Petrified by proper poetry

A good five years ago I thought I’d lost my affinity for poetry, though more recently I decided maybe I’d just been reading the wrong kind of stuff. In the meantime I started using haikus as writing exercises but that was as close to writing poetry as I got.

Recently we talked about poetry at an Ilkley Writers meeting. There were a couple of poets present, but a few of us were in the ‘frightened of poetry’ camp. Frightened of the rules, frightened of getting it wrong, of being found out by ‘real’ poets, sounding pretentious and making fools of ourselves. We’d all been put off poetry at school, with sonnets and rigid rhyming schemes, then looked at ‘grown up’ poetry with no rhyme or reason (sorry…) and felt completely adrift. I quite like rhyming poetry, I said, and someone else (who’s keen to start writing poetry) agreed. I suggested, if she wants to write poetry and is having trouble, why not try rhymes? Rhyming poetry’s for kids though, she replied. And there lies one of the problems.

If anyone’s familiar with the Hancock’s Half Hour episode The Poetry Society from 1959, they will know where I’m coming from. Proper poetry for grown ups must be deep and serious, must not contain any rhymes, and absolutely on pain of death must not be intelligible to the casual reader on the first run through. If performed, it should be intoned with plenty of pauses and a frown. The casual listener (of which there will be few) should be made to feel like the dunce at the back of the English class.

Thankfully, this is not universally true, as I’ve been discovering lately, but it’s been true often enough (or has seemed true, at least) that some of us have taken it on board and shied away. One of the group (not a poet, but not frightened of poetry, in fact he’d just written a humorous rhyming poem about Charles Darwin’s sojourn in Ilkley) pointed out that popular poetry, the stuff that engages audiences and sells festival tickets, is usually funny and may or may not rhyme, by the likes of John Hegley and Roger McGough (he didn’t mention Pam Ayres but I guess she’s a popular entertainer poet too. Personally, I’ve never got past her accent but I applaud her use of it – more people should keep their regional accents). A poet in our group told me lots of modern poetry rhymed: WH Auden and Tony Harrison to name two. Tony Harrison had come up in conversation elsewhere that week, to do with dialect (of which undoubtedly more later) so I ordered a book of his poetry at my local library and I’ll see how it goes. While I was there I picked up a slim volume by Helen Burke, whose poetry I’d enjoyed at a reading a few months earlier. I may be beginning to lose my poetry fear.

John Hegley and Helen Burke poetry books

August and the disruption of routines

This week it feels like pretty much everyone (except me) is on holiday. On a train where people are usually standing in the aisles, I’ve had an empty seat beside me every day. The building I work in is quiet, little footfall on the stairs, no banging of doors or ringing phones. The library at lunchtime is almost deserted.

Partly because I’m in a writing lull brought on by the lethargy of warm summer days and partly because I’ve got the opportunity, I’m shaking it up a bit, not sitting in my regular seat. Yesterday I was among distracting art books, today I walked past the tempting colours of an enormous book on stained glass and settled in an alcove of poetry and plays. A wall of Shakespeare to one side, and Milton, Donne and Marvell to the other.

Investigating my surroundings – which, after all, was the point of sitting somewhere new – I felt slightly guilty to notice several names on the Milton et al wall that I didn’t recognise. I don’t always remember the names of authors even when I’ve read a novel of theirs, but I find that particularly with poetry or short stories the name doesn’t have time to imprint in my mind so it’s not necessarily a sign that I’m unfamiliar with their work (though that’s probably the case as well, here). Having re-attempted poetry recently (reading it, not writing it) after a long period of apathy or confusion, I’ve come to the conclusion that I hadn’t flicked my poetry off-switch as I’d thought, I was just reading the wrong poetry.

A couple of months ago I picked up a book helpfully titled Modern Poetry (post-WW1 to the sixties, I think) and started reading one or two poems per evening. I spent enough time to reflect on subject and language but not so long that it started to feel like I was dissecting the poem. If, after that reflection, I still didn’t get it I moved on and accepted that one poet (or maybe even one poem) wasn’t for me. Along the way I’ve discovered that I like some poets I’d never heard of, I don’t like a few whose names were familiar, and interestingly I already knew a few poems by poets I would claim never to have come across (and whose names have already escaped me again, but now I know where to look them up, at least). Maybe tomorrow I should return to the poetry and plays alcove, pick an unknown and dive in.

