussion in the audience. What I do remember was the early news of the planes hitting while we were on the train going down to London, standing in the lobby of Broadcasting House watching the screens and comforting an America reading group member, being told that BH was at heightened security and being escorted round the building, seeing BBC employees gathering round TV screens talking in low voices. The book club presenter, the lovely Jim Naughtie, had his passport and suitcase sent ahead to Heathrow in case he could fly out to report from New York, and had theories about what was going on. But for two hours we sat and talked about poetry with Wendy Cope who was charming. It seemed a surreal experience. Against BBC regulations I kept my security pass because it had the date stamped on it. I wonder where that is…
Recently, however, I’ve been coming across poetry more and more. Following many bookish people as I do on social media, you come across a lot of posts that quote poems and many of them have stopped me and made me think.
I then read this blog post from Claire King. Her point about having to make time to read, schedule it in some way, is a good one. I do have to do this. But with so much going on, it’s hard to carve out big chunks of time. Perhaps poetry is the answer. The skill of expressing so much in so few words also appeals to me, though you’d never know it from this blog post.
With this in mind, I went to seek out some poetry today. The library had very little. The bookshop selection was much better, once you got past the anthologies, which I dislike as a whole – they make it all so twee. “Poems that make men cry” is a dreadful idea. And the idea of poetry as a literary version of Classic FM’s ‘Smooth classics at 7’ programme, where all your stress is soothed away strikes me as doing the genre a disservice. So it was to the shelves of poets I went and where I realised the depth of my ignorance. They had sold out of Derek Walcott, following his death last week, unsurprisingly, so I went for James Fenton, having heard a discussion about his poetry collection ‘Yellow Tulips’ on Radio 4’s a Good Read. A selection from a female author was harder – our poetry scene seems dominated by Pam Ayres (no disrespect Pam but I’m not sure you’re what I need right now) and Wendy Cope again – I still have my signed BBC copies. So I had to go on instinct and have come away with Emily Berry ‘Stranger Baby’.
I shall update you on how I get on. But if you have any recommendations, please send them my way.