The problem of poetry…

December 13, 2014

I’m aware that. although I describe my blog as being about literature, mostly I’ve written about fiction, non-fiction and drama, and have said very little about poetry, apart from a few remarks about a visit to Wilfred Owen‘s grave. It’s time to rectify this omission.

I’ve always regarded poetry as a difficult form to approach, and perhaps my feeling has been accentuated by my having had to ‘teach’ poetry as part of my job. Somehow, personal gut response predominates, for me at least, in a way that it doesn’t with other forms: it’s harder to analyse and intellectualise, I suppose. Anyway, this instant personal response comes in before anything else. In school, the issue was complicated by students’ expectations: poetry was supposed to rhyme, to have a recognisable rhythm, to be funny, to be sweet, to be about animals… all sorts of clichés which got in the way of poetry itself.

The function of poetry has changed over time, too: it’s rarely narrative any more, mainly because we have novels to tell stories; plays are not written in verse any longer; poetry isn’t descriptive in the ways it used to be, because we have photography. Poetry now seems to be much more intimate, a window into the soul of the poet, perhaps, and if we are not interested in what we see, we turn away…

I’ve always believed it’s important to give permission to dislike a poem; again, in school, students sometimes felt that they were expected to like a poem for some reason. I always shared my negative reactions as well as my positive ones – some of the poetry presented to GCSE students in the guise of ‘pre-twentieth century texts’ was the most awful tosh. The key surely has to be ‘does this poem (or poet) speak to me, or to my condition, at this moment?’ Once one gets that in place, I feel things become a little easier.

If a poet can make me slow down and think; if s/he can make me look, see, contemplate something in a way that I would never have done for myself; if s/he can offer me a new angle or perspective, maybe on something that is commonplace or familiar, whilst I slow down for a few minutes to take the trouble, then that poet has surely succeeded in her/his aim. In the manner of KeatsOn First Looking into Chapman’s Homer, a moment of revelation, of epiphany is possible.

Poetry is often overlooked nowadays (and I’ve done that too, hence this post!), yet when a little time and effort is taken, there are revelations. I touched on some of e e cummings‘ love poetry with sixth form students; this prompted one student to read further and he then encouraged me to, and I responded. Some of my strongest memories of teaching are of managing to get students to share in the pleasures and power of poetry: find the right poem, read, listen and open up…

I shall move on to look at some of the poets I have come to appreciate in future posts, if you are interested.

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One Response to “The problem of poetry…”

  1. kirstwrites Says:

    I think you’re right that in order to appreciate a poem we need to have a sense of its relevance to our own life or situation. It must be challenging for teachers to find poetry that will fit the bill for their students. I remember hating the poems of Thomas Hardy at A level, but now I’m older i really feel like some of his poems could have been written for me.

    Like


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