Punk poets and free samples

You’d think the free fringe events at the Ilkley Literature Festival would draw big crowds. After all, they’re free and they let you sample authors and styles you might not otherwise encounter. Sadly the audience is often a bit thin on the ground, and sometimes that makes me feel sorry for the people on the stage, but last night I felt more sorry for the citizens of Ilkley who missed out on Henry Raby.

Henry Raby’s a punk poet and he’s from Yorkshire – none of you will be in the least surprised that I went to see him, or enjoyed the performance immensely. And performance is definitely the word for it – a veritable one-man theatre piece, sustained for almost an hour with heart and soul and angst and humour. Long narrative sections interspersed with fierce poetry and the occasional character monologue came together to tell the story of a teenager on his first protest march in London (complete with cagoule and packed lunch), and ended in a love poem.

This was easily the best fringe event I’ve been to at the Ilkley Literature Festival this year (ever?). When the teenage hero pulls out a sheaf of poems on the march and says they’re more dangerous than the bricks someone’s thinking of chucking, I’m almost prepared to believe it’s true. “When the revolution comes, there’ll be no more students because we’ll all be learning all the time”: if only, Mr Raby. If only.

Poetry on the wrong day

Today’s National Poetry Day, so I’m told, so it seems wholly inappropriate of me to decide against going to a poetry reading tonight. Nevertheless, I have: it’s been a busy week and it’s shaping up to be a busy weekend so I’m taking a break to get things done. Like writing a delayed blog post.

I did go see Benjamin Zephaniah on Sunday, however, at the Ilkley Literature Festival, and it was like no poetry reading I’ve been to before. More like a gig, in fact. And he didn’t read anything, he spoke it, often with his eyes closed (or so it seemed from my seat near the back of the hall). Anger, passion, love, humour and politics all bound up in driving rhythm. If all poetry was like that, I could see myself getting back into it.

Every month is writing month

Today, rather late in the month, I’ve come across the idea of National Poetry Writing Month. Write a poem a day throughout April. Superficially, that sounds much easier than my story a day challenge last month (I have another 3 or 4 of those finished off and polished now, so they’re not all hanging around in the half-written pile as long as I thought they might) but writing good poetry is hard. Nevertheless, as I said a while ago, you could do worse than a daily haiku as a writing exercise so it might be worth joining in for the last few days. I can’t say I come up with a haiku every morning, but I do fairly frequently and most of them are rubbish (it does seem to kickstart the brain though). I’ll share yesterday’s with you, the reader; it may inspire you to greater things:

Trees like standing stones
Rise from misty valley,
Cushioned in wet smoke.

Fun with haiku (haikus?)

I’ve said before that English wasn’t my strongest or most-loved subject at school, and I’ve also mentioned recently that my poetry button seems to be broken, or at best faulty. OneMonkey has tried several times to explain the delights of iambic pentameter, to which I have responded with a blank look that suggests I’m listening but not really taking anything on board.

However, I have now discovered the joy of the haiku. To my knowledge (though friend T may correct me) it’s not something I came across at school, and even now I’m not about to sit down and read a whole book of them. A haiku, though, is more than just a tiny poem with rules: it is a writing exercise.

Imagine trying to distil a description of a scene down to three lines. Now imagine you’re only allowed a certain number of syllables in each line. What do you keep? What’s just trimming, and what constitutes the essence? It’s like writing a text message (I don’t know about your phone, but mine allows me 120 characters), discarding unnecessary words, rifling the thesaurus in your head for something shorter that means the same thing.

In Writing Fiction by Linda Anderson and Derek Neale (which I think is a highly useful book) they suggest a daily haiku for a quick brain workout: 3 lines, 5-7-5 syllables, showing a natural object or scene. It’s short, it can be done during your teabreak, on the bus, sitting on the toilet if you like (plenty of people do the crossword) but it keeps that all-important writing muscle flexing. I’m not saying every (or any) haiku you or I write in this way will be good, or would pass muster with a poet (or even an English teacher), but it makes you think, it makes you look at things in a particular way, and it can be fun.

Steaming mug of tea –
Hand-warming, comforting weight.
Book poised and ready.

That’s me right now. Sayonara.