A Plea for Poetry
The first piece of creative writing that I can recall anything about which had a memorable effect on others was a poem I wrote aged around six or seven. It was about the colour blue, then my favourite colour, and it ended with the immortal stanza, “Blue, blue, beautiful blue. Blue, blue, wonderful blue.” Hardly Wordsworth, I know, but it caused a fairly large stir in my infants’ school among the teachers. I was a bit shocked at the effect but I guess that while teachers wanted their students to have a try at poetry, at that age, they weren’t expecting terribly much. The poem is long gone but I recall that I used imagery and metaphors, about which I knew nothing consciously.
There is a hesitation, a fear and a loathing around poetry that has long puzzled me. People say they can’t see the point of poetry or that it bores them, or it’s all insufferable navel gazing and narcissism. I know relatively few people who read poetry who are not themselves also poets, and I pick up a general feeling that to most, poetry is an irrelevance.
This saddens me. I studied poetry to an almost industrial level at university, in two languages. Shakespeare is the most widely known poet in the English speaking world, and his language infuses modern English to such an extent that it’s hard to find idioms and expressions without roots in old Will’s works and we use his words usually without knowing what we owe to him for enriching our native tongue. I studied Anglo-Saxon verse, and Beowulf, and then everything from then on up until the twentieth century. I have my favourites, that speak to me, that have become my go-to poets and poems for all sorts of emotional needs. Sometimes a poet expresses a personal truth so well that it becomes almost a universal truth.
A poem can encompass in a few short lines a vast story, yet that story is dependent on our interpreting it (unless it’s a narrative poem or an epic saga in which case it’s a bit more straight forward). A few short words can be enough to convey directly to the heart what it might otherwise take a long novel. For example, in a Wilfred Owen poem from the First World War, he uses the phrase “blood-shod” and in that, he tells a powerful tale of shortages, political incompetencies that delay vital supplies, of the pain of boots disintegrating in foul mud, of feet so sore they lose feeling, coated in blood and filth, that has taken me four lines to explain in merely in passing. (http://www.warpoetry.co.uk/owen1.html).
The effects of such a poem are immediate, and stunning. You can read it out and see the faces of those listening become lost in thought. You don’t even need to be good at reading aloud for it to have a dramatic effect.
It’s not just for the difficult things, either. Love poetry has been a staple for thousands of years; you can say things in poetry you can say no other way. Lovers from Sappho to Shakespeare and onwards have been extolling the virtues, vices and beauty of their beloveds. Catullus wrote some of the wickedest, wittiest and most humorous of ditties to his beloved; they still hold the power to amuse, shock and entertain. (Do look him up in translation and be prepared for some smut and some laughs and some shocks.)
Words are things endued with power. I’ve read of research where subjects being viewed via an MRI machine have had words flashed in front of them and their brains have lit up in the same places that experiencing that event would provoke. So reading about love makes the brain experience the same feelings as being in love, or experiencing pleasure. We can enjoy vicariously the experiences of others, and thereby become more empathetic. This is one of the uses of poetry(and of story, too, but poetry to me is a form of story telling that bypasses acres of words)
And don’t forget that poetry is also FUN. Who has not giggled over the odd limerick? Who has not sung nursery rhymes to their children? Who has not at some stage felt the words surge through them when a poem set to music sets off a moment of nostalgia?
I write this both as a poet and as a lover of poetry. Give it a chance. No one demands any more that you learn a long poem, stanza by stanza, threatening detention or a rap on the knuckles if you fail. You have the option to choose what to read, what to enjoy. There ought be no snobbery in poetry. Pam Ayres’ light, entertaining (but thoughtful) verses have as much value as T.S. Eliot’s labyrinthine and often impenetrable poetry. I’m at the very brink of releasing a first book of my own poems, just a slim volume of twenty poems. I don’t expect it to sell well, to be honest, but nonetheless I am going ahead and publishing because put simply: poetry is important. It’s important to me and whether we recognise it or not, it is vital to civilisation and human development.