Monday, 4 October 2010

Poetry blushing

Tony Williams said in on the Salt blog this week '

'we shouldn’t blush to help people discover poems'.

He's right. Why don't we recommend poems to people in the same way we do a great album or novel? I suppose it is fear. Williams says, 'they don’t know where to start. They’re a bit scared of poetry... Sometimes I’ve had non-poetry people respond to my poems by saying, ‘I enjoyed it, but I don’t think I understood it.'
I could relate to this. I've been writing and reading poetry for many years, yet I've never done a review of a poetry book. Why? Yes, I have loved the work of many poets. But there are some I didn't felt I got or could find a way into and felt ashamed to admit it. It's this sort of fear of feeling stupid, poetry itself as a pointing finger, that stopped me and may put many people off talking about poetry (if we talk about what we loved, we may have to admit ones we didn't get- yikes.) I like how Williams responded to readers saying they enjoyed his work but weren't sure they got it. His response was refreshing- this notion about whether someone got all of it or not isn't as important sometimes as a feeling a reader may have. The power of poetry I think is we might not always get all of it, it might not provide black and white answers, but raise questions, spaces for us to consider as readers. It may open a door but now show you everything behind it, and it is often here we can see something of ourselves.
Many of my favourite poems I can remember no more than a line of. I might not even like the rest of the poem as much as this line which seems to reverberate through me and stick. Or I may love the rest of the poem, but however many times I read it it is one line that stays to the expense of another- one line has spoke to me so much it will always be hard to remember what else the poem said.Is this OK? Would the poet say no, there is so much more there? Maybe, because yes, there will be more than one line of worth in a poem, but like a piece of music it strikes different notes in different people. Just as some people may love a song because of one key change and another may like it because of a chorus, our responses to poems are never going to be right and wrong answers. Unlike poetry, which music we love or why was never something we had to analyse bar by bar in English class. We never felt there were ticks to right and wrong answers about which line from a song we recall in the shower.

Maybe a good way to talk about poetry is to lose our vanity and academic gameface and shrug and say 'I don't know exactly, but this poem stayed with me.' Show it to a friend, see what they say. Have a discussion that feels like walking in the dark as you compare how a poem made you felt or what it may have been about. You may be surprised at what comes up.

For National Poetry day I'm doing just that. I'm saying OK, I like poetry, but I'll never get to the bottom of all of it, and that's OK (maybe once we feel we do there is less within poetry to allure us back, like a lover that spills all its secrets on a first date- why go there?) All week I will think about a different poem a day and say 'I don't know for sure, but I like this because..' Maybe more of us should lose the fear, bring poetry out our closets and do the same :)


  1. very wise advice, I reckon Angela
    I understand about being scared of poetry, but also about the tug of a poignant line. Seeing it this way helps.
    Cheers (-:

  2. thanks megan :) if my little thought can help any one person be a little less scard of poetry i'm very pleased. :)

    it is scary, maybe it doesn't have to be:)

  3. Angela, thanks for a really thoughtful response. You're quite right that we all share those feelings (at some point and for some poems, anyway) – the poem escapes us and this might provoke a range of feelings including fear, anxiety etc (as well as more positive ones). There's so much guessing, provisionalness, intuition, reaction, when we read poems. I suppose with readers who feel locked out by this it's about reducing the fear, making it possible to live with a reading experience that remains puzzling - and you're right, a really good way to do this is to talk openly about being puzzled ourselves.

    That doesn't quite say what I wanted it to say, but the gist is there.
    Thanks again, Tony.

  4. Thanks Tony- I really enjoyed your piece. it is about i suppose making it seem OK that we where a reaction to a poem comes from may not always be something we even know straight away, some poems give me goose bumps but i might have to read it loads of times till i know why :)

    Starting a dialogue I guess is the first step, which is always going to be the hardest :